Nick Carr’s new knock on the Web: does it change how we read?

The funny thing about Nick Carr’s Atlantic cover piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” is that the piece itself has the truncated quality that it blames the Internet for imposing on our culture. When my copy of the magazine (yes, I actually subscribe on paper) arrived I saw the headline and looked forward to a really thorough, in-depth look at this question. Carr’s entirely capable of that; I disagree with much of his perspective in “The Big Switch,” but it’s one of the more cogent and sustained critiques of the Web 2.0 future, and anything but lightweight. So I figured the Atlantic had paid Carr to do what the Atlantic, and only a tiny handful of outlets, can still do: spend many thousands of words digging into the heart of an important issue.

Ah, well. You can still find such pieces in the Atlantic (like this one about rising crime rates in mid-sized American cities), but Carr’s isn’t one of them. At 4000 words, it’s barely longer than the kind of thing Salon does every day. It’s a provocative read scattered with tasty quotes and anecdotes; it asks a useful question but does little to answer it. Carr starts off describing a sense of alienation from old-fashioned reading that he shares with several other people he quotes:

I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Like Carr, I’ve found myself reading fewer books over the past decade. I can’t tell whether it’s because I’m spending more time on the Web (certainly possible). In my case, if my attention span has shortened at all, I think it’s far more likely that, for instance, raising children has cut into both my available time and my reserve of repose (both actual physical sleep time and emotional reserve of patience). But when I do get the chance to sit back with a good book — like two I’ve recently finished, Faking It (with related blog by authors Yuval Taylor and Hugh Barker) and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (also with author blog) — I don’t feel any less absorbed than when I was a teenager plowing my way through a shelf of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

I don’t want to discourage you from reading Carr’s article and pondering the issues it raises. Does Google represent the digital apotheosis of Taylorism (the industrial-age science of labor measurement)? Does the Web crowd out the opportunity for leisurely contemplation or “slow, concentrated thought”? Those of us who use the Web constantly are probably experiencing changes in how we read and think; what are those changes?

These aren’t stupid questions. But they deserve deeper contemplation than Carr has provided. His piece is less like a thoroughly researched magazine piece than, say, the prospectus for a writing project. Perhaps the Atlantic has simply published Carr’s next book proposal. If so, I’d look forward to reading the resulting book — in a relaxed, contemplative way, of course.

Further discussion from Matthew Ingram, Matt Asay and Blaise Alleyne.

UPDATE: Jon Udell finds Carr’s critique “spot on.”

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  1. Ian Rae

    The internet improves my reading. I often look up words, peoples, and places that I read about in books.

    Also, the Internet is the best way anywhere to *find* good books to read. Example: currently reading “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan, found on

  2. Good critique – I totally agree about the way we may be totally used to flittting around the web at google-speed but can also get into quality writing the same way we always used to. (I’ve just finished Here Comes Everybody too).

    I’ve just blogged on Carr’s article too – in particular how people adapt to new technology pretty quickly. Whoever does long division on paper since calculators were invented…

    I’m nothing to do with it, but judging by your blogroll – you might want to check out old copies in particular of The Idler Magazine – which was big in the UK for a while.


  3. Carlos

    There are some interesting things to think about here, but I find these concerns to be fairly exaggerated, especially the concerns about “Intellectual Taylorism.”

    One of the best ripostes to that line of argument is your own book, Dreaming in Code, which I’ve finally been able to move from my Should Read list to my Have Read list. Like all software, the Internet is highly malleable and therefore how we interact with it is also highly malleable. You can, if you choose, flit from four-line blog post to four-line blog post, but you can also choose to spend hours reading the long form text that is available online.

    I think the most limiting factor in most peoples’ book reading is just time. With work and driving to work, most people have around ten to eleven hours of attention each day spoken for. Add in commitments such as avoiding divorce and not letting the children starve, then many people have just enough time left to eke out a few hours of sleep.

    In my particular case, I’m fortunate to have a source of reading time in the form of my BART ride from Glen Park to Oakland and back everyday. With waiting time factored in, this can be as much as two hours that I can spend reading. With a library conveniently located next to the station, I’ve been able to get my average to a book every week to week and a half.


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