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.
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