The other day I got an envelope in the mail, a grave, serious-looking envelope that seemed never to have heard of junk mail. I did know it was unsolicited, however, because this responsible piece of correspondence announced itself as being from The Atlantic. I opened it, and, as I had surmised, it was a grave, serious, highly responsible invitation to subscribe.
I might actually take them up on it at some point. The only reason I opened the piece of mail to begin with was that I had read Nicholas Carr’s piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and I found that article interesting. Wrong, but interesting.
Carr’s article has been making the rounds, especially on Twitter, which is where I first heard of it — because, as I mentioned, I am not in fact a subscriber to the print version of The Atlantic. (Yet.) First, an eminent wit made gentle fun, then Tom Scheinfeldt offered an opinion, and then someone else seemed to think that my own reading habits might be considered an example of the kind of thing Carr is talking about.
In case you haven’t guessed, the implied answer to the question is “yes.” Yes, Google is making us stupid. Surely, though, it was some Atlantic editor who came up with the title. I imagine said editor leaning back in his chair (I imagine him male), leaning back in his chair, I say, in his large office in the Watergate, the mighty Potomac and all Arlington, VA spread out behind him, expostulating, “Now, see here, Nicky, we’ve gotta have a title for this piece that grabs ya. Something kicky. Something that all the bloggers will leap on, ya know. Controversial, that’s what sells mags and ups page-hits these days.” I refrain from imagining slicked-back hair and a bushy black moustache. That would be going too far.
The title and the article clearly come from the brains of two different authors — or if the title was indeed Carr’s idea, then he must have been channeling some such cunning editorial incubus. For one thing, Carr’s real subject is the Internet, not Google, though he does offer up Google as “the Internet’s high church” and thus its moral arbiter and exemplar. For another thing, a more important thing, while Carr may wonder whether the Internet is making us stupid, he offers support for a rather different thesis: that the Internet is changing the way we read. We now read faster and shallower, we’re easily distracted, and, if we’re Nicholas Carr, we’re beautifully lyrical about it:
And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Now this, as far as it goes, matches my own experience (as far as that goes). I too have noticed that I’m more easily distracted than I used to be when I’m reading or writing. Carr reports on his blog that he’s been “flooded with emails and blog posts from people saying that my struggles with deep reading and concentration mirror their own experiences.” I’ll even say that I worry about it, too. Some days I can feel my brain filling with scraps of information as though with confetti, and I want nothing more than to sit down with some Elmer’s in an empty kindergarten classroom and paste all the bits together into a semi-coherent whole.
But even so, even though Carr’s article is smarter (yes, smarter) than its title, even though my own experience matches Carr’s and that of his readers, even though I too find my new distractibility troubling and at times inconvenient, even so, I’m not sure that melancholy is the way to go here. For one thing, childishly: I like the internet. I don’t want to believe that it makes me stupid. For another, pragmatically: I don’t know what we could do about it as a society if it were true. Personally, I definitely see the benefit of no-internet times in my day, and I’ve become pretty good at policing those times so that I can focus on reading or writing, those high-concentration activities. Sure, that’s a boundary that I never used to have to set, but as a trade-off, at least I have a room of my own now (at home, anyway), unlike, say, Jane Austen, who, legend has it, used to have to write her novels “in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions.”
For another thing, and more importantly, Carr has entirely left out one of the key apparatuses of the Internet: contribution. As it happens, I just saw Idiocracy, and that’s a vision that would give anyone pause. Carr’s article seems subtly to point to just such a future for our bedumbening culture. But, crucially, there’s no internet in that moronic dystopia, and indeed it’s difficult to see how there could be. There are live monster truck rallies, and there is certainly television, as if in perfect, colorful illustration of Clay Shirky’s thesis in “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus” (video here). It is a nightmare of passive consumption, and therefore the Internet in all its participatory glory cannot figure there. The Internet is a place where thousands of anti-Brawndo sites and comments and images and videos and e-mail petitions would appear thirteen seconds after the government passed the policy to water the crops with a sports drink. Contribution, creation, is not only a social good, it’s a way to learn. Not just because other people can comment on what you’ve contributed and potentially modify your thoughts, but because the act of creation itself involves a crystallization of what exactly it is that you think.
Also, Carr’s comparison of Google’s project to Taylor’s is seriously borked. Taylor’s “scientific management” was a system of controlling people, and specifically people’s bodies. It was (is) a system that almost literally aimed at making a human body into a cog in a machine for the purpose of capitalist production, a system totally not down with the thesis that we are stardust, we are golden. Carr writes that “What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind,” but what that analogy lacks is the factor of power. Taylor’s managers could and did and do order their workers to stop performing complex acts of complete craftsmanship and instead perform one repetitive motion or set of motions hour after hour after tiring, soulless, painful hour. The structure of power dictated that the workers had to do this or be fired. Google, by contrast, has no power to command us. As an employer, Google notoriously gives its engineers an immense amount of physical freedom and comfort, in fact, but that’s not what Carr is talking about here. Carr seems to feel this same sense of coercion, weirdly, from the internet generally: “Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened,” he writes, “hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.” Let’s get this straight: for all its real flaws, Google does not order people to Google. Hyperlinks do not propel you toward them. The Internet does not force you to surf.
Carr’s article, as I’ve said, is very interesting, and I’m glad it appeared — it’s a question that needs to be raised, this of distractibility. What I’d like to see, however, somewhere, somehow, is a more detailed analysis of exactly what it is we’re being distracted by on the internet. I know that one thing I tend to be distracted by is precisely the urge to check, to verify: What does this word mean? Does the article hyperlinked to really say what the linker says it says? I know that another thing I tend to be distracted by is the urge to contribute, to comment: Why yes, that’s right! No, I disagree. Another distraction is the urge to share: Hey, Tom would be interested in this. This is just like that thing he sent me the other day. It’s hard for me to believe that any of these kinds of distractions, as inconvenient as they are, are making me stupid. I return to that image of confetti: to me, the internet consists of a shower of invitations to subscribe, to inform myself, to read, to think, to share, to write, and while it’s a bit loud and hectic and the trombones are a bit annoying, well, it’s a celebration, after all.