Nick Carr Doesn't Smell
by Michael Camilleri
I’m disappointed with Mathew Ingram. I respect his opinion and his blog has become a regular visit in my evening browsing. I’m disappointed because Ingram has added his voice to the chorus of global digerati agog at a piece in the Atlantic suggesting the Internet might not be awesome. The piece is written by Nick Carr, infamous for, among other things, arguing that user-generated content threatens to ruin culture.
In his latest article Carr complains that the Internet might not only ruin culture, it might also ruin the way we think. Or more precisely, the way we’re currently thinking. In the piece he presents anecdotal evidence (along with a bit of research) suggesting that the Internet is altering the ability of people to engage in ‘deep reading’. Carr defines the term to mean the act of reading long form works (books, essays, etc) without being easily distracted. It’s clear from the beginning of the essay that the loss of this ability is a Bad Thing(tm).
About the kindest thing I can say about the response of Ingram and other technology pundits is that it’s been predictable. A mix of resentment, scorn and condescension, Ingram sums up the mood of a number of bloggers in the technology field:
In a lot of ways, the article didn’t just make me irritated, it made me sad. Nick is a clearly a smart guy. But for whatever reason, he would rather use his skills to try and defend silly arguments that appear to be contrary just for the sake of being contrary. He’s like a troll that writes really well.
It’s tempting to suggest most people have formed their conception of what the 4000+ word article is about after having skimmed it. Or worse, just reading the title. This would be a shame. The word ‘stupid’, for instance, doesn’t appear in the body of the piece at all but if all you’ve done is glanced at the title I could see how you might think this is an attack piece on Google and what it represents (freeeeedom).
But this isn’t what Carr is trying to get at at all. His central thesis is that the Internet has forced us to skim the information it serves up because there’s just so much of it. What part of this is contrarian? Or troll-like? Mundane is about the worst adjective I can think to throw at it.
Granted, Carr does go a little further than that. As noted above this skimming is put forward as being ‘bad’ but it takes some time (it’s on the fourth page) before Carr explains why. He writes:
The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.
So if we lose deep reading we’re going to lose the ability for deep contemplation and without deep contemplation we lose the ability to foster our own ideas. Does Carr offer any evidence for this? Not really, but in his defence that’s not what he’s trying to do. From the bottom of the second page we get more of a clue for what this is all about:
Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.
And perhaps now we see the reason for the title. It’s a question; intended to start a conversation. It’s not supposed to be a definitive statement on what the Internet means to the development of humanity.
In terms of the Internet having an effect (regardless of whether it’s good or bad) it’s hard to see how Carr is wrong. As he demonstrates with a brief history lesson, all previous technological advances in media have changed our modes of thought so why shouldn’t the Internet? What he’s really concerned with is that no one seems to want to consider what that change means. Sure, every now and then someone writes about how students are using Wikipedia but for Carr this is about something a lot more important than that. He wants to talk about the nature of humanity, how its connected to the way we share ideas and what a change in this sharing means for thought.
Judging from the response to this piece it looks like he’s going to have to wait a little while longer before we’re ready to join that conversation.