Something happened then….Posted: October 20, 2013
The essay “Is Google making us stupid” is now 5 years old. Nicholas Carr wrote it back in 2008 and he’s still expending a fair amount of mental energy on the core question, which in my opinion is not the issue of stupidity at all (it might be instructive that the stem ‘stupid’, is used just once in the essay itself, and that that was in the title). It strikes me, and I hope I’m right, that Carr is instead curious about how the internet will change the way we think, and is wise enough to avoid contradicting the historical tide of human development by assuming that the outcome is a step backwards in terms of cognitive faculty. A pure Mcluhanian exploration if ever there was one, although he looks well beyond the bounds of just Mcluhan’s thinking.
My favourite quote on the Mcluhan motif, the medium is the message, comes from William Gibson.
We know that something happened then. We know that broadcast television did something—did everything—to us, and that now we aren’t the same, though broadcast television, in that sense, is already almost over. I can remember seeing the emergence of broadcast television, but I can’t tell what it did to us because I became that which watched broadcast television.
I know that Gibson is suggesting that answering this question isn’t really possible (or at least we won’t know if we get the answer right), and I agree with him, but that doesn’t stop this being an utterly intoxicating topic, worthy of serious speculation. This thought, by the way, this desire to investigate the unknowability of Mcluhanian change, challenges a big part of Carr’s speculation that we risk being converted to essentially mindless automatons, a speculation which I don’t buy.
Carr makes some intriguing comparisons to the industrial changes wrought by Taylorism and the implication of the ever increasing computing/software layer of today’s world. These are observations that could so easily be the foundation of a great science fiction novel, and probably has been the synthesis of many, finished and unfinished. Indeed some of the best science fiction is rooted in highly plausible extrapolation. After all it’s not really uncommon for various new technologies to come, almost as standard, with dire warnings about the impending destruction of something that is fundamental to our humanity. As ever Randall Munroe at xkcd has an nice pertinent opinion in easy to digest graphic form. The pace of modern life.
Carr also deals with the issue of such horrified prophecies in his original 2008 essay. His point being that much of what was predicted (regarding first books and then the printing press) came true, but so did much that wasn’t predicted; largely the ability to share information and in so doing spark new avenues of thinking amongst a much wider quorum, in turn leading to wide advances valuable to many. If that vector retains pertinence in the networked internet age then we shouldn’t really be worrying about stupidity as the resultant status quo.
There is a strong flavour in Carr’s essay that suggests that reading, over all other cognitive process, is most keenly associated with the act of thinking, and that as such the rise of the written word, via the internet, is therefore the prime mover in this particular episode of Mcluhanian change. He is not alone (emphasis is mine), as he points out.
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. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
This is a view of human cognition that is too narrow for my taste, particularly when contemplating the impact of the internet, a medium built for both the written word and the moving image that has also been un-paralleled in the democratisation of writing, not reading. It is worth remembering that Gibson has already pointed out that the last big Mcluhanian change was/is broadcast television.
Carr’s primary observation is a reduction in his ability, and those of several of his acquaintances’, to read long dense texts. As he is an intellectual fellow of some serious resolve I can imagine that he feels this loss quite keenly.
Nonetheless I become quite uncomfortably frustrated when I hear this kind of complaint. The lament that reading, which was once such a natural and easy affair, for the person making said complaint, has become an issue of effort and trouble. The envious part of me simply sneers welcome to the world that the rest of us live in. But on a more analytic basis there is just no empirical reason for the deduction that this is the fault of the internet (for clarity I am not denying that the internet may play a role here, just that the classic sample of one, or the dreaded my colleagues and I, is no basis for such deduction).
Anyway regardless of my personal jealousies and unwholesome gloating there is another much better basis for rejecting the observations of reading difficulty equating with a destruction of the intellect of the human race, which is that reading is only 1 part of the internet experience.
Like many other people I often access the internet as a distraction, which it happens to be superb at doing. But I also access it to find things to read, and not all of those being in the fun category. Sometimes the reading is a dreary effort. However, there is something I have learned to do, which is this. I almost always take anything of a substantial length off the internet and read it ‘offline’ via pocket (formerly readitlater), free of distractions, accessible in any moment of downtime.
I have no doubt that this reading schema, which I have written about previously, is a massive boon to my personal knowledge acquisition, compared to the pre internet reading of my past. The internet not only helps facilitate the spread of knowledge and the serendipity of connecting 2 seemingly disparate pieces of information, it also offers interaction and the ability to validate and seek expansions.
But more than anything else, for me, it offers a vehicle to write for. And it is this blog, this small collection of my thoughts that is the biggest and most beneficial thinking tool I know of. There is something about writing things down that raises the cognitive stakes and increases my appetite to research more effectively.
The key dynamic, though is the act of publishing and the fact that I publish to a very small audience is neither here nor there. The internet will preserve those words and as a result I want them to be as good as they can be.
On many occasions I have trashed a 3,000 word essay, and started again, because the writing of it has changed my opinion of the subject. If I were not writing this blog my opinions on many topics would be static, if I even had opinions on them in the first place. It is the organising of my thoughts for publication that forces my most effective thinking. There is something about pulling the thoughts from my head to the page, that engenders a deeper introspection and creates new ideas.
So, I disagree with Carr and Dr Maryanne Wolf, that reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking even while I very much agree with the overall tenor of his observation that the internet is changing us in deeply fundamental ways.
I imagine that the nature of that change, which needs to surface at a mass population level, to be considered a genuine human phenomena at the species level, is many years away yet, if only because we are still in the very early larval stages of what the internet will be.
Charlie Stross recently threw a challenge to the readers of his blog. He asked, initially, “why are there so many stupid people?” but amended his question to “Why is the human species only as intelligent as it is, and not more so?”
Charlie’s blog is one where a very active readership contributes in depth and in good numbers which expands significantly the value of reading ideas posted there.
In this case his idea, “Charlie’s Anthropic Stupidity Hypothesis” is that with the arrival of language in the evolutionary history of humanity, the need to generally select for intelligence within the population was devalued as we only needed to be intelligent enough to understand ideas that have been established by other humans.
Language enables us to communicate about our environment and to communicate our interior states. This is a very powerful tool; it means that if, for example, you have figured out a better way to peel a banana, you can tell me about it, and I can acquire that trait.
Charlie is investigating this idea over evolutionary time scales and I must confess that I haven’t spent much time trying to establish if he’s right or not. But from my personal perspective he has described a reality of life with the internet that is massively increasing my knowledge of disparate ideas and in turn helping me to understand more of the world and hence be able to respond to it more effectively.
I’m reminded of a discussion about the development of the AI behind Wolfram Alpha. When searching for guinea pigs, the knowledge engine would return data on the population of pigs on the island of Guinea. Nobody had told Wolfram Alpha that there was an animal called a guinea pig. It turned out that the development of the quality of Wolfram Alpha’s AI was affected by both the quality of its cognition, it’s algorithms if you will, and the breadth of its data points.
So, even if Charlie is right and the human race can’t get any smarter in classically biological terms I’m pretty sure there is still much value to be had in terms of the horizontal increase in new knowledge hitting a bigger more receptive audience than ever before.
I started writing this post because I had read this piece from Mr Carr’s blog Rough type (which I note is also used as a thinking tool quite explicitly …. “Rough Type is rough type. I use this blog as a testing ground for exploring new ideas or thinking through stuff on the web that I find interesting or annoying”).
I had stored it in my phone and read it unconnected from the internet. It pushed a few of my buttons, largely because I have a personal bug bear with people that tweet links that they have not read themselves. Hence the fascination with the concept of ambient tweetability and inline tweets was close to a personal nightmare.
I was going to write a short addendum to this post, which rants about the potential effects of a reckless digital sharing architecture, highlighting the concept of ambient tweeting that the Rough type piece mentioned. The line at the end of Carr’s post should have given it away really….
Welcome to linking without thinking!
…. but in the end I needed to do a little light reading to understand that surely the post was pure sarcasm.
Nicholas Carr is too clever to be made stupid by the internet, even if he can’t read those long dense books anymore. As long as someone can still read them, and it is rather instructive that someone is still writing them of course, then the knowledge will percolate to a wider audience than ever before. The internet is the only reason that that can happen.
I’m pretty optimistic about it all if truth be known.