12 Aug

That's why they call them browsers

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/12/08

Lately, a lot of what I'm reading has been concerned with how I'm reading, with whether other people are reading, and with how reading influences our inner lives, both our brains and our souls. Nicholas Carr's Atlantic essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (July/August 2008) is an elegant exploration of some of the themes explored by media ecologists. Carr has the feeling, he confesses, that the way he thinks has been changing. It's increasingly hard for him to concentrate on extended arguments presented in books for any sustained period. "I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text." He reports that many friends and colleagues report the same sensation, and he's convinced that the cause behind this effect is all the time he spends online.

As Carr describes it, the way knowledge is organized and acquired online encourages certain mental habits while discouraging others. And it reinforces a specific model of human knowing, "a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google's world, the world we enter when we go online, there's little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed."

Carr's article is worth reading (and re-reading, does anybody re-read anything anymore?) in its entirety, which one may do--ironically--online (though an actual printed copy of the magazine is much more pleasant to spend some time with). The essay has a nicely allusive shape to it that resists neat summary as it weaves together references to Nietzsche's first typewriter, the invention of the mechanical clock, Frederick Winslow Taylor's advocacy of industrial efficiency, and ruminations about HAL, the spooky computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (which, we all know, was really a mind odyssey). Hovering over all this is Carr's recognition of one of Marshall McLuhan's great insights, that media "supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. 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 a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

There's some science behind Carr's troubling sensation. Among other experts, he cites Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, who "worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts 'efficiency' and 'immediacy' above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace." Note that the printing press didn't make such works (and the interior experience they enable) possible, just more widely available.

Carr insists that "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." There is a quality of thought encouraged by working through extended arguments and ruminations that is not engendered by the kind of reading encouraged by the Internet. Carr observes that deep reading--reading that is more like prayer than basketball--is deliberately discouraged by the structure of the Web and in the business models of the Web's reigning powers. "The faster we surf across the Web--the more links we click and pages we view--the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to deed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link--the more crumbs, the better. The last things these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It's in their economic interest to drive us to distraction."

Carr's article reminded me of observations by two writers whose books (repeatedly re-read) have had a formative effect on my thought. One of these writers is principally concerned with philosophical and historical matters, the other with spiritual life. Richard Weaver, in Ideas Have Consequences, commented (in 1948!) on the "astonishing vogue of factual information." Weaver correlates this lust for facts--often acquired with no context or connections--to modern skepticism. "Having been told by the relativists that he cannot have truth, he now has 'facts.' . . . And the public is being taught systematically to make this fatal confusion of factual particulars with wisdom."

Writing in 1957, Catholic theologian Romano Guardini (in Prayer in Practice) warned of the threat to spiritual health in a life characterized by flitting and restless distractedness. Guardini counseled that the only way to enter into the spirit of prayer was to learn to concentrate. "Above all, we must prepare ourselves for prayer. The same applies also to all worldly matters. No one with a serious task before him will approach it unprepared, but will concentrate on the demands he has to face. If we appreciate good music we shall not arrive at the performance at the last minute, allowing for no transition between the noise and unrest of the street and the opening bars of the concert. We shall be there in good time and hold ourselves ready for the beautiful experience before us. Anyone who has the right feeling for things which are great and important will, before tackling them, banish distraction and collect himself inwardly."

Guardini notes that "distraction" is historically described by "spiritual teachers" as a "state in which man lacks poise and unity, that state in which thoughts flit from object to object, in which feelings are vague and unfocused and the will ineffective. Man in this state is not really a person who speaks or who can be spoken to, but merely an uncoordinated bundle of thoughts, feelings and sensations." Collectedness, by contrast, is a condition in which the person aspires to be a "unified whole. This is the state in which he may, when the call comes to him, answer in the words of Moses, 'Here am I.'"

I think we can safely assume that were he alive today, Guardini would regard the institutionalization of distraction through our dominant communications medium as a great evil, the fact that we read fewer books is a symptom of a deeper problem. Two years before Prayer in Practice, Guardini addressed the idea of "collectedness" even more thoroughly, in Meditations before Mass,, he used a synonym for that unified state: composure. "What then do we mean by composure? As a rule, a man's attention is broken into a thousand fragments by the variety of things and persons about him. His mind is restless, his feelings seek objects that are constantly changing, his desires reach out for one thing after another, his will is captured by a thousand intentions, often conflicting. He is harried, torn, self-contradictory. Composure works in the opposite direction, rescuing man's attention from the sundry objects holding it captive and restoring unity to his spirit. It frees his mind from its many tempting claims and focuses it on one, the all-important. It calls the soul that is dispersed over myriad thoughts and desires, plans and intentions back to itself, re-establishing its depth.

"All things seem to disquiet man. The phenomena of nature intrigue him, they attract and bind. But because they are natural they have a calming, collecting influence as well. It is much the same with those realities that make up human existence: encounter and destiny, work and pleasure, sickness and accident, life and death. All make their demands on man, crowding him in and overwhelming him, but they also give him earnestness and weight. What is genuinely disastrous is the disorder and artificiality of present-day existence. We are constantly stormed by violent and chaotic impressions. At once powerful and superficial, they are soon exhausted, only to be replaced by others. They are immoderate and disconnected, the one contradicting, disturbing, and obstructing the other. At every step we find ourselves in the claws of purposes and cross-purposes that inveigle and trick us. Everywhere we are confronted by advertising that attempts to force upon us things we neither want nor really need. We are constantly lured from the important and profound to the distracting, 'interesting,' piquant. This state of affairs exists not only around but within us. To a large extent man lives without depth, without a center, in superficiality and chance. No longer finding the essential within himself, he grabs at all sorts of stimulants and sensations, he enjoys them briefly, tires of them, recalls his own emptiness and demands new distractions. He touches everything brought within easy reach of his mind by the constantly increasing means of transportation, information, education, and amusement, but he doesn't really absorb anything. He contents himself with having 'heard about it', he labels it with some current catchword, and shoves it aside for the next. He is a hollow man and tries to fill his emptiness with constant, reckless activity. He is happiest when in the thick of things, in the rush and noise and stimulus of quick results and successes. The moment quiet surrounds him, he is lost."

I read Nicholas Carr's article several weeks ago when it first appeared, and then saw--within a few days--a number of bloggers and online pundits make reference to it. There was a flurry of musing about his assertions, and then his concerns disappeared to make room for a new round of issues. I thought about writing something about the article right away, to stay in synch with the blogosphere, but then thought that it might be better to live with the article for a while--re-reading it a few times, reading some related essays and passages from long-treasured books--in order to gain a better stance from which to make some fruitful comments. Carr's observations are not the makings of a story that needs to "break" in a rush of competitive information pushing. They form a piece of evidence for understanding a pattern according to which the fashions of our cultural disorder often reinforce our spiritual disorder, a reminder that spiritual struggle is never simply spiritual.

Among the other things I read while living with Nicholas Carr's article was an article in the Spring 2008 issue of The New Atlantis by Christine Rosen called "The Myth of Multitasking." It reinforced ideas in Walter Kirn's "The Autumn of the Multitaskers" (Atlantic, November 2007), both articles suggesting that it is ultimately inefficient to try to achieve efficiency by doing three or four things at once. I was also reading Eugene Peterson's Eat This Book, which contains Peterson's reflections on the art of "spiritual reading." The metaphor of eating a book (a biblical metaphor) has echoes of Cranmer's prayer that we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture. That requires the cultivation of disciplines and habits of attentiveness, practices which are robustly discouraged in the conventional experiences of everyday life in what is increasingly Google's world.

Posted by Ken Myers on 8/13/08