Does Surfing the Net Change How We Think?

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It does, claims Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (Norton, 2010).  Expanding his famous 2008 Atlantic piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Carr delivers a measured but disturbing conclusion regarding the effect of long-term internet use: the brain’s cognitive activity is re-routed to skim, rather than to read deeply.

He opens with a confession that may sound familiar, especially to those of us who find increased resistance to deep-reading, either in the classroom or in our own work:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.  My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing.  I’m not thinking the way I used to think.  I feel it most strongly when I’m reading.  I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.  My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. . . the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle (5-6)

Tellingly, Carr became unwired to write the book: he put his blog, Rough Type, on hold, moved from Boston to Colorado, and limited his social networking, including e-mail.  The Shallows appeared a year and a half later.

The Shallows probes how the Internet transforms cognitive activity by repeatedly “seiz[ing] our attention only to scatter it” (118).  The plasticity of the adult brain means that its circuitry adapts to the repeated pattern of having its attention splintered by competing demands from ads, e-mail, list-serves, hyperlinks, Twitter, Facebook, and the infinite possibilities of a Google search.

The brain’s plasticity can be positive.  For example, the area of the sensory cortext that processes signals from the left hand is larger in right-handed violinists than it is in right-handed non-violinists.  As violinists practice, the stimulation from their left hand physically changes the shape of their brain.  Similarly, victims of brain injury or illness can often use the brain’s adaptability to compensate for injury.  Even the neurons of sea slugs change, both biochemically and anatomically, in response to cognitive stimuli.

But neuroplasticity has a downside, too.  The “repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive” cognitive stimuli delivered by the internet “have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions” (116).  As Carr puts in the May 24 issue of Wired,

When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.  Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

Catering to the brain’s hunger for information and novelty, the internet provides an environment of  “constant distractedness”  (119).   Repeated heavy use of the Net has, as another neurologist, Michael Merzenich, notes, “neurological consequences” (120).  The time we spend on the internet is time away from reading linearly-driven narratives requiring concentration.  The disused neurons and synapses once dedicated to deep reading get recycled into the work of distracted skimming.  Carr concurs with Maryann Wolf’s conclusion that as we read online

we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible.  We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’  Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged (122).

Michael Merzenich puts this more strongly, arguing that internet multitasking may be “deadly” for our intellectual lives (142).

Repeated internet use results in what Carr calls  “The Juggler’s Brain,” the title of a chapter that should be mandatory reading for all teachers.   Study after study is cited demonstrating that multitasking interferes with memory.  A Cornell study reveals that students typing on a laptop during a lecture perform more poorly on tests of the lecture’s content than students without laptops—even when the web pages visited pertain to the material discussed.

Similarly, a Kansas State study notes that students watching a CNN broadcast loaded with color graphics and a “textual news crawl” remembered less about the broadcast’s content than students who were given the the same program stripped of the graphics and news crawl.  This information might be useful the next time someone discusses multimedia teaching techniques.  And when a printed text becomes a hypertext, as it does on Kindle, comprehension is, studies suggest, compromised.

Carr’s most interesting chapter may be on memory.  He distinguishes between “primary memories,” which vanish soon after they come into being, and “secondary memories,” which can be recalled indefinitely.  When a boxer gets knocked out, his recent memories disappear, suggesting that it takes time for a “primary memory” to become a “secondary memory.”

Short-term memories don’t become long-term memories immediately, and the process of their consolidation is delicate. Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can sweep the nascent memories from the mind.  (184)

So while surfing the Net can yield a giddy confluence of ideas and connections, few of those connections are actually retained because the Net’s distractions interrupt their migration into secondary memory.  While computer memory is a database, pure and simple, human memory relies on processing information: “Biological memory is alive.  Computer memory is not” (192).

Behind all of this is a concern for deep reading, which is currently dividing the humanities and widely discussed by the media.  Recently, both  Stanley Fish and David Brooks argued for the need for deep reading in the humanities to cultivate wisdom.  A week earlier, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story about Stanford University’s Literature Lab, which features data-mining that allows students to “read” 1200 novels for one class.  Clearly, the latter kind of reading differs from the kind called for by Fish and Brooks.

As we consider the new kinds of reading made possible by the internet, including important practical questions, such as Laura Rosenthal’s recent query on The Long Eighteenth regarding how to read a long book in a screen-based medium like ECCO, we would do well to imitate Carr by remaining open to both old and new technologies.  An engaged Net surfer, with a clear understanding of the merits of being plugged in, Carr easily cites poetry and literary anecdotes that reflect his immersion in the world of printed texts.   That he is fully aware of the many advantages the Net offers makes his warnings about the erosion of concentration among internet surfers all the more alarming.  Intrepid internet boosters, like Clay Shirky, downplay the value of printed books as “just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.”  Shirky famously dismissed Tolstoy’s War and Peace as “too long, and not so interesting” (Carr, 111).  Carr eschews such extreme positions.  Though he put his blog on hold to complete his book, he has now returned to it.  He is not urging that we ban use of the internet.  But he provides extensive evidence for the need to be mindful of the internet’s transformative effects on our cognitive life.

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28 Responses to “Does Surfing the Net Change How We Think?”

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Tom Ashbrook’s interview of Nicholas Carr on On Point includes Nick Bilton’s more optimistic comments on the consequences of using the internet.

  2. Dave Mazella Says:

    Hi Anna,

    I don’t usually agree with Pinker, but I think his reaction gets it just about right. New technologies do override older ones, to some extent, but even this effect can be overstated, as Adam Fox argued about the reciprocity of oral, scribal, and print cultures in early modern England. A more likely scenario, in my view, is that digital cultures are revealing new possibilities about print culture that hadn’t been noticed before, the way that Fox documents the easy circulation of print materials “back” into oral culture, despite our sense of their separation. (This is where something like data-mining, fits in, I think)

    I also think that the supposed ideal of “deep reading” breaks down for anything but the literary works of modernism. Certainly no one can deep read “Absalom and Achitophel” without rushing to footnotes, supplementary texts and so forth, so I find this kind of normative ideal of deep, concentrated reading of one thing–as opposed to whatever and wherever our curiosity takes us-unsuited for the literary historian or scholar of pre-20th century literature.

    My other suspicion about Carr’s argument is that he’s missing out on the other side of internet activity–its immense social and productive possibilities. In the same issue of Wired, Clay Shirky describes the immense social transformation that has taken place when people’s leisure time has been switched over from passive TV watching to internet activities. Before the internet people weren’t reading War and Peace at any greater rates or in any greater depths, they were watching Gilligan’s Island. I have no idea whether blogging will seem like Gilligans Island to future historians, but it does represent an interesting new social formation, and Carr, a blogger himself, doesn’t seem to be able to factor that into his narrative of loss.

  3. Dave Mazella Says:

    And here’s the Shirky link:

    http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_pink_shirky/all/1

    DM

  4. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Pinker (who never mentions Carr directly but does seem to allude to The Shallows) gets one thing wrong: if Carr focuses on a panic, it’s an intellectual panic, not a moral panic. Carr himself never sounds a note of panic, though he cites people who sound more urgent or emphatic than he is. Pinker’s wholesale dismissal of Carr’s concern seems unnecessary. What harm results from considering the issues Carr logically maps out?

    • Eleanor Shevlin Says:

      If Pinker does have Carr’s work in mind, it is interesting that he cites the rise in IQ scores without addressing Carr’s explanation of why oft-cited IQ scores don’t hold muster in arguments about the positive intellectual gains driven by new media. In the eyes of Carr and those he draws from, the rise in scores does not “meant that we have ‘better brains'” but rather “[i]t just means we have different brains” (148).

  5. Dave Mazella Says:

    I suppose the operative word here is “panic.” Part of the issue here is the technological determinism that casts technologies as introducing enormous positive or negative changes, without understanding how unevenly they get adopted, what their effects are, etc. Shirky is certainly guilty of this at times. And that’s why I cited Fox’s argument. But I still don’t see the need for panic.

    My other problem with this is that what begins as a historical argument turns into yet another grand cultural narrative of decline, at which point I begin to wonder what ideologies are driving this narrative. So I begin to wonder what evidence he has for his trend, what are the consequences, and so forth. And all I am left with is this panicked reaction buttressed with anecdotes.

    In my mind, the real shift, whether it deserves a panicky reaction or not, is Caleb Crain’s observation that, like it or not, slow, thoughtful reading of books is likely to become a self-consciously minority enterprise rather than a universal attribute of educated life, like listening to Opera or attending modern dance recitals. And no one is really prepared for that outcome, least of all academics.

  6. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thank you, Anna, for this very fine post on Carr’s The Shallows.

    As Anna notes, Carr is clearly someone who has fully embraced technology for many years; his engagement with and long-standing appreciation for the Net add weight to his arguments. Far from offering a diatribe against the Net, The Shallows is instead a call for critical awareness in using this medium and understanding its effects. That Carr was not consciously aware of alterations in his mental habits until fairly recently not only represents the problem but also signals a cause. Detailing the physiological effects that steady Web use generates, he implicitly posits that a more informed approach to the Net can help us control or temper such effects–even as he argues that this new medium is changing our mental wiring. One could say that Carr’s book fruitfully promotes a “deep reading” (that is, a probing, contemplative reflective consideration) of our uses of the Internet and its various products. While the Internet is in some ways transforming us from “being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gathers in the electronic data forests” (138), the two states are not necessarily incompatible in my mind. Can one can engage in a focused fashion with the Net and be deliberate about one’s activity? I believe so. The Net admittedly very much encourages juggling and distraction, but this encouragement is fostered by uncritical or unthinking use. Near the end of his book, Carr remarks that the automatic silent alterations to our brains do not “absolve us from responsibility for the choices we make. One thing that sets us apart from other animals is the command we have been granted over our attention” (194).

    Carr, as Dave notes, does not truly address the ongoing interactions between print and digital. Because he increasingly functioned more and more in the digital environment of the Net until the faltering in his ability to read deeply (i.e., engaged, focused reading as opposed to high-speed skimming) caused him to pause, this omission seems understandable. At one point, Carr does recall McLuhan’s observation that a “‘New Medium is never an addition to an old one…nor does it leave the old one in peace’” (89). Claiming that this observation is especially valid today, Carr examines its relevance primarily in terms of one-directional transformations of older media by the Net; in short, he ignores the cross-fertilization between print and digital environments. The various attempts to capture the characteristics of paper and ink in e-book readers offers just one example (Carr does discuss this borrowing indirectly [100]). Such attempts coexist with changes to printed newspaper and magazine layouts whose redesign is aimed at reflecting characteristics of the Web. When The Washington Post Sunday Magazine changed its layout a year or so ago, many of the changes evoked the Web’s influence. One of the improvements touted was eliminating the need to turn several or even many pages in order to continue reading an article, a practice the editors framed as too bothersome. As many letters responding to the change suggested, so much of the new design seemed aimed at making the magazine more Web-like.

    Another aspect of the print-digital interactions is the ability of the Net to draw some to print and vice versa. I wonder, for instance, how many people who encounter Carr’s book on the Web will not be satisfied with just reading the snippets and summaries and will instead turn to obtaining a copy in print.

    The structure of Carr’s text also raises a few points worth discussing. Interspersed throughout The Shallows’s ten chapters are four digressions whose average length is three pages. While also suggestive of the symbiotic relationship between print and digital media, Carr’s inclusion of these extended asides highlights the differences between print digressions and Web distractions. If one is reading Carr’s book in a focused fashion and not skimming it, one mentally makes these digressions part of the whole even as their headings announce these insertions’ departure from the main narrative. Yet within chapters, at times, a sudden switch in topics, heralded by the presence of additional white space, recalls the Web’s use of links. Of course, the use of white space to signal shifts in topics is not the same as clicking a link, nor is such use of white space by any means new but instead a practice centuries old. Moreover, the text remains a linear narrative despite these occasional punctuations of fleeting disjointedness or disorientation.

    Carr references David Levy several times in this work, and readers of emob might be interested in the archived recording of Reading: From the Fixed Page to Movable Electrons, a talk that Levy gave at the Kluge Center, Library of Congress in early 2005. Levy has a doctorate in computer science from Stanford University, but he also has studied calligraphy and bookbinding at the Roehampton Institute, London (1982). In other words, he possesses expertise in both the word of computers and that of the material text. He concludes his talk with some brief remarks about the library as place and what he sees as its potential for offering us a space for contemplation. The panelists that respond include Derrick de Kerckhove, Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology at the University of Toronto; Glen Hoptman, a renowned designer of multimedia for education; and Prosser Gifford, who at the time was director of the Kluge Center. Carr’s concerns and those raised in Levy’s talk, subsequent exchanges with the panel respondents, and queries from the audience have more in common than one might imagine given the five years or so that separate this event from the publication of Carr’s book.

    When reading the “Search, Memory” chapter (like Anna, I found it among the most interesting parts of this work), I was struck by claims about our brain’s unlimited storage capacity of long-term memories (193) and found myself drawn to thoughts about aging, changes to memory, and the effects decades from now that aging users of the Internet might experience. It is also in this chapter that Carr dismantles the parallels between the calculator and Web as tools that relieve pressure on our working memory. Instead he argues that the calculator functions as an aid to memory, while the Web acts as a technology of forgetfulness. Yet, this redefinition of the Web seems dependent on how one is engaging with this tool.

    As previous posts have noted, Carr certainly has attracted detractors. For more on Clay Shirky, for instance, see the June 13th issue of The Chronicle Review “The Souls of the Machine”. This piece profiles Clay Shirky in anticipation of his newest work, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin, June 2010).

  7. Dave Mazella Says:

    OK, I can see that Eleanor is a lot more sympathetic to Carr’s argument than I am, and I am now interested in Levy’s argument.

    But I must admit that I am still skeptical about an argument that seems to assume some kind of qualitative distinction between the technologies of book reading and those of the internet.

    I’ve already mentioned the necessity of referring to footnotes and other kinds of apparatus for reading works like Absalom and Achitophel. 17th and 18th century specialists take this kind of directed reading for granted, but our students certainly do not. This is one of the reasons why disciplines and universities exist, as Pinker points out. People learn this kind of reading, to the point where they forgot how they acquired the skill. Perhaps a similar naturalization process is going on right now with internet use. (I suppose this is Carr’s point) Who’s to say that it won’t end up creating new protocols of sense-making? And then the problem becomes how to compare those forms of sense-making.

    Finally, I wonder how we might talk use Carr’s discussion of deep reading about the kinds of reading detailed by Anthony Grafton’s and Lisa Jardine’s “Studied for Action: How Gabriel Harvey read his Livy”: Grafton suggests an intensive reading of Livy that nonetheless involved the annotation of other books on the famous book-wheel of Ramelli. I think a lot of commonplace book readings are not extensive at all, but involve the shredding of a book into suggestive fragments, all with the aid of a specialized technology (45-49).

    http://www.jstor.org/stable/650933

    So how far back does the history of deep reading really go?

    DM

  8. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Early Christians practiced lectio divina, a meditative reading of the Bible. St. Benedict gives instructions for this form of contemplative reading in his 6th-century Rule, but the practice existed earlier.

    Carr cites Isaac of Syria as articulating the change in consciousness noted by the earliest silent readers as they read carefully with concentration:

    as in a dream, I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart (Carr 65, citing Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading 49).

    It seems to me that both concentrated reading and distracted web surfing are means of escaping what Isaac of Syria calls “the turmoil of memories.” But there is a lot to be said for the practice of concentration.

  9. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    As historians of reading well know, reconstructing past reading practices and processes is highly challenging for several reasons, with issues of evidence ranking as perhaps the most difficult. While many important gains have been made, so much remains to be done.

    Even more than being sympathetic to Carr’s arguments, I would say that his work kept my attention and that his arguments are worthy of such attention. I especially appreciated his scientific discussions, though I am aware that these studies are still quite preliminary and much, much more work needs to be done. Carr’s point is very much about the naturalization of new reading practices; this notion, along with the cognitive effects of these new practices, is at the heart of his work’s overall argument. Research indicates that reading in general is an acquired skill that is not natural or intuitive; close reading operates at yet another level.

    Your dissatisfaction with Carr’s pronouncements about deep reading, Dave, are understandable. Part of the problem may stem from Carr’s appropriation of the term “deep reading,” for often he seems to be speaking more about the ability to focus and concentrate. The Absalom and Achitophel example is helpful. Turning to footnotes and seeking supplementary explanatory material while reading Dryden’s poem is different from reading this poem while stopping regularly to read or respond to an email, scan a local news item, click on a link about a new phone or DVD release, and so forth. It seems that such differences are what Carr is really talking about here.

    Moreover, Carr seems to be suggesting–erroneously, I believe–that one cannot perform the first type of reading online without lapsing into the second form I describe. That said, the online environment in which the text appears (surrounded by ads, given to pop-ups, and so forth) and the appearance of the text (whether it has been adapted for web-viewing or screen viewing, for instance) can influence one’s concentration. Other factors also matter, and they matter whether one is reading a print version or web/screen text. If I wish to read fully a text found in ECCO or even a critical article from an electronic database (as opposed to skimming for a reference or other quick matters of consultation), I typically print a copy to do so. Otherwise, I will find my concentration wandering or my retention suffering. In contrast, I have no problem reading or remembering numerous advertisements found in Burney; while I save copies, I print these documents far less frequently.

    Carr mentions briefly the Norwegian reading scholar Anne Mangen’s work and cites her pronouncement that all forms of reading are multi-sensory (90). Her research considers the differences between reading a paper copy and reading on the screen, the web, or other digital forms, noting that paper fosters textual immersion (she focuses on recreational reading and the physiological factors affecting reading on paper and reading on screen; see Mangen, “Hypertext fiction reading: haptics and immersion.” Journal of Research in Reading 31.4 [Nov 2008]: 404-419). In an interview last fall, she observed that “whether reading on a screen is better or worse than reading on paper depends on a range of variables — the reader’s prior experience with both formats, the purpose and situation of the reading act, the type and genre of text, the disposition of the reader, and other variables.” It seems important that these multiple variables are considered when discussing reading.

    Grafton and Jardine’s discussion of the skilled reader within the context of the book-wheel is also worth noting here. At one point they say,

    The book-wheel and the centrifugal mode of reading it made possible amounted to an effective form of information retrieval – and that in a society where books were seen as offering powerful knowledge, and the reader who could focus the largest number of books on a problem or an opportunity would therefore appear to have the advantage. (48)

    Book-wheel

    In terms of our discussion what seems important is that this reading is focused on a problem or an opportunity. It is purposeful. While it entails multiple works and employs specialized equipment or technology to facilitate consultation of multiple works, it nonetheless is focused reading. Disparate texts may be consulted, but whether they are perused or just dipped into, they are “read” with a specific purpose in mind that goes beyond mere information collection and instead involves an extended meditation on solving and taking action on a problem or opportunity.

  10. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Among the cognitive skills that Carr mentions as being strengthened by Web searching and browsing are those “related to certain kinds of fast-paced problem solving, particularly those involving the recognition of patterns in a welter of data” (139). In previous posts I have remarked upon the ways in which electronic databases and tools are altering our cognitive approach to and fashioning of searches. Carr’s remarks here have a certain relevance to the changes I have sensed in my own research using these tools. Burney affords an apt example; I’ve been conscious of my developing skill in identifying “patterns in a welter of data.” It helps, for instance, that one’s results are highlighted in advance. This pre-identification frees the working mind to discover more not only about the result but also configurations beyond the immediate hit. These identifications, in turn, have assisted me in devising new search terms that might not have occurred to me if I had still been operating in the microfilm environment of pre-Cengage-Gale Burney. Plus, electronic environment allows one to test speedily the value of these new words or phrases as search terms. In contrast, when one is reading through issue after issue of a title on microfilm, much mental energy is extended in simply finding relevant ads or copy. And if one uncovers additional information—say an address or name—tied to one’s subject, the thought of going back over issues already examined tempers one’s excitement over the find. The mental habits or workings of my mind when using such tools, moreover, have drawn my attention to relationships that I might have otherwise not considered. Such connections indicate that cognitive changes effected by the online environment do not limit us to “being [merely] hunters and gathers in the electronic data forest” (138) but can also assist us in interweaving the material we uncover in fresh, unexpected ways.

  11. Dave Mazella Says:

    Hi Eleanor,

    Thanks for this thoughtful response to my concerns. Not having read Carr’s book, (though I did read the article it was derived from), I still think that Carr is collapsing a lot of important distinctions about the different modes of reading and their respective value for various readers. As you point out, there seem to be several models at work, each with their own history and adherents: does deep reading refer to a mere readerly attitude of focus and concentration, a kind of imaginative absorption in the fictional worlds created by an author, a purposeful search through the text for particular information, or all of those things? I would still maintain that the attitude and training and purposes the reader brings to the material is far more important than the medium she uses, though I don’t deny that continued work in a particular medium “trains” one to read in a particular, habituated way. What seems important to me is that this kind of unconscious “training” in a medium introduces shortcuts and efficiencies (learning how to use a T of C, index, footnotes, for example, in a seamless way) that are otherwise unavailable to less experienced readers.

    As I’ve said, this is only to stress the losses of this process of learning new technologies, without accounting for the potential gains, either personal or social. But I think we could do a similar kind of accounting for book literacy and book reading, if we think about the classroom, and the difficulty many of our students have in learning how to deal with this very ancient and enduring technology. But I do think that Carr’s argument is a valuable one to have, since otherwise we wouldn’t be aware of this aspect of book-reading.

    DM

  12. rrhumanist Says:

    This is an excellent thread–thanks, Anna, for the lucid opening post and the crisply detailed review of Carr’s new book. I read Carr’s essay in the Atlantic when it came out, and I assigned it to my Book History students last year. They confessed that they were looking in a mirror as they read it; they admitted, and lamented, their declining capacity for deep reading. Indeed, many read the article online, and they said that they felt fidgety while they were reading, tempted by the beckoning chirps of email, twitter, and ipod texts–even by Carr’s own links.

    This discussion reminds me a bit of the Eisenstein-Johns debate: does technology itself have causal power, or is it governed by human agency and, moreover, by social and political power structures? Arguably, technology is itself neutral, but I would contend that it encourages some forms of behavior and discourages others. Indeed, within larger frameworks (capitalism in the raw, students as consumers, etc.), technology can have a laser-like aim, and the Internet creates, or helps to create, consumers of data.

    The question, then, is what we do about this trend. As Dave Mazella notes, scholars like Adam Fox and Harold Love have spotlighted the ways in which old and new media influence each other. How do we exploit this reciprocity so that students can hone the nonlinear skills that hypertext tends to cultivates without losing the ability to read deeply? The book wheel analogy provides a useful starting-point.

  13. rrhumanist Says:

    Tends to cultivate. Proofreading skills have also declined in the age of the Internet.

  14. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Randy, for reminding us of the Eisenstein-Johns debate. Regarding agency, It seems to me that when our attention is divided by the bells and whistles of our screens, our capacity to be deeply absorbed by whatever we’re examining is compromised. Working at a wired computer can be a little like trying to get work done when some of your friends are having a party next door. You can, of course, continue to work, but work is often easier to do in the seclusion of a library cubicle.

    In theory we are always vulnerable to distraction, and writers have always acknowledged this. The distraction of looking out literal windows is a perpetual theme in Virginia Woolf’s work. As her Orlando describes nature, he looks out the window

    to match the shade of green precisely . . . (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself, which happened to be a laurel bush growing beneath the window. After that, of course, he could write no more.

    Later in the twentieth century, Annie Dillard reports once papering over her window in a study she used; she needed to shut out competing claims for her attention to complete her book. What both Woolf and Dillard describe is the assault on interiority that a window presents. So the general problem of distraction is not new. What is new is that now that assault on interiority comes not just from the literal windows in our studies but from the very instrument most of us use to compose or to read (if we read electronic resources): the computer. Here the computer differs from the book wheel, where presumably the selection of books helped concentrate the mind. The internet seems to me to be a technology more conducive to oral than to written culture.

    I don’t think we need to ban the internet, of course, and as Nick Bilton mentions in his interview on NPR’s On Point, maybe we just need to have some control over its many distractions and alert mechanisms.

  15. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Linking the internet with oral culture is quite interesting, and I see why you would say this, Anna. Yet, perhaps because of the ultimately written nature of blogs, emails, and the like, the technology seems instead to straddle the borders of the oral, with something like Skype offering an exception. The aural, however, does seem to pervade today’s online experiences. The dings and pings of incoming emails, audio components of sites, and more can make being online noisy–and can, in turn, be a major source of distraction. I had never bothered to connect speakers to my home computer until I purchased my latest a few years ago. The difference that having sound has made has certainly not always been positive.

    Anna’s remarks about the book-wheel bear some comparison with certain kinds of electronic databases as opposed to web-surfing. Of course, one is still working online, but databases such as ECCO, EEBO, and Burney contain a finite set of materials and don’t psychologically encourage the same kind of roaming that web-surfing promotes.

    As for what we can do, a key antidote for the neural rewiring effected by the Web is exercising control. Although Carr uses the word “addiction” only once in Shallows and does so in its plural form (35), the language and images he uses elsewhere characterize the Net as habit-forming, as a tool that promotes compulsiveness: The constant “yearning” to be online when away from his computer; his enforced withdrawal from Facebook, MySpace, RSS feeds, Digg, Twitter, and email in order to write Shallows; and, his use of the word “backsliding” when confessing that as he neared completing this book, he joined new social-networking services and purchased a Blu-ray with a WiFi connection to capture music from Pandora, movies from NetFlix, and videos from YouTube. These instances underscore both the seductiveness of the Net and its services and the need to exercise control over our use of these tools.

  16. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Good points, all. Thanks, Eleanor. Your point that the internet encourages us to “straddle the borders of the oral” is more accurate than my binary claim. While we obviously use the internet to write, the kind of writing we do is often closer to a transcription of speech than it is to the kind of polished literary exercise traditionally associated with writing. It is true that the sometimes clever abbreviations that characterize text messages are perhaps a kind of literary game, playing on the act of transcribing oral speech into written speech. Blogging certainly resembles chatting, though it allows for some revision. Still, the internet seems to encourage a fusion of oral and written culture in a way that more traditional instruments (pen, typewriter) tended to preclude, with obvious exceptions.

    Exercising control is, as you note, the key. As you point out, our electronic resources are less open-ended than the Net and therefore more conducive to work, though Laura’s point on The Long Eighteenth that reading these sources at length is often uncomfortable in itself remains a real problem. (Like you, I tend to print out long texts I need). Are there adjustments that could be made to make these electronic sources even more useful for research and concentrated thinking? Would a Kindle dedicated to these sources and a few others: ODNB, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference works be helpful? Or do we want to be free to range across the internet imposing limits ourselves rather than having limits imposed by an instrument?

  17. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Anna, I appreciate your elaboration on the ways in which internet communication partakes in the oral. While certainly not polished literary arguments, some posts and comments on blogs incorporate citations, references, quoted material and other features that resemble features found in written work. These cases are perhaps akin to response papers or letters to editor. Similarly, many emails that serve as notifications or policy presentations reflect the diction and syntax of writing presented in a paper format. One might also cite a note written on pen and paper–“Could you pick up milk?”, for instance–as speech transcription.

    In terms of writing online and the neural effects of the Net, I have noticed that I often make strange substitutions–“good” for “could” and vice versa, for example. For years I had never made such substitutions when writing on paper or typing. Often an aural similarity links the two substituted words, but they are never homonyms. While I almost always grade online using WordTracking these days, when I do turn to hard copy grading, I find these same substitutions happening. This phenomenon has only cropped up within the past four years and suggests some sort of crossed wires in my brain.

    As for printing out long texts, the platform matters to me. If it is in Word, I can read online texts of over 100 pages without much problem. As I mentioned on the Long 18thC, Jakob Nielsen represents the extreme of those who indicate that PDF’s are meant to be printed and not read on screen, but I have seen library pages and other sites make similar claims.

    Generally, I would prefer the freedom to range the Web rather than have restraints imposed by the tool. That said, a device that offered different settings fr the type of access/limits one wanted to apply.

    Finally, Anna’s earlier extract from Woolf’s Orlando recalled an equally applicable passage from that work. Its fourth chapter concludes with the pronouncement, “With the twelfth stroke of midnight … The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun” (225-226). Woolf’s abrupt, parodic shift from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth operates as a reminder that large-scale change and the long-term effects of new technology typically occur gradually and unevenly.

    The context is also telling. In Orlando‘s fourth chapter some of the early eighteenth century’s most well–known British authors cross and re–cross its pages. At the chime of midnight, however, its eighteenth–century world of salons and patronage, of poetry and coffeehouse gazettes, abruptly ceases to exist. Just as abruptly, this world is replaced by a nineteenth–century Britain enveloped in a cloud of darkness, doubt and dullness. In Orlando this pervasive haze signals the onset of cultural debasement and a commercialized literary marketplace in which professional publishers and reviewers disrupt and redefine the relationship existing between writers and readers. What seems striking is the way Woolf’s depiction of the nineteenth century echoes The Dunciad’s imagery crafted by Alexander Pope almost a century earlier as a cultural indictment of his times. Both view the developments or inheritance of their particular cultural moment through a lens of an idealized lost age.

  18. rrhumanist Says:

    I agree with you, Anna, that one cannot press the book wheel – Internet analogy too far. I also take Eleanor’s point that the book wheel usually trained the reader’s attention on a particular problem despite its “centrifugal” character. The web, on the other hand, ramifies in ways that can be disorienting.

    I think you’re right, Anna, that one solution to this difficulty is to limit our use of the Internet. Indeed, a colleague of mine and I concluded that we would pay more for an Internet connection of, say, six hours a day than we do for round-the-clock web access–we both thought that we would be more productive. I wonder, though, whether and how we can shore up eroding student attention spans; I doubt that many of our students would be willing to limit their Internet access. Does Carr have any suggestions?

  19. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Carr does not explicitly offer solutions, though he does stress the importance of being aware of the transformations. The closest he comes to a solution is enumerating “questions we should be asking, both of ourselves and of our children”:

  20. How is the way we read changing?
  21. How is the way we write changing?
  22. How is the way we think changing?
  23. (200)

    Yet, he follows this recommendation by announcing, “As for me, I’m already backsliding. With the end of this book in sight, I’ve gone back to keeping my email running all the time and I’ve jacked into my RSS feed again….” (200).

    In one sense such an admission suggests that Carr sees control as ultimately impossible, but other aspects of the book make me suspect that he might instead be illustrating the difficulties of exercising such control in a world in which the Net dominates.

  24. Dave Mazella Says:

    I don’t see any need to flog this further, but I would definitely land on the side of those who feel that, yes, things are changing, but no, not in super-dramatic ways, and no, we can’t control this process. At a certain point in their popularization, technologies move to some new level of diffusion where it’s difficult to opt out, whether we’re talking about indoor plumbing, home telephones and televisions, or home computers. This is one of the reasons why I feel that Carr is missing the point.

    I introduced the book wheel example to remind readers here that there are probably multiple models of focused reading throughout history, but many of those models of concentrated reading lead the reader to new sources and new information. But I find it hard to believe that a filled book wheel is any less distracting for an untrained reader than an internet connection.

  25. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Not to flog, but to be fair to Carr, he clearly has no plans to opt out. Rather, he is advocating attention to and concern for the ways in which these transformations are altering our thinking–as well as as resisting the urge to entrust our computers with, quoting Joseph Weitzenbaum, “‘tasks that demand wisdom'” (224).

  26. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Dave, I think we’re discussing the opposite of opting out. Randy’s suggestion that we find ways to cope with the climate of distraction posed by the Net is exactly that: a way of continuing to use its rich possibilities without being benumbed by their variety.

    I like Randy’s suggestion of limiting hours of internet access. Recently, my router has become a problem, and I’m finding that I am perfectly happy without internet access in my home study. Granted, I only need to walk downstairs to the library to get internet access. It’s a bit like working in the Folger, where you have to order up a pre-1800 book. The divided work space, far from being a nuisance, is actually an aid to sticking to tasks and to prioritizing what needs to be downloaded when I do get to the Net. So while Carr doesn’t suggest exact solutions to the problem, his general posing of it is, I think, helpful.

    How we share this with students, and how successful any of this will be will interest me. It can’t hurt to raise awareness of how we train our mind to develop habits of concentration, while profiting from the riches of the internet. They seem more aware of this problem than we are. When I asked students in my early eighteenth-century English lit. course to write imitations of Addison and Steele this spring, most of them assaulted social networking for being rude, promoting self-absorption, disrupting face-to-face meetings, and so forth. They were brutal–far more than I would imagine being.

  27. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    I will be including a chapter and a digression from Carr’s book in three of my courses this fall–both the undergraduate and graduate book history courses and a theory course, Conventions of Reading and Writing, that forms part of the core for majors. I will be glad to share the reactions and summaries of our discussions.

    The reactions generated by your assignment, Anna, is interesting. Was there any pre-discussion among students in class that may have generated this result? In drawing contemporary parallels to Addison and Steele’s periodical essays, my students have gravitated to a diversity of sources from Miss Manners to cable shows but social-networking has never emerged in these discussions despite its being what seems a logical choice.

  28. Anna Battigelli Says:

    We did not have any pre-assignment discussion for the Addison and Steele imitatio. I had not even imagined social networking as an option. So the fact that nearly all of them selected some aspect of social networking took me by surprise. The imitations were quite clever.

    I will use Carr’s “Is Google Making us Stupid” in my expository writing course this fall to discuss finding space for the kind of concentration that writing demands. I look forward to hear about your result, Eleanor, from using Carr’s chapters in your undergrad. and grad. courses.

  29. Dave Mazella Says:

    Steven Johnson’s essay in the NYT, which I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet, seems to me the sanest response to the concerns of Carr, because he a) stresses the social and collective dimensions to reading (which he even connects, rightly in my view, to the historical Enlightenment), b) locates literary “deep reading” as only one of many potential reading practices, not the core of literacy, and c) argues that any account of this new form of “multitasking” has to assess its rewards as well as its liabilities.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/business/20unbox.html

  30. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Dave. Steven Johnson’s review puzzles me. I think he assumes hostility on Carr’s part that simply isn’t there. But it’s worth reading to see the different kinds of reactions Carr is clearly provoking.

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