Nicholas Carr Can’t Concentrate
Nicholoas Carr’s recent book The Shallows (and the article it’s based on in The Atlantic, and a more recent one in The Wall Street Journal) really bugged me. His basic argument is that reading on the web is making us dumb and incapable of concentrating. My impression is that he came up with a theory and then went picking and choosing through various research to find data to support it.
Maria Bustillos has a great take on it in The Awl. Carr is quick to dismiss the comparison between web publishing and books that are annotated with footnotes, but I think that the comparison is apt. I hate books without footnotes. If I’m reading along and the author makes an assertion which seems dubious, I want to be able to find where they’re getting it from and what they left out. That’s especially true when you’re dealing with an author who uses data selectively to bolster their arguments. Web publishing is like annotations on steroids. It’s even better when you’re writing in a forum which supports comments. Then people who disagree can fact check you right at the bottom of the page.
Yes, I’m sure that the new publishing technologies are changing the way we read, and in some way that’s going to change how we think. The classic argument here is that when writing became widespread our ability to memorize things went downhill. Similar arguments are made about the invention of printing. But it’s not at all clear that these changes are negatives. Yes, in some sense when we lived in villages where the only books we had access to were the Bible, Shakespeare, and Pilgrim’s Progress, we (in some sense) thought more deeply about the material in those volumes. But we weren’t exposed to other points of view, so what exactly does “deeper” mean?
I think that Carr should just install Readability, and that the rest of us should find a more important Chicken Little scenario to worry about.
Clay Shirky also has a response to the Carr article in last Saturday’s WSJ
Steven Pinker has a good column in the Times today on this subject.