The Atlantic Monthly has the goods on us this month as Nicholas Carr wonders if we're going to read for anything more than distraction when Google is done.
Essentially, the way humans are reading is fundamentally different than how our grandparents did. We skim, we get a sense of an argument and after a few paragraphs we move on.
It follows that books are too big to get back to, never mind a longish article that requires keeping a few arguments in mind while reading how the author gets there.
"Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
Our man is even handed enough, pointing out that every new innovation has naysayers and enthusiasts; that even the printed word itself prompted similar hand wringing in some quarters, but this is different.
"Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”
This leads me to wonder about the humble work of fiction in all this.
In this future of skim and what another commentator in the article calls "pancake people",
knowledge spread thin and wide, will we still seek out narrative in the same way?
Will we still feel a curiosity about much when the full sum of knowledge is a few keystrokes away or if Google has it's dreams realized,
“Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”
If the act of consuming text is done to a finite end, similar to looking for and finding the right tool for a carpentry job, then will our relationship to the text change in ways that make it less likely to revisit text for something as emotional as storytelling. I wonder if our heretofore fundamental need to get a sense of ourselves and those around us changes as well. Storytelling has always done that for me, and has done so in the Western tradition of which I'm a part for centuries.
Take away the "pleasure of the text" and I'm not sure what one does with the knowledge it's now so easy to access.
It does make it easier to sell things to a populace that's easily distracted and not prone to overthink very much. Oh well, don't be evil.
Posted by David