That’s Why They Call Them Browsers

Art & Literature, Culture, Media — By on September 12, 2008 at 12:00 am

By Ken Myers
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.
Ken Myers is the host of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, an every-other month journal committed to assisting Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of contemporary culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement. Click here to listen to a sample of the journal, visit Mars Hill Audio’s website, or subscribe to the Mars Hill Audio Journal.


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  • René

    Why would anyone want to read this, let alone re-read this? Re-read your old stuff. Or read something useful for a change.

  • b

    baugh….. I couldn’t finish your post… ;)
    B

  • http://thebronxblogger.blogspot.com Matthew Goggins

    Dustin,
    You’ve posted an excellent essay, thank you.
    We live in very interesting times. Change is rapid. Change is taking place all over the world.
    But even if we are aware of how the world in general is changing, it’s easy to overlook that each one of us may be changing in ways we don’t suspect, at least not until someone like Nicholas Carr points it out to us.
    Mr. Carr, in his Atlantic essay, points out that new technologies, like the internet, produce bad changes that can be observed or sometimes even predicted ahead of time. What is harder to predict are the good changes brought about by a revolutionary technology.
    He also points out that the good changes can be very, very substantial.
    I think the challenge for each of us is to try to compensate consciously for the bad changes by being selective in our use of new technology, and by monitoring its effect on us and on the world. Computers haven’t robbed us of our free will quite yet.
    Thank you very much for your insights and for highlighting the works that you mention.

  • ex-preacher

    Ironically, Matthew, your high praise of an article on reading is undermined by your apparent failure to read who wrote the article.
    I tried, but couldn’t make myself read this article all the way through. I often disagreed with Joe, but once I started one of his articles, I finished it. He informed me, amused me and enraged me, but he never bored me.
    If what we have seen in the last few weeks represents the new EO, I think we would all be better off if you just killed it quickly.

  • http://thebronxblogger.blogspot.com Matthew Goggins

    Ex-preacher,
    Ironically, Matthew, your high praise of an article on reading is undermined by your apparent failure to read who wrote the article.
    Ironic, yes, but it actually supports the thesis of distraction, rather than undermining it :)
    Thank you for the correction, and thank you, again, to Dustin and Ken.

  • http://thebronxblogger.blogspot.com Matthew Goggins

    Ex-preacher,
    I tried, but couldn’t make myself read this article all the way through. I often disagreed with Joe, but once I started one of his articles, I finished it. He informed me, amused me and enraged me, but he never bored me.
    If what we have seen in the last few weeks represents the new EO, I think we would all be better off if you just killed it quickly.
    Why so pissy, my friend? If you don’t like an article, fine, but why accuse the author of boring you and demand that the website be euthanized?
    Did you run out of Starbucks this morning?
    The E.O. has in effect died and resurrected itself in a new form. Re-birthing pains are to be expected; I hope the new crew perseveres and succeeds in creating something even better than Joe’s baby.
    So far they’re off to a great start. Let’s do our part by being constructive in our criticism and feedback.
    I liked Ken’s article from beginning to end; you didn’t. Maybe you could give a suggestion or two on how it could have been better.
    Cheers,
    Matthew

  • ex-preacher

    Okay, Matthew, I’ll give them some time. I suppose I am going through my own little period of grief. Incidentally, the Christianity Today blog has a note on Joe Carter and his transition away from EO entitled “Abandoning the Outpost.”
    http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2008/09/abandoning_the.html

  • Keith

    I think that’s very true. People are changed by the habits of what they do. I really wonder what the long term effects will truly be.
    http://www.impactevangelism.org

  • http://ateam.blogware.com David N.

    Ex-Preacher,
    “I tried, but couldn’t make myself read this article all the way through. I often disagreed with Joe, but once I started one of his articles, I finished it. He informed me, amused me and enraged me, but he never bored me.”
    Please don’t take this offensively, but you may have just proved Ken’s point.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    I printed out the article and read it in full (can’t say I did the same for this post). I agree with it fully, I do find my reading is more fractured than it used to be. I feel like I read fewer and fewer books. I used to try to read the entire Economist each week but now that’s not even plausible…..
    What I’m not sure of is whether that’s a bad thing or not? In college I was a devoted reader of The New Republic under Michael Kinsley’s editorship. I read books of George Will’s columns. I tinkered for hours going through magazines on microfilm…..
    But today I can certainly say my portfolio of sources is much more diverse. I probably consume ideas from 50+ different authors per week. Granted those ideas are coming in tiny snippets spread around the web on blogs and Google Reader.
    On the non-fiction side I think this is probably a good thing. There’s a tough natural selection process at work that forces ideas to be good in order to get picked up and carried around the web. On the fiction side it has been pretty bad. There’s not many ‘fiction blogs’ and getting through a whole book is getting harder. I wonder if people are resorting to highbrow TV series more (such as The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Carnival, The Sopranos) to substitute for book fiction? Think about it, 20 years ago it doesn’t feel like ‘highbrow TV’ was taken seriously except maybe by that rare fan of ‘Masterpiece Theater’.

  • http://morphed2fly.blogspot.com/ Nancy

    I’m really not afraid Google will ruin my mind…it is good to know that I can find all the bits a piece of random knowledge I might want at any given time, right at my finger tips…I still read deeply (especially the Bible.)
    I like to know what others think…I’m not always willing to engage them to find out…Lurking is a fine pastime IMHO…*: )

  • doug n

    Maybe it’s just age. I rarely read online stuff. I prefer text. But at 60, I find my mind wondering off page too often. Sometimes, like with John Grishom, the prose is so poor that it just can’t hold my attention.
    But Carr leaves out life’s experiences.
    My mind wonders off the page because something in the story reminds me of a thread of my past.
    This didn’t happen much when I was in my 20’s and 30’s but I’m loaded with life experience now.
    Doug
    By the way, when I swim, I like to dive to the bottom of the river, roll on my back and look up. I love how the ripples magnify and distort the images of the trees and sky.
    That to me is the Evangelist’s View.

  • Dan Jones

    I’m surprised there is no mention of the idea that multi-tasking isn’t the new and abnormal thing, but that sitting for long minutes and hours consuming a single book is. Who and in what culture throughout history could ever take the time to sit and read a single book for 1, 2, 3, or more hours at a time? Frankly, who and in what culture throughout history could ever take the time to do any one thing for that extended amount of time? Only the rich, elite, privledged, and those paid to be so single threaded could ever expect to function like that. Argue all you want about whether it’s good or bad, new or natural. Multi-tasking, or more specifically, balancing 20 things at once is what our brains and bodies were designed to do. It was and is today a matter of survival.

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