- BitsBlog - http://bitsblog.theconservativereader.com -

We’re Getting Smarter Than Books Allowed Us To, Previously.

An interesting post at OTB yesterday, [1] caught my eye:

The cover story of the current Atlantic (Monthly) is an interesting piece by Nicholas Carr which asks, Is Google Making Us Stupid? [2] It begins with the standard “the Internet is giving us short attention spans” meme but eventually gives us much more than that.

Over the past 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 can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in 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 often starts to drift after two or three pages. 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. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They 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 the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.


Reading, explains [Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University], is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

Much, much more at the link.  It’s worth a read, presuming you have the attention span.

Oh, cute.  Remind me to forward you my IQ scores for when we have that discussion again. James obvious giggle aside, he says:

My own experience closely mirrors Ezra Klein’s. I can still sit down with a stack of books as efficiently before if I’ve got a major research project or book review due. But, increasingly, the Internet is my source of first resort for looking up facts, keeping up with the news, and the like. It’s simply a much more efficient means of accessing current information than combing the stacks at the library.

Indeed. Add to that the idea that it offers a number of sources of information that you’d likely not have considered even looking at, were you restricted to the printed page. And therein lies something which I think goes missing from a lot of these “woe is the human race, nobody reads books anymore” memed bits… We’re actually getting smarter than books ever allowed us to.

Look, I admit there is a certain art level in doing the kind of book-based research that James describes… an art that is disappearing, certainly, and I can see where some would see a loss in that. It takes a fair amount of smarts to do research in that fashion. But what is the purpose of the book? What is the purpose of the printed page?  It is to impart information.  We humans have evolved our information gathering and dissemination ability to the next level. I refuse to see this as a bad thing.

And yes there are historical examples of genius at dealing with the printed page… but they are considered both a rarity and more than a little freakish.

The Futility Closet [3], passes long one such example:

Florentine scholar Antonio Magliabechi (1633-1714) has been described as a literary glutton. His house was choked with 40,000 books and 10,000 manuscripts, and he spent hours each day in the Medici library.

The negligent Magliabechi reportedly once forgot to draw his salary for a full year, but his head was “an universal index, both of titles and matter.” When the Duke of Florence asked him for a particular volume he replied, “Signore, there is but one copy of that book in the world; it is in the Grand Signore’s library at Constantinople, and is the eleventh book in the second shelf on the right hand as you go in.”

That memory made him a human search engine for writers of the time. In Curiosities of Human Nature, Samuel Goodrich records that a priest might consult Magliabechi about a panegyric on a particular saint. “He would immediately tell him who had said anything of that saint, and in what part of their works, and that, sometimes, to the number of above a hundred authors. … All this he did with the greatest exactness, naming the author, the book, the words, and often the very number of the page in which the passage referred to was inserted.”

Surrounded by books, he lived to be 81, and in his will he left his library to the public.

I have to wonder, if Magliabechi would have dealt well with a computer. Certainly, Google would have had more information to hand than would Magliabechi’s entire library, vast though it was.

There’s this, too; Wisdom suggests that real genius is not knowing it all, but knowing where to look it up. If that’s true, then I submit to you all that the number of geniuses in our world has gone up on an order of scale in the last 20 years.

As an example of the way things are going; I have an entire wall of my home office covered with various computer publications. A glance through their titles suggests that there is no realm more affected by time, then the realm of technology.  Books I spent literally hundreds for, just a few short years ago, “Lantastic 5.0”, a complete collection of Novell networking and training books, for versions 3 through 5. MCSA books for Win2000, The inner workings of DOS 6, and so on. A collection of books written by James Martin for the Bell labs is particularly amusing in that way: Systems Analysis for data transmission, Telecommunications and the computer, and transmission systems for communications.  While very technical, and while very good at passing along basic theory, Martin’s books were a primer on getting data and digital connectivity in an analogue world.

All these books, on the open market are nigh on worthless, today.  I keep them as a reminder of how quickly investments sour. They stand as mute proof that things in the technological world have been changing so quickly as to make the printed word not only worthless, but six months away from publication, counter-productive for being woefully outdated.

Don’t misunderstand; I don’t see books as a bad thing. But if the single most efficient way of obtaining information and spreading it around, is what you’re after, the printed word ain’t it anymore, sorry.

At the outset, I had to wonder in James’ comment section if this thing wasn’t Atlantic trying to wrap a plausible excuse for their own dwindling print sales… an excuse that they themselves could accept. In short, print media’s dying because we’re all a bunch of idiots. Such arguments have certainly graced the pages of other publications, previously. The New York Times, for example, used it recently in an attempt to explain it’s ever tighter drain circling of late. What then, is the cause of the obvious angst… nay, anger, really… in the Atlantic article?  Well, for one thing, it’s that publishers like The Atlantic aren’t nearly at the top of the informational food chain… and they’re not making dime one off of it. The future is not with the printed medium… the one that’s made them all that money for all those years.  They see the web as a paradigm shift…(Use of the phrase is a nod to the paper worshipers) … away from them, and they’re not happy.

Understandable. It’s costing them money. Rather like my book collection did.