Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic essay Is Google Making Us Stupid? is receiving a lot of attention, and most of the comments I have seen online are, unsurprisingly, negative. They tend to fall into two general camps: the first one claims that our online lives are making us smarter, not dumber, while the second one concedes that there may be problems but insists that we’ll innovate our way out of them. There’s a representative discussion, with unfortunately brief responses from some smart people, at Edge and there are more detailed responses at the Britannica Blog.
I don’t think I can summarize my thoughts on these matters here; they are very much mixed, and I’m still trying to sort them out (and may well be doing so for the rest of my life). But I do have some questions that I wish I could make all Carr’s respondents answer. They derive from what I think is the key paragraph in Carr’s essay, the one that explains why he wrote the essay in the first place:
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.
So my question for Carr’s respondents is this: Have you had a similar experience? If so, does the change in your concentration abilities bother you? To what do you attribute it? And if you haven’t had Carr’s experience, why do you think you have escaped?
I think it’s interesting that not one of the respondents to Carr that I’ve seen admits to having had such an experience (Danny Hillis comes closest), or even addresses the question — except for Larry Sanger, who says, charitably, that Carr’s problem is “ultimately a problem of will, a failure to choose to think. If that is a problem of yours, you have no one to blame for it but yourself.” I think we are supposed to infer from this that Sanger is impervious to such diminishments, but he doesn’t really say that, does he? I’d like to put the question directly to him, and to all the others.
(P.S. This will be my last post for a couple of weeks, as I am off to visit my family in Alabama and will not be bringing my laptop. This is not as ascetic a move as it may sound, since I will have my iPhone, but I won’t be posting and will be striving to recapture my diminishing powers of long-term concentration.)