Is Google making us stupid? Will digitized books and e-readers devalue the written word? Does reading on the web harm human thinking? Do technologies like RSS and Twitter simply provide too much too fast — are we all about to drown in a informational tidal wave? In his widely discussed Atlantic essay on how the web changes our reading habits, Nicholas Carr wrote of the changes he’s noticed to his reading habits in the years since the rise of the web:
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 any more. 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.
Reading on the web is almost certainly affecting the way we process information, but it’s not making us stupid. Instead, it’s changing the way we’re smart. Rather than storehouses of in-depth information, the web is turning our brains into indexes. These days, it’s not what you know — it’s what you know you can access, and cross reference.
In other words, books taught us to think like they do — as tools for storing extensive knowledge. Now the web teaches us to think like it does — as a tool for recall and connection. We won’t be so good at memorizing everything there is to know about a particular small-bore topic, but we’ll be a lot better at knowing what there is to be known about the broader category the topic fits into, and what other information might provide insight and context.
Here’s a personal example: As a kid film buff in the early and pre-digital age (early/mid 90s), I studied movie reference books: guides to cult films, to directors, to particular eras and critics. And I didn’t just study them, I soaked up their information. By my mid teens, I could recite actor, director, and writer filmographies, summon obscure facts about little-known cinematographers, and generally dominate in most cinema-related trivia competitions. That was the mark of an (amateur) expert. These days, it seems like I can barely remember who worked on the movie I saw last week. Why? Because I don’t have to. IMDB.com is available from any iPhone or wi-fi hotspot to instantly fulfill my desire for movie-related trivia.
In addition, I can call up film reviews by dozens of critics, look for references in other movies or literature, search story keywords and recommendation engines to find related films, books, and TV shows. When I’m through, I don’t need to remember all the details of what I found; I just need to remember, say, that there were two essays in two publications that made convincing arguments for particular interpretations. I’ll remember the authors, perhaps, and the names of the publications, as well as the gist of the argument. What about their supporting evidence, the details of their cases? How they came to the conclusions they did? Don’t remember — and don’t need to. I’ll look it up later.
At the end of my favorite novel, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury posits a rebel faction in which a group of people have formed a society around preserving old books, all of which have been banned. Their method? To memorize the books, to store them in their brains in their entirety — to, for all practical purposes, become the books. This is a tremendously appealing thought to those of us who find meaning and purpose in books, to those who seek refuge in stories (which, let’s face it, is what all of us story addicts are really doing with our lives). The idea is that you can give yourself over to a story not temporarily, but forever. These days, that’s an idea that’s fading fast, as it’s no longer terribly efficient to use our brains to store information. Why memorize the content of a single book when you could be using your brain to hold a quick guide to an entire library? Rather than memorize information, we now store it digitally and just remember what we stored — resulting in what David Brooks called “the outsourced brain.” We won’t become books, we’ll become their indexes and reference guides, permanently holding on to rather little deep knowledge, preferring instead to know what’s known, by ourselves and others, and where that knowledge is stored.