Is Google Making Us Read Worse?

This post, by Scott Esposito, originally appeared on the Conversational Reading site on 6/20/08.

I tried very hard to take seriously Nicholas Carr’s article in The Atlantic, which has the provocative, and lately rather fashionable, thesis that the Internet is changing the way we read. Google is making us all info-snackers in search of the quick answer; there’s so much content at hand that we can barely stand to get halfway through something before we’re jumping off to the next thing.

I’ll admit, certain aspects of Carr’s argument feel intuitively correct. And I’m seeing an awful lot of books lately about how dumb Americans are becoming.

But when an idea becomes this popular, when it begins to develop that plasticized reek of conventional wisdom, it’s almost begging to be refuted. This is an oblique way of saying that, at this stage in the Google-is-ruining-information debate, someone looking to write an article on how the Internet is killing our attention spans needs something more substantial than the bland assertions Carr brings to the table.

Or to take on this essay from another angle, when someone gets a basic fact like this incorrect, it’s an indication that he’s not being especially rigorous in his theorizing:

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.

One problem: Chinese doesn’t consist of ideograms. No, it consists of characters that stand for morphemes, which are similar to syllables found in languages formed with the Roman alphabet. That this small fact completely subverts Carr’s example is emblematic of the problems confronting the essay a whole. For more on this, just wait till we get to Nietzsche’s typewriter.

I picked up the information about the Chinese language while reading a book (one about the deciphering of ancient Mayan, another character-based language that doesn’t consist of ideograms), and the fact that I read said book all the way to the end makes me a sort of rarity, at least according to Carr’s anecdotal research into his friends’ Internet-ravaged reading habits. I maintain the ability to read lengthy texts despite regular exposure to the Internet, and among Carr’s circle that makes me pretty special:

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. 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.

Okay, a confession: I’m not special. I’m just normal, or maybe a little too smart for my own good. I’m not sure, but what I will state with full confidence is that anyone who uses the Internet regularly retains full capacity to read a book. It’s not very hard. What’s hard is leaping from Carr’s stories about his friends to any meaningful warning about the Internet’s effects on our reading habits.

Read the rest of the post on Conversational Reading.