When Nicholas Carr tries to walk a straight line in the web, he’s a different kind of stranger in a strange land. Google’s goal is not to make us smart, but rich, a goal it has surpassed. What passes for smart in the land of Carr is linear and vertical, long and deep, but what is it? Here’s a clue: deep dives like War and Peace can’t be comfortably experienced on the web, where readers value clarity, conciseness, and the ability to jump around with the speed of a photon.
Carr complains about blogging and bloggers, but his real lament may be for the adulteration of the professional writer’s medium, for the paid writer is accustomed to being compensated a spot in the box, but now has to sit in the general admission seats behind the center field fence with the blue-collar fans.
McLuhan said each new medium fills with the content of the old (e.g. vaudeville > radio > TV), before it develops its own content, and that every technology is an extension of the senses. He thought electronic media an extension of our central nervous system; no wonder we feel wired and jittery sitting at the computer surfing the web. And we prefer our posts short, with a picture or two; for what’s a book without pictures and conversations? Go ask Alice.
Blogs are not usually filled with essays. When they are they surely get skimmed by surfer-readers, one of Carr’s complaints; but isn’t that the way we read newspapers (mosaics) and most periodicals (mosaic-hybrid-newspapers)?
Carr claims that internet reading distracts us from linear and deep thinking, thus making us dumb. Linearity and “deep-reading,” the ability to read in a straight line for a long time, holding one’s intellectual breath long enough to absorb the view deep down, are capabilities Carr values, but he can’t prove that without them we grow stupid. Moreover, he’s filling the new medium with old content, which can only last temporarily, according to McLuhan.
McLuhan, paraphrasing David Hume, said in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, “…there is no principle of causality in a mere sequence. That one thing follows another accounts for nothing. Nothing follows from following, except change. So the greatest of all reversals occurred with electricity, that ended sequence by making things instant” (p. 27). In choosing War and Peace to reason his claim, Carr signifies his value, for why didn’t he choose Finnegans Wake? “In other words, cubism, by giving the inside and outside, the top, bottom, back, and front and the rest, in two dimensions, drops the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole. Cubism, by seizing on instant total awareness, suddenly announced that the medium is the message. Is it not evident that the moment that sequence yields to the simultaneous, one is in the world of the structure and of configuration? Is that not what has happened in physics as in painting, poetry, and in communication? Specialized segments of attention have shifted to total field, and we can now say, ‘The medium is the message’ quite naturally” (p. 28).
It’s not clear that Carr wants people to think as much as he wants them to think like him, not what he thinks, necessarily, but the way he thinks. The issue in controversy asks if the internet is changing the way we think (of course it is), and then asks a question related to the quality of thinking, but a different way of thinking is not automatically a worse way of thinking. The brain adapting yet again is not proven a bad change. Carr’s argument, that internet reading is making us stupid, suggests we were smart, but there’s unfortunately inadequate evidence to support that claim also. In any event, by the time we can determine if the change was for the better or worse, it’s likely that the written word as we now enjoy it will be a relic or fossil of some earlier culture. We are all strangers to the future.