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Good Letters

20080826-maybe-google-isnt-making-us-stupid-by-caroline-langstonWhen I was an eighth grader at a private academy in Mississippi (established 1969) and in the process of applying to a worldly, very progressive boarding school up North, I wrote my application essay on “the positive benefits of watching television for children.” As best as I can remember, my argument centered on television’s capacity to introduce new ideas and new worlds to children who might not otherwise access them, and spoke against the Neil Postman idea of television’s inherent dangers. Though the essay was, I’m certain, pretty facile, it’s true that I did learn to read from Sesame Street, and the Los Angeles detective show “The Rockford Files” did teach me a thing or two about Southern California geography.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that application essay lately as I’ve followed the hype surrounding Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—the cover article in the July/August 2008 edition of The Atlantic. The following paragraph from early in the essay deftly sets the ominous tone:

“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…. 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 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…the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

Hearkening back to the Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” formulation—famously and funnily defended by McLuhan himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall—Carr argues that the way that text is structured on the Net is actually changing the way that we think: “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.” The negative effect of all this “information-surfing,” he claims, is that “our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

Money quote: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”

It’s not that I disagree with Carr’s argument, exactly. By design, my four-year-old son attends a Montessori school where students don’t even begin using computers until they are almost in middle school. I worry about the split attention created (aside from the essential rudeness) when people try to shop and drive while talking on cell phones. (I lost my cell phone recently, and not having one frankly feels like a get-out-of-jail-free card.)

Carr’s point is particularly germane to me because for the past two years, my good friend Joey and I have had a pact that we were going to read Proust—at least the first volume of the novel, Swann’s Way, and at least the new Lydia Davis translation, which, relatively speaking, is so easy to read that it could be an Arthur Hailey airport novel. (Actually, Joey, a magazine editor in Houston who’s been a friend since graduate school, is hell-bent on reading the original Scott Moncrieff translation from the 1920s.)

As you can imagine, the endeavor has mostly devolved into a chain of e-mail messages about Why We’re Not Reading Proust. The dialogue has taken on a bit of urgency as we have dared each other to complete the volume before our fortieth birthdays—which take place in about a month or so for each of us. And I have to admit that when I sit back in bed—after dinner, and bath time, and the husband-wife daily hand-off—I, too, can find it difficult to navigate those long sentences that undulate in and out like waves.

But that is exactly where, for me, Carr’s argument starts to fall apart. When I think about it, my ability to “read deeply and without distraction” is not impaired at all when it comes to 9,000 word articles in Harper’s or The Atlantic on, say, trends in urban crime, thick with policy analysis and statistics, or for that matter, “Is Google Making us Stupid?” It’s just when I try to read Proust, or heaven forbid, JR by William Gaddis—a novel that I greatly anticipated reading, but which quickly became a coaster for the glass of water on my bedside table.

A more important question, I think, is why our brains now seem to better tolerate nonfiction.

Regarding Proust in particular, Carr’s argument is, for me, especially ironic: The way that I have found to actually read those long complex sentences is, in fact, to skim them—to ride along on the surface from one detailed, beautiful image of village life to another, without trying to unpack them too literally or rationally.

In sum, I share Carr’s concerns about the slapdash urgency of “bit-rate” language and some of what it might be doing to us. I tend, though, to be irked by slippery-slope, end-times arguments of all-kinds, including this one. (More about that next time.) The treasure of Proust will be waiting for me tonight—remember, I’ve only got six weeks, and I love deadlines.

But only after I watch the coverage of the Democratic convention.

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Written by: Caroline Langston


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