• One of my favorite Web thinkers is Nick Carr, who loves to tweak digital utopians and most recently suggests in his new book, “The Shallows,” that online reading is affecting our cognitive abilities, and not for the better:
“The Net’s ability to monitor events and send out messages and notifications automatically is, of course, one of its great strengths as a communication technology. We rely on that capability to personalize the workings of the system, to program the vast database to respond to our particular needs, interests, and desires. We want to be interrupted, because each interruption—email, tweet, instant message, RSS headline—brings us a valuable piece of information. To turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch or even socially isolated. The stream of new information also plays to our natural tendency to overemphasize the immediate. We crave the new even when we know it’s trivial.”
This isn’t a new notion, of course, and his critics quickly jumped all over him about his assertion about the “debasement of the link” and his explanation for “delinking” on his own blog. Simon Owens, who like me generally is a fan of Carr’s, ultimately finds his claim lacking:
“Perhaps another irony is that the footnote — the old-school citation on which Carr models his own delinked posts — is perhaps one of the biggest reading distractions of them all. How many times have you paused in your reading to scroll your eyes down to a tiny textual nugget of arcane knowledge before trying to resume the main narrative of a book? The world is full of distractions, the link is just one of many. And some distractions, I would argue, are welcome.”
Precisely. I’ll probably never be a good online long-form reader and don’t see a Kindle or an iPad changing those habits. It’s not the distraction of links that curtails my concentration, but rather the length, density and subject matter of a story or post. If it’s well-written that helps, but if it’s bogged down with arcane language or poorly organized, I may not read it at all, even offline.
Links really have nothing to do with it. But I think Carr’s experiment of putting links at the bottom of his post is worth following. I may try it myself sometime. The Economist’s new technology blog, “Babbage,” has done this in writing about the mini-furor Carr has caused.
Clay Shirky makes some strong points in response; the utopians are at their best when describing how disruptive Gutenberg’s presses were to the old world order:
“The case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we’ll fail to integrate digital freedoms into society as well as we integrated literacy. This assumption in turn rests on three beliefs: that the recent past was a glorious and irreplaceable high-water mark of intellectual attainment; that the present is only characterized by the silly stuff and not by the noble experiments; and that this generation of young people will fail to invent cultural norms that do for the Internet’s abundance what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for print culture. There are likewise three reasons to think that the Internet will fuel the intellectual achievements of 21st-century society.”
I do agree with Carr the most in this way: Since I’ve become a Web writer and editor, I’ve found it terribly difficult to sink into deeply imaginative, creative reading. Yet it’s up to me to weed out the distractions and work harder to concentrate. The ease and flow of information makes that very difficult, but the pre-Renaissance world was feeling a similar sense of being overwhelmed.
• Yesterday I was screeching with delight at Terry Gross’ fabulous Fresh Air interview with director John Waters, who even at the age of 64 describes himself as a “healthy neurotic.” That’s probably the ticket to preserving sanity in our time, or any other time. Like any expert artist, he knows how to draw out characters because he excels at getting real people to open up about themselves:
“On airplanes, strangers confide in me the most deepest, darkest secrets. And I think they think I’ll understand. And I generally do understand. I’ve taught in prison; I’ve counseled people. … I’ve been arrested; I’ve been to the psychiatrist. So I think you have to participate in whatever business you’re trying to be involved in.”
My favorite clip from my favorite Waters flick features Pia Zadora as a Beatnik chick: