Am I stupid for being busy?

My friend Mike Ho is more of a skeptic than I am when it comes to the effect of the Web on our culture and our minds. Because I’m busy this month—aren’t we all?—I’m hoping to marshal some readers to contribute to the discussion I joined on Mike’s blog Concrete. Mike points to a new book by Nicholas Carr, who argues that we’re becoming intellectually shallow, that we’re incapable of serious study and critical thought when confronted with the Web’s myriad distractions. I disagree. I’d prefer to see things the way Daniel Pink, Steven Pinker, and Clay Shirky do: the Internet facilitates productivity, collaboration, and creativity, as well as learning, the benefits of which we’re only beginning to realize.

There are valid arguments on both sides. What do you think?

Join the discussion at Concrete, where Mike will make you jump through a hoop or two to register on his site, or post your comment below. Mike can always link back to Treated & Released.

11 Replies to “Am I stupid for being busy?”

  1. (First of all, I’m sorry Mike–I lost my Concrete sign-ons with the crashing of the PC…so if you could send again…)

    I feel like I have significantly lost a lot of focus with the growth of the Intranet in our culture, and I can see it most when I’m reading. In college, where I barely used the internet, I got through four books a week–and that was working full time, going to classes, and doing other homework. These days I can’t remember the last names of co-workers, let alone what I read in a book, unless I re-read things. I also confuse the names of people I know with people in books, real or imagined.

    In other words–I used to feel comfortable in my knowledge, and now I second-guess everything I think I know, and with good reason. Does this keep me off the internet?

    Unfortunately, no. I’m addicted.

  2. Your points are all good. Perhaps I’m being a little too introspective here in reflexively thinking that the internet has made me stupid and, falsely, extrapolating that to society.

    But as I think about my internet life, I have to allow that in many ways it hasn’t made me more stupid. It’s my main way for finding about new books and music; sufficient reviews of books and music always were difficult to find in the print world, truth be told, because there’s far more being produced than can be reviewed profitably. It also allows me to sample much more information, from far more corners of the world, than was possible just a few years ago. For that matter, you and I — who regrettably haven’t had a chance to meet — can still converse on meaningful topics from afar.

    Pinker’s insightful commentary arrived on my doorstep before your link appeared in my inbox, but for many, the inbox is the doorstep now. I did notice one interesting comment, though, about multitasking, and the fact that our brains aren’t really wired for it.

    I think that much of my sense of cognitive insufficiency is that I feel the internet is demanding that I be able to multitask, for example by keeping context in multiple articles as I jump through hyperlinks. Rather than cursing the link creator, I can change my own reading habits to adjust how I use the links (for example, by making a point of reading an article all the way through, then revisiting the links).

    The idea of putting the links off to the side is good, but one that technology hasn’t yet caught up with… by that, I mean that most out-of-the-box blogging templates can’t handle it easily. Or can they? My blogging software is ancient, and modern platforms might handle it after all.

    Well, that’s a long-winded comment that’s probably twice as long as the original post. But it’s probably also better thought out. :)

  3. Prior to the ’90s, we weren’t confronted every day with such extensive evidence of how much we don’t know and never will. Today, at least at the moment, we no longer expect curators such as newspaper editors, TV and radio news producers, or—at our ages—professors to filter and interpret for us what’s going on in the world. Today, it’s mostly up to each of us as individuals to evaluate the array of information sources to which we have access, so we can subscribe to those we trust, for as long as they remain trustworthy and reliable.

    But beyond just consuming information, we’re also disseminating news, debating the application of new research results, discussing politics, and sometimes even posting our own reviews of products, services, and entertainment.

    Is it surprising that we’re overwhelmed with information when we’re doing so much more than just skimming a newspaper at breakfast? Are we stupid for being overloaded? I don’t think so. We’re demanding more of ourselves, pushing the limits of Dunbar’s number, and trying to overcome the impediments of new technology that, if not in its infancy, still hasn’t quite reached maturity. Do we need to berate ourselves because that happens to be difficult?

    Satisfaction is easy to come by when we don’t ask much of ourselves. The frustration that goes with learning should be a sign to both of you that you’re refusing to take the path of least resistance, rejecting apathy, staying on top of your game. In other words, feeling stupid—or simply forgetful, uncertain, or outmoded—could be a legitimate indicator that you’re not.

    I relish living in the Linktopian era. I just wish I were having drinks with the two of you on the Left Coast.

  4. As a secondary school English teacher, I’ve participated in similar discussions this year. Some of my older colleagues argue that online reading is the equivalent of an “assault” on literature study, and the Internet has turned traditional materials into the Stone Age of our time. Though I personally disagree, I appreciate their sentiments. These are respected teachers with 30+ years in the field. They can remember educating the young long before the Internet came along. But I think any student disinterest in literature may have less to do with the Internet and more to do with the inevitable cultural changes that move new generations into the future and away from the past. I say this because my own Internet-savvy students inspire me.

    Do my students have short attention spans due to Internet use? What I know is that they read and retain the assigned material, they can discuss rhetorical devices and question the authors’ intents, they learn how to think critically, and they can articulate their views verbally and in writing. I think they are sharp and worldly – more so than I was at their age. Maybe the Internet poses some challenge to staying focused. I deeply respect those who say this has been their experience. But I don’t see the Internet turning my students into scatterbrains. And that’s encouraging.

    The Sven Birkerts article we read as a department can be found here:

    I saved it for last, but could not get the hyperlink to work in this comment field. But I tried. :-)

  5. In the end, with changing times, even revolutionary ones, isn’t it more functional just to look for what the new methods/styles/structures can do for us? The old styles of education, journalism, literature, etc. arent coming back no matter what we may wish….

  6. Perfect! We needed the perspectives of two devoted educators. Thanks, JMO and Dan, for your input.

    Maybe what we’re experiencing at the moment is a bit of embarrassment regarding the generation gap between ‘net natives, whose brains are adapted to hypermedia and the Web, and those of us whose beaten neural paths for deciphering written language were established by reading printed books—you know, like Nancy Drew Mysteries and Misty of Chincoteague.

    But seriously, how can Birkerts argue that we’re being blinkered by precisely the kind of abstract thought required to locate digital files stored on a hard drive without being able to see the virtual file drawers?

    We constantly imagine pictures, or create muscle memory, or devise narratives to help us recall how to perform tasks, analyze problems, and relate to other people. We tend to learn these methods from each other, rather than invent new ones, and consequently both good and inefficient strategies are passed along. All that matters is that they’re relatively effective strategies.

    If not for the marvel of digital files, I’d never be able to recall that it was Michal Govrin, at a 2000 conference on the subjects of autobiography, biography, and memoir, who said that the story writes us all. “Whenever we write, we shape things,” she said, and the biography—the story—is a metaphor for the process of acculturation. There is, she reminded us, often a preconceived plot. People try to tell their stories in a certain way, to conform to a belief structure. Most illuminating, I felt, was Govrin’s conclusion: “It is very difficult to leave a story.”

    One of my clients shared with me some research demonstrating that far more activity occurred in the brain of a person who was composing a story than in the brain of a person who was reading a story. If that’s true, then by Birkerts’ standards, which action should be considered more beneficial, receiving culture or helping to create it?

  7. Nick Carr has posted an enormous manifesto railing against the Pinker column here:

    Especially after our discussions here, I find Carr’s response to be unsatisfying. It reads as a nearly paragraph-by-paragraph rebuttal of Pinker’s piece, a style of writing that has always made me suspicious. I can’t explain exactly why. It may be that it seems intellectually lazy to me — instead of forming a new thesis and defending it, one tries to rebut someone else’s thesis by picking it apart. In Carr’s case, he must assume that anyone reading his rebuttal would instinctively know his thesis. It’s probably true, but I was nonetheless underwhelmed and found myself skipping around his response — I didn’t read it linearly because I kept skimming for the “there” there.

    This, I think, underscores Robin’s point (over on Concrete) that compelling writing is the key here. If one writes well, one’s readers will go along for the ride.

    One thing I notice now is that I finish far fewer books than I start. I’ve been blaming myself for this and blaming the internet for shortening my attention span. What hasn’t occurred to me is that maybe I’m just becoming more critical of writing in general, and less willing to invest a lot of time in writing that’s just OK.

  8. I need to thank Mike Ho for starting this discussion, which I initially planned only to read. It feels like 2007 again, which, in a social sense makes me happy. In an intellectual sense, however, I’m with Mike. My reaction to Nicholas Carr’s thesis was boredom. I didn’t give it my full attention. I’d heard it too many times.

    Nevertheless, I’m reading Carr’s criticism of Steven Pinker’s op-ed. It seems Carr is traveling at such a reckless speed on his neural autobahn that he fails to notice the contradictions posed by his own expert sources. Carr invokes the “growing body of research on the adult brain’s remarkable ability to adapt, even at the cellular level, to changing circumstances and new experiences,” which he then reinforces with David Buller’s assertion that our brains can adapt to our environments in a matter of days if necessary.

    I seem to recall being told decades ago that the actual matter of days in which a habit can be changed is about thirty, absent any injury or other traumatic influence. A bad experience can result in an aversion reaction much more quickly. Obviously, there is no hard-and-fast rule.

    In response to Pinker, Carr goes on to quote Nora Volkow, who says digital “technology is rewiring our brains,” and Clifford Nass, who claims that media multitaskers (but how are they being defined?) can’t shut off their tendency to multitask.

    So, which is it?

    It’s both, of course. We’re not going to lose our multitasking skills just because they’re inconvenient during more relaxed moments when we don’t need them. But if you remove us from a multitasking environment for long enough, we’ll slow down and adapt to the new tasks at hand.

    I don’t sit at my computer when I’m reading a book, nor, I suspect, do most people. Ironically, if I hadn’t been reading Mike’s blog on a computer, Carr’s latest book would have escaped my notice completely.

    Carr knows full well that his blog is one of the best means of publicizing his books. He also certainly realizes that his efforts to resuscitate a dead horse will appeal to a sufficiently large contingent of neo-Luddites eager to be reassured of their intellectual and cultural superiority while their economic status becomes increasingly perilous. Because Carr is an adept user of multiple media, he knows just which formats will maximize exposure to his pandering.

    Carr claims to be worried about the average (presumably North) American, whom he envisions spending all day at a computer and only twenty minutes reading words printed on paper. At what time in history was the average U.S. resident reading a lot more of the printed word than that? Could it have been when TV Guide was still in wide circulation? This is where I think Carr misses the bigger picture. Why does he believe it’s less valuable to engage in debate and discussion online, or through email or text messages, actively exercising our cognitive abilities, than it is to read his blog or his book and passively reflect on his arguments at length?

    Maybe, as some scholars theorize, we’re currently resuming a temporarily interrupted period of dialectical reasoning.

    Frankly, I consider myself handicapped because I prefer to engage in debates in writing, which can allow me time to reflect and do a little research before sticking my neck out. (In this instance, I confess I didn’t do any research.) All around me, young multitaskers are unafraid of learning in full view. They are exercising their intellects in spontaneous public discussions, online and in person, and learning to conduct quick analyses that aren’t necessarily dirty. They are in the fray. They are the ones who will someday find the means to end illiteracy, poverty, and genocide while the rest of us are only contemplating the rhetoric.

  9. Since the Internet is a free marketplace for ideas on a global scale, maybe we are like the early radio hobbyists who were fascinated by a new medium without knowing the full scope of influence at hand. Ultimately, I think human nature will play out for better and for worse on the Internet. But for anyone who challenges the potential for validity and complexity of online communication, this discussion is a great display of in depth interaction through online means. I choose to be hopeful.

  10. Daniel Pritchard is exasperated with this dated argument too. For a Millennial’s point of view, see his post “With All Due Attention.”

    [Updated on June 20, 2010] In “Yes, People Still Read, but Now It’s Social,” Steven Johnson offers an eloquent critique of Carr’s theme. Unfortunately, Johnson’s essay appeared in print, in the New York Times, around the same time it appeared on the Web, which wasn’t until after our online discussion, here and on Concrete, was long over. News reporting, criticism, and conversation now occur in real time. It’s easy to fall behind the curve by waiting for the printed version of a debate to become available. By then, a sizeable segment of readers are bored with it.

    [Updated on July 8, 2011] Has it been more than a year since we had this discussion? I just read and enjoyed Thomas Larson’s review “This Is Your Brain Reading: On Books, On Screens.” Recommended.

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