Yes, reading is out of fashion. But don’t blame the internet

Nicholas Carr’s book gives a witty, stirring history of the rise of book-led thinking - but he’s too technologically deterministic in the way he explains its current demise.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books

Nicholas Carr is a 51-year-old technology and business writer. For more than 20 years now, beginning with the purchase of a Mac Plus in 1986, computers have been an essential part of his life. And far from an unhappy part, he admits in his latest book The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember.

Indeed, from that early, single megabyte of Apple-coated RAM, through Zip drives, CD burners and of course the World Wide Web in the 1990s, to the second, socially adept coming of Web 2.0 during the Noughties, Carr was a fully plugged-in technophile. It was all just so ‘new and liberating’, he writes. But then, ‘sometime in 2007, a serpent of doubt slithered into my info-paradise’. It was as if his immersion in the digital age had somehow recalibrated his brain. Things that he used to be able to do with ease, and even pleasure, were becoming increasingly difficult. He couldn’t concentrate; his mind would wander.

The twists and turns of a well-written argument, which might have once compelled his attention, now merely frustrated him. He could certainly scroll and skim and scan, but he couldn’t read. Not properly, not deeply – not like he used to. His eager embrace of the digital age had turned into a lament for that which he had left behind. ‘I missed my old brain’, he notes, sadly.

Carr, though, is convinced that there is something socially significant about his own computer-addled plight. And he’s got the anecdotes to prove it. For instance, he cites the case of Joe O’Shea, former student president of Florida State University, 2008 Rhodes scholar and philosophy major. ‘I don’t read books’, O’Shea admits rather proudly. ‘I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly. [Reading a book] is not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the web.’ Elsewhere, a professor at Duke University adds substance to this impression of book-free scholarship, claiming that she can’t get students to read whole books anymore. Which is quite disconcerting given that she teaches literature.

But what Carr discerns in his own and others’ experience is not simply a society-wide adjustment to a technological development. For Carr, it indicates something far more profound. That is, as the digital medium supplants print, a shift is taking place not just between two technologies, but between two ways of thinking. Such ‘intellectual technologies’ don’t just help the mind, they change it, much as a physical technology like the hammer makes the hand an extension of the act of hammering. In the spirit of Marshall McLuhan – the man widely seen to be the ‘father of the electronic age’ and whose influence is apparent upon Carr throughout the book – the medium here is also the message. Carr writes: ‘What both [the internet] enthusiast and sceptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.’

And there, in that besotted nod towards McLuhan, lies the problem with Carr’s survey of today’s digitised cultural terrain. The Shallows is riven with technological determinism. We, the conscious, decision-making, end-setting beings that we are, have apparently been turned into mere means for technological ends. This is a vision of the world in keeping with that of The Terminator franchise. The medium is not just the message – it is our master.

Carr’s fascinating discussion of the emergence and importance of book technology shows his techno-determinism in full flow. Literary technology may have been around for millennia, with the Egyptians using papyrus scrolls as early as 2500 BCE, but up until relatively recently, speaking and listening continued to be the dominant form of absorbing and transmitting knowledge. The oral, not the literary, prevailed. Hence, as with actual speech, the form of writing – scriptura continua – dominant until the second millennia CE did not contain breaks between words.

With the number of literate people growing during the Middle Ages, scriptura continua became largely obsolete. And by the fourteenth century, punctuation, paragraphs and chapters had all started to appear. As Carr puts it, ‘Writing, for the first time, was aimed as much at the eye as the ear’. This was a key shift away from more immediately collective forms of transmitting knowledge – the private, autonomous individual, capable of book-aided introspection, was coming to the fore. Written material that could be read by individuals in silence allowed for a different habit of mind. One could concentrate, one could reflect, one could ruminate. And as the book became the primary means of exchanging knowledge and insight the intellectual ethic of the book – ‘deep, attentive reading’ – became the ‘foundation of our culture’.

All of this, however, despite Carr’s caveats, does rather underestimate the role played by the economic and political emancipation of the individual from his feudal shackles. To argue that it was the book that won the individual his reflective, reasoning autonomy is still technological philistinism, no matter how high-minded the technology.

With the current shift to a digital medium, the centuries-long culture of deep, attentive reading, as Carr describes it, is giving way to a culture of multitasked, hyperfast, hyperlinked distractedness. We no longer immerse ourselves in a book at our own pace; instead we are deluged with information at the speed with which it is produced: ‘In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler.’

Despite Carr’s tendency to over-egg his state-of-culture vision, there is an element of truth here. Shallow information-gathering does often stand in for acts of reading proper. Interpretation has been partially usurped by the scan and the click. The internet is clearly not as conducive to the same levels of concentration and attentiveness as being sequestered away in a library somewhere with a copy of A Treatise on Human Nature. And being permanently connected, whether to check Facebook, to shuffle your tweet deck or to take a gander at the news, is often to the detriment of intellectual focus.

But Carr wants to go further, and he does so at the expense of his local insights. He wants to show that the internet is changing our brains, making it impossible to read and think as did our print-bound forebears. So he seeks recourse in neuroscience and the relatively recent idea that the make-up of the brain, with its cellular complex of pulsing neural pathways, is not fixed but mutable. Doing something in a certain way or having something happen to us, regardless of our age, can change the functioning of our brain. And this, he argues, is precisely what our collective use of the internet is doing. ‘Although neuroplasiticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will’, admits Carr, ‘it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behaviour. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a mental or physical activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.’ That is why, he argues, people can’t read books in the way that they used to: our brains, reared on fast-read hypertext and instant messaging, are simply not set up to deal with the old-fashioned act of concentrated reading.

Despite the obvious paradox of Carr’s neuroplasticity argument – that we can willfully change the brain which is apparently determining us – the main problem here is that Carr has gone further than simply describing a technological change, of grasping it as an aspect of a dynamic social whole. Instead he has fetishised it. The computer here is the subject and its human users are its soft-brained objects. This is a shame because there is truth to Carr’s cultural surmise. Literature does indeed seem trivialised today. Reading is indeed now a far more superficial act, a matter more of acquiring skills or information, than learning truths. And there is now little or no expectation that a great work of philosophy or poetry or history will enrich people in the manner that, say, Victorian cultural critic Matthew Arnold believed it could.

But the force driving this trivialisation was not technological. As Carr himself writes, when IT advocates were pushing the use of hyper-texts in US schools during the late 1980s, they were doing so before it was even established as a proper medium. Their reasoning – that it would liberate the students from the authority of printed matter – had its precedents in the academic assault on authorial intention in the postwar works of literary critics like WK Wimsatt and Roland Barthes. What no one seemed to realise at that point was that liberating the reader from the straitjacket of authorial intention, indeed from any kind of respect for an external authority, led to a flattening of works of literature. There ceased to be difficult truths to be wrested from a philosopher; there stopped being knotted interpretations to be won from literature. Instead, the works became just so much textual material for any number of readings, be they Marxian, post-colonial or classroom.

In Carr’s view, however, we are at technology’s mercy, as simple-minded recipients of its message. Such a dumbed-down view of human beings leads Carr’s often riveting book to miserably misleading conclusions.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Books


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