11 September 2010
Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, by John Palfrey & Urs Gasser (Basic Books)
Do you find it hard to concentrate these days? Do you get fidgety after two pages of a book, and look around for something else to do? Is the online abbreviation “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read) your response to basically everything? If so, Nicholas Carr feels your pain, and has diagnosed the cause: using the internet has rewired your brain and turned you into a flibbertigibbet.
The narrative of The Shallows begins with Carr’s own feelings (lately, “my concentration starts to drift”) and gets only slightly more profound. His argument goes like this: the brain is plastic, and any regular activity changes it. So using the internet changes the brain; and it changes it in such a way that the “linear, literary mind” is under assault. Because “skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading”, we are losing our capacity to read books; we may even, or so goes the apocalyptic peroration, lose our “humanness”.
Carr cites a bit of psychology and neuroscience, but he doesn’t seem to notice that the study he unveils most triumphantly actually refutes half of his own argument. An experiment showed web novices’ brains changing in respone to internet use, but it also showed “no significant difference in brain activity” between the novices and a web-savvy control group when both were engaged in “a simulation of book reading”. In other words, people who used the internet regularly had not lost the ability to read books after all. In Born Digital, by contrast, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser have actually bothered to find out what young people do online, rather than just assuming them to be glazed, distracted skimmers. Here is a far more nuanced story of a teenage girl’s “newsgathering process”, which alternates between “grazing” and a “deep dive”, when she wants to know more about a particular topic and will indeed read in-depth.
For Carr, though, we are just pitiable slaves to the machine. He insists that hyperlinks “propel” us to other texts, though I find it quite easy not to click on them if I don’t want to. When Carr goes online he complains of constant interruption by email, Twitter, and Facebook updates, though I seem to have the option to leave clients unopened or turn off notifications. Recently, I have even managed to purge 95 per cent of my RSS subscriptions while still getting useful things done with the internet. This kind of thing is what I would consider basic intellectual ecology in the online age. Yet such self-discipline (the adoption of “filtering strategies”, as Palfrey and Gasser put it) doesn’t seem to have occurred to Carr: in front of a computer screen, we are for him impotent and without volition, so the only options are to drown in cyberbabble or to “disconnect” completely. By far the best part of his book is a critique of digital-age metaphors: the assumption that computer “memory” can replace human memory, and the idea of the brain itself as a computer. Yet Carr’s portrait of the average internet user as a skimming machine that will respond obediently to any shiny new input is dehumanizing in just the same way.
Ironically, since Carr worries that the internet will stop us reading entire books, there is no need to read his entire book to understand his argument. He first put forward this thesis in a 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google making us stupid?”, which is still available online. The expansion into book form has involved a lot of superfluous padding — potted histories of printing and other technologies, and sepia-tinted autobiographical fragments — that serves only to fill space when not making actually ridiculous claims. “Whether a person is immersed in a bodice ripper or a Psalter, the synaptic effects are largely the same.” Despite the faux-precision of “synaptic”, Carr has adduced no scientific evidence for this proposition; nor could any be imagined, because it is obviously false.
Like the majority of contemporary books, then, The Shallows does not justify its length: its natural form was always that of a pithy provocation, so as an argument for the superiority of book-length prose it is rather self-defeating. Sometimes, however, it does seem as though the author’s memory really has been degraded by his internet abuse. “It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net,” Carr admits on page 116, thus momentarily torpedoing the determinism on which his jeremiad is predicated, before he gets back on message a mere three pages later, accusing the Net of “preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively”. Well, both cannot be true. Either you can think deeply when using the internet, or the internet prevents you from doing so. It is easy to see which version is correct; and which version, conversely, makes for a more polemically enticing sales pitch. All too rarely do defenders of books (and, for that matter, newspapers) ask themselves the uncomfortable question: might it be that people are reading fewer of the products not because people are becoming more stupid but because many of the products are not actually very good?
It is refreshing, then, to turn to Born Digital, a serious and engaging study of how “Digital Natives” (people who grew up with the internet) actually behave online, which aims to address the “culture of fear […] around the online environment”. Its authors are robustly dismissive, for example, of tabloid scares about “cyberbullying” and “cyberstalking”, or of the notion that Wikipedia represents a new low in literary civilization because it contains errors (“Information quality issues are neither Internet-specific nor new to the digital age”). On the other hand, we should all worry far more about the way personally identifying data is collected and used. Digital Natives, Palfrey and Gasser argue, do “learn how to evaluate information quality”, but they are “too sanguine” about what personal information they post online; and “there is very little they can do while multitasking that they could not perform more effectively without multitasking”. Even so: “There is no evidence to suggest that Digital Natives are learning less than their grandparents did, or that they are more superficial in their learning.”
Born Digital, indeed, makes for an optimistic, humanist rebuttal to Carr’s hysterical gloominess. While discussing the challenges of “information overload”, for example, Palfrey and Gasser also contextualize that fear historically: information overload was originally, they write, considered to be “the disease of cities”, as people were bombarded with so many competing stimuli in the urban environment. The difference between the two books boils down to this: Nicholas Carr wants to flee screaming to the country, whereas Palfrey and Gasser think we could try to make the city a nicer place to live.