More On The Shallows

In today’s New York Times I have an essay responding to Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows. While I disagree with the overarching conclusions of Nick's book, it's a great read and wonderfully written, with many fascinating detours through the history of media and technology.  I encourage everyone to pick it up.

I wanted to post a few additional comments on the Times piece. The crux of my disagreement with Nick is spelled out in this section of the essay:

The problem with Mr. Carr’s model is its unquestioned reverence for the slow contemplation of deep reading. For society to advance as it has since Gutenberg, he argues, we need the quiet, solitary space of the book. Yet many great ideas that have advanced culture over the past centuries have emerged from a more connective space, in the collision of different worldviews and sensibilities, different metaphors and fields of expertise. (Gutenberg himself borrowed his printing press from the screw presses of Rhineland vintners, as Mr. Carr notes.)

It’s no accident that most of the great scientific and technological innovation over the past millennium has taken place in crowded, distracting urban centers. The printed page itself encouraged those manifold connections, by allowing ideas to be stored and shared and circulated more efficiently. One can make the case that the Enlightenment depended more on the exchange of ideas than it did on solitary, deep-focus reading.

Another way of phrasing this point is this: was the intellectual revolution post-Gutenberg driven by the mental experience of long-form reading? Or was it driven by the ability to share information asynchronously, and transmit that information easily around the globe? I think it is a mix of the two, but Nick, taking his cues from McLuhan, places almost all of his emphasis on the cognitive effects of deep focus reading. There’s no real way to prove it, but I think there’s a very strong case to be made that the information storage-and-retrieval advances made possible by the book were more important to the Enlightenment and the modern age than the contemplative mode of the literary mind. And if that’s true, then the Web should be seen as a continuation of the Gutenberg galaxy, not a betrayal of it. (This notion of good ideas as networks is one of the central themes of my
new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, which comes out in the fall.)

The other point to make here is a slightly meta-one: this specific response to Nick’s book didn’t fully crystallize in my head until I’d written most of the essay (and well after I’d read the book.) Most of us will recognize the phenomena: actually sitting down to write out a response to something makes you see it in a new way, often with greater complexity. And that of course is the crucial flipside to the decline of long-form reading in the digital age: the increase in short-form writing. If we are slightly less able to focus because of the distractions of electric text, I suspect it is more than made up for by the fact that we are much more likely to write out our responses to what we do read. (And this it turn connects to Clay Shirky’s argument in Cognitive Surplus, which is a subject for another post, since I am only halfway through it…)

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