Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Google is not making us stupid; Google is kicking greengrocers up the arse.

There is a rather long but very interesting article in The Atlantic entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid?

My short answer to the headline's rhetorical question: no, Google is not making us stupid.

What does the article say?

(Because, Christ alive, you can't be arsed to read all that ...)

Nicholas Carr argues – correctly, I'd say – that the internet discourages depth and perseverence – a 'researcher' style – in favour of breadth and cherry-picking – a 'skimmer' style.

And, yes, that feels right. I certainly find I have little patience with convoluted arguments and lengthy descriptions, these days.

(Except when I'm writing them. Goddamn.)

We, as internet users, are undergoing fundamental changes in the way in which our minds work. Just as, a generation or two previously, people underwent similar changes thanks to the popularisation of TV.

So we skim. We are distracted. We dot from place to place. We seldom pause, ponder, assess. We do not cogitate, deliberate and come to our conclusions in the measured, scholarly way in which traditional academic standards might stipulate.

Carr thinks that's something to be worried about.

But I disagree. In fact, I believe that the only perspective from which this change is bad is the perspective of a sentimentalist.

Here's why.

Difficult does not equal more beneficial

Just because something's hard – ploughing through dense prose, getting to the bottom of a complex argument – it isn't necessarily good for us. The Atkins diet is hard, no doubt.

Hopping blindfold across a motorway is hard.

Remember back at school, where you had to do all that work on comprehension and analysis of written sources at all that dry crap? Why did you do it so much? Because it's a "valuable skill". Why is it a valuable skill to be able to fathom complex, verbose documents? Because people write them that way.

Is there any other reason that we benefit from being able to do this? Is there something intrinsically useful in the ability to plough through difficult, extended passages of prose? No –it's like being able to ride a unicycle: only a valuable skill if they just banned bikes.

Why book authors are like greengrocers

What the internet has done for writing is what supermarkets did for shopping. Raised the bar big-style. Everyone goes on nostalgically about 'the days of the local greengrocer'. Do you remember your local greengrocer, before Sainsbury's moved in? I remember mine.

It was shit.

Now I'm no great supermarket fan, I might add. But I reckon the arrival of these leviathans has singlehandedly brought about a massive improvement in the general quality of food on sale in this country. Especially in the aforementioned local shops – which have had to ensure that they compete. I now love my small local shops. But make no mistake: they are not what we would have in this false-utopian supermarket-free world that people yearn for.

Do you dive for a pearl – or pick one up ready-giftwrapped?

Likewise for the internet. Back when the only way to communicate en masse was via print, you could assume that, if someone bought or borrowed your book, he/she would make the effort to digest it. Just as, if you were the only greengrocer in town, you could assume that the locals would make the effort to dig through your wrinkled old apples.

Then along came the web, and – bam! – nobody had any reason to be grateful for your pearls of wisdom, firmly clammed as they were in that formidable oystershell. Because all of a sudden, someone was giving away just the pearls – shining clean and shell-free.

That's democratisation, man. Hell yeh.

A shout-out for capitalism. Yes, really.

Okay, so perhaps this is not the best time to be extolling the virtues of a capitalist ethos. But, seriously: competition is a good thing, in the end. It raises standards. People now demand that things are written in an easily-digestible, simple, accessible form. Bad thing? No. It merely means that, if you're a writer, you have to try way harder.

Or else you end up as the abandoned greengrocer, with your apostrophe-laden price-signs written on corrugated cardboard and your wrinkly apples.


Rebecca said...

oooh...you almost lot me there to nostalgia with the inclusion of that last paragraph. I'm on the (corrugated cardboard) fence...

Anonymous said...

For a while I was worried about my decreasing attention span (I just found myself staring off into space while I tried to remember the phrase "attention span"), but you have thoroughly alleviated my fears, thanking you kindly sir.

And I HATE misused apostrophe's. (See the joke?)

Related posts