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Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Nicolas Carr writes in Atlantic Monthly (link from 3 Quarks) on reading and writing styles and technology. Though it deals with surfing vs. old fashioned reading, it also picks up on such fascinating arcanerie as Nietzsche having to resort to a typewriter when he couldn’t write by hand any more and what effect this had on his writing style attested to by contemporaries.

John Naughton [Observer, 22 June 2008 ], I Google, therefore I am losing the ability to think, takes up the cudgels bringing in mention of Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age and the  notion that having it so readily to hand removes the need to remember it. Then he finishes with:

But people have worried about this since… well… the Greeks. In the Phaedrus, Socrates tells how the Egyptian god Theuth tried to sell his invention – writing – to King Thamus as ‘an accomplishment which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt

for memory and wisdom.’ To which the shrewd old king replied that ‘the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practise it… Those who acquire writing will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful… What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.’

If you are talking about the web you are talking about hypertext, which can be revised by checking out The Electonic Labyrinth. One of the main points is that hypertext existed before the web. This particular website deals with the creative implications of digital hypertext — pointing out that hypertext itself existed before digitally hyperlinked hypertext — which can be read starting from the page, The non-linear tradition in literature.

I have written on the web as hypertext, including what a blog is and isn’t in this respect( e.g. TiddlyWiki ). When checking this post from Moleskine Modality, make sure to go to Eli Springer’s home page, then open up links in it to see how the new information is added to the original home page text. Stage I: open link Eli Springer in the home page then in that page, as an example, the link ‘moral change’ to show how all three sets of text are available on the same page. Note in each new text box, in the top right-hand corner, there is a choice to close the box down. It is possible to open every link in the home page, and every link in (for simplicity) the Eli Springer page.

In the Carr is the argument that something radical is happening to both reading and writing, in the suggestion there might be some sort of cognitive change going on. This, from the background of writing being something we learn as opposed to spoken language which we are essentially born with the ability to use.

Since the brain is an associative organ (but this only works because it had something stored away in memory) it seems more likely that the web, as the ultimate, though not infinite, hypertext, is echoing what the brain is already good at. And that linear texts, though traditional and popular, are the anomoly. It is just that the technology took time to catch up with the the way the brain works. Saying this does not mean that surfing is more efficient than reading books.

There can be no better analogy to this than conversation. There are different styles, but in the main we latch onto keywords and respond to them, much in the same way we are attracted to a particular link in a webpage. When we pick out a keyword from someone else’s speech, we might intervene if we know something about the subject and want to say what we know or think. We often semi-switch off our concentration when someone is saying something we feel we already know a lot about, but switch back on (if we are good listeners) when words and phrases alert us.

A conversation between two people, is often surrounded by other external events such as other people talking who may not be connected with that particular conversation and other things going on which the couple talking are not interested in. It is not unknown for a person to be distracted by something happening even if the conversation is riveting. A child falls off his tricycle; a car backfires; a light-bulb blows; a woman breaks down in tears. This can stop a conversation and lead to the two people talking about the ‘external’ event. What is this if not coming across something startling in a webpage and taking the link to find out what it offers?

Leaving aside surfing as a way to pass time, there is ‘good’ surfing and ‘bad’ surfing just like good conversation. Good surfing is a discipline in which the surfer does not stray too far from the intended object just like good research from books. The worst surfing is a kind of Freudian free-association, in which at the end of the session you have no idea why you started, and may be a bit vague as to why you began. A good surf always stays within bounds or reason because there is a limited goal and because within each brain is a core of what the individual possessing it considers important or significant. So a fact already known or an idea already familiar, will be skipped or rapidly scanned. Isn’t this what we do in books? Book index people check what is in a book by checking its index. This may lead one to decide not to read a particular book because enough keywords do not appear to overcome a threshold of interest or relevance. So what is the difference between all this and leaping over web pages to get to one you think is important?

June 19, 2008 Posted by | books, culture, digitisation, hypertext, Internet, Literature, narrative style, neuroscience, Nietzsche, reading, science, Writing | , , | Leave a comment

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

My core fear is that we, as a culture, as a species, are becoming shallower; that we have turned from depth–from the Judeo-Christian premise of unfathomable mystery–and are adapting ourselves to the ersatz security of a vast lateral connectedness. That we are giving up on wisdom, the struggle for which has for millenia been central to the very idea of culture, and that we are pledging instead to a faith in the web. What is our idea, our ideal, of wisdom these days? Who represents it? Who even invokes it? Our postmodern culture is a vast fabric of competing isms; we are leaderless and subject to the terrors, masked as freedoms, of an absolute relativism. It would be wrong to lay all the blame at the feet of technology, but more wrong to ignore the great transformative impact of new technological systems–to act as if it’s all just business as usual. (p. 111-12)

This is the blurb from the Google Books page:

In The Gutenberg Elegies, nationally renowned critic Sven Birkerts powerfully argues that we are living in a state of intellectual emergency – an emergency caused by our willingness to embrace new technologies at the expense of the printed word. As we rush to get “on line, ” as we make the transition from book to screen, says Birkerts, we are turning against some of the core premises of humanism – indeed, we are putting the idea of individualism itself under threat. The printed page and the circuit driven information technologies are not kindred – for Birkerts they represent fundamentally opposed forces. In their inevitable confrontation our deepest values will be tested. Birkerts begins his exploration from the reader’s perspective, first in several highly personal accounts of his own passion for the book, then in a suite of essays that examines what he calls “the ulterior life of reading.” Against this, Birkerts sets out the contours of the transformed landscape. In his highly provocative essay “Into the Electronic Millenium” and in meditations on CD-ROM, hypertext, and audio books, he plumbs the impact of emerging technologies on the once stable reader-writer exchange. He follows these with a look at the changing climate of criticism and literary practice. He concludes with a blistering indictment of what he sees as our willingness to strike a Faustian pact with a seductive devil.

A catchy title gets you every time. A variation on Benjamin’s, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Selected pieces from The Gutenberg Elegies.

A vast range of reviews to chose from.

David Gelernter reviews Orwell’s Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest, by Peter Huber and The Gutenberg Elegies in National Review, 1995, reposted in BNET.

One page reviews by John Ottenhoff and Susan Lewis-Wallace and Dean Blobaum

I have added Emily Dickinson’s poems to the blogroll, so that There is no Frigate like a Book is accessible to go with this post.

February 8, 2008 Posted by | books, digitisation, hypertext, Internet, World Wide Web | | Leave a comment

Digitisation and its discontents

Antony Grafton in The New Yorker , 5 November 2007:

Future Reading: Digitization and its discontents

Who could resist stealing the sub-title, albeit with an Anglicised “digitization” ?

It’s a long read. What did I take away which impressed me most? Tucked away in the middle of a paragraph on page 4:

And yet we will still need our libraries and archives. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have written of the so-called “social life of information”—the form in which you encounter a text can have a huge impact on how you use it. Original documents reward us for taking the trouble to find them by telling us things that no image can. Duguid describes watching a fellow-historian systematically sniff two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old letters in an archive. By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled, in the eighteenth century, on letters from towns struck by cholera, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks. Historians of the book—a new and growing tribe—read books as scouts read trails. Bindings, usually custom-made in the early centuries of printing, can tell you who owned them and what level of society they belonged to. Marginal annotations, which abounded in the centuries when readers usually went through books with pen in hand, identify the often surprising messages that individuals have found as they read. Many original writers and thinkers—Martin Luther, John Adams, Samuel Taylor Coleridge—have filled their books with notes that are indispensable to understanding their thought. Thousands of forgotten men and women have covered Bibles and prayer books, recipe collections, and political pamphlets with pointing hands, underlining, and notes that give insights into which books mattered, and why. If you want to capture how a book was packaged and what it has meant to the readers who have unwrapped it, you have to look at all the copies you can find, from original manuscripts to cheap reprints. The databases include multiple copies of some titles. But they will never provide all the copies of, say, “The Wealth of Nations” and the early responses it provoked.

November 20, 2007 Posted by | books, digitisation | Leave a comment