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Is Google Making Us Stupid: Part II

For years we have been reading humorous anecdotes by journalists, and even quite famous writers, about what a surf can throw up and how amusing and irritating it is, usually along the the lines of: “I looked up A and ended up with X, Y, and Z.  Though I had not intended to learn about X,Y, or Z, it filled in a few gaps in my knowledge,  gave me a laugh, meanwhile wasting time I should have been spending on B,C or D.” A variant of this being, “I learnt R,T and U which were all useless information I would have been happier not knowing.”

I find rather than reading the news or looking for erudite essays, the first thing I do on booting-up in the morning is look up some word or other I am not sure of the meaning of. These tend to accumulate on scraps of paper, old envelopes or in my usual A4 loose leaf pads, mostly along the margins of something else I am writing. This sort of Google (used as a generic) is a classic displacement activity of the digital age, though clearly easily to justify if the need ever arose to do so.

Two things became clear as I began to open web pages this time. (1) I had no real idea whether it would lead to anything beyond clearing up the meanings of a few words. (2) But I felt quite confident something useful or important might turn up: it had in the past, so it would again. If you are looking up a word, don’t type it into a dictionary, whatever you do, or else the whole process will be over far too quickly. Best straight into Google  which usually turns up a page with the word in a phrase of sentence, a context, but not necessarily an explanation before a dictionary entry.

From there it is only a short hop to something miles away from the meanings of six words, but which can and often does (as millions of surfers have discovered before me) turn up something you feel might justified the time spent searching.  I am not going to attempt to go into the guilt and anxiety that may suddenly  pop to the forefront of one’s mind as the books one is currently reading glower from the desk as one surfs.

The details of surfs I take are rarely recorded apart from bookmarking a few web pages that stand out, (leave aside the history in the browser because it is does not link any of the pages viewed with each other). There was a time a few years back when I made regular on-the-spot paper flow-charts of daily activity. This was partly because it seemed the easiest and most efficient way to check back on what you had done (bookmarking often means things, themes, idea flows, get lost, separated, in the indexing process) but it was also done to study over time one’s mental preferences and style of searching. Such a flow-chart is not a lot different from listing books read on a topic and notes on general points or reminders as to which pages to go back to and why.

Today, half way through a surf starting with looking for six word meanings, the whole process petered out in under half and hour. (Was it because I had too much stuff to deal with? Or a natural ending point to that line of thought? Was it because I had found something to work on?)  I read something on a web page which gave me something of an answer to a question I hadn’t asked but must have been there in the back of my mind as I thought about this Google making you stupid business.

The six words to be checked were from a novel I have recently started. Number one was greaves.  Fascinating, but not something I wanted to delve into in great detail. The photo of the Greek bronze greves was unexpected and gave great pleasure. I  was temporarily sidetracked into thinking about the nature of art, and how, if these bronze greves were to be given pride of place in a present day art exhibition, with few realising they had functional origins and history,  an idiot would be popping up claiming something new for art with them.  Something to write about a t greater length perhaps, I thought (but not now). Urinals came to mind:  I had to resist strongly the temptation to remind myself who the artist was. Seeing in my mind’s-eye Magritte’s

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

I realised it was, rather, Duchamps.

The second word: glory-hole.  There were four definitions, one being to do with exposed mine workings, another a term used, apparently, in the porn industry.  Since the ‘author’ of these words in the novel I was reading was a Victorian character, at least the hole in the toilet wall could be eliminated.  Note: there is no link to glory-hole here. This is deliberate. Just when you expect a handy link to make things easy for you , there isn’t one.  After all if you are anti-surfing and pro-books,  but are getting involved in this debate, then you won’t mind reading this post right through to the end.

The third word was prie-dieu. I had guessed what it meant correctly: Prie-dieu

The next word was phalanstery. Never heard of it. No etymological clues I could throw together, but the after reading about it I wondered why phalanx hadn’t occurred to me.  Phalanstery,  I learn, was some idea of Fourier’s.  I  scan down the page and stop at Fourier’s views on on children, which any parent will recognise.  And it is funny, though I guess not intentionally. It appears he took himself very seriously. One of the references at the bottom was to some source material in The History Guide. Thought it wise to check if the wiki entry on Fourier’s views on children was accurate. It was (or rather finding the exact wording twice encourages one to think it might be attributable to the author concerned…)

The dominant tastes in all children are:

1. Rummaging or inclination to handle everything, examine everything, look through everything, to constantly change occupations;
2. Industrial commotion, taste for noisy occupations;
3. Aping or imitative mania.
4. Industrial miniature, a taste for miniature workshops.
5. Progressive attraction of the weak toward the strong.

There were two more words, cupola (why did I not remember architecture? Because of the way the word was used in the book, of course…) and possest.   The first page of the Google listing had ‘Mummy possest’ from a John Donne Poem, and then at At the top of the second page a rather interesting site turns up: Emily Dickenson’s Lexicon.  I can now reveal I am reading A S Byatt’s Possessed.

Though something I could see I would return to, the lexicon was not as immediately interesting to me as  The History Guide.  I sampled the link Lectures on Modern European intellectual history, which gave: Lecture 21 -The Utopian Socialists: Charles Fourier (1).

A few paragraphs into Lecture 21, I felt I had something.  I did not feel any need to go on searching, link after link.  After a moment of excitement and then some time to think, I dutifully read the rest of the lecture which told me a lot I didn’t know. I resisted the temptation to open any links on the page.

The post had been started to detail a personal surf to illustrate how the natural history of ‘ a Google’ could lead to something serious and sustained.  Some comments on the web about  Carr along the lines of “Its the surfer (who is) stupid!”, are certainly more succinct than my  post. But it is long and tortuous for a reason.

The  success of Web searches of course do depend on the person doing it. Or the attitude taken at the time of the surf.  Yet here was someone obviously highly intelligent, Nicholas Carr, decrying the process he seemed forced into adopting: while admiring it for helping him with his research, he also hated it because it so frequently tipped him into skimming mode and out of reading in a concentrated fashion.  Behind it had been the argument that concentrated reading was no longer (less) possible with the internet around: no one settled to anything nowadays. Was the brain changing to reflect the means available? The irresistible urge to check the next horizon (because it was so easy to do….no need to take that book back to the library tomorrow and get  another one), just in case there was something more interesting, more important, funnier, led one to skimp over pages of text, in a way that didn’t happen with book reading.

Just in case I am getting carried away here with what I think Carr wrote, here is another summary of his position at  NPR.  The main points being:

(1) ….Carr argues, when we give in to the natural impulses to click and skim, rather than to read and think, the Internet may actually doing us a disservice: It shortens our attention spans and even inhibits our ability to read longer books and articles.

(2) Carr says it’s not just about people scanning and jumping around very quickly. He says that the Internet is actually beginning to change the way we think. “It makes it harder even when we’re offline to read books, as skimming takes over and displaces our modes of reading,” he says.

It’s not just Google Carr is talking about, but rather the structure and nature of the whole Internet. But he says that Google is very much the dominant player, and it both governs and symbolizes the way information is structured. “The way we gather information is by jumping around,” he says, “and that’s governed not only by Google but by the whole economic structure of the Internet.”

Just as the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press helped to make reading universal, in the process ushering in enormous social revolutions, Carr says the Internet is producing a revolution of its own that is once again changing how we structure everything. While much of the revolution is positive, Carr says, he thinks that we should be aware that there might be some casualties, including prolonged reading and time for contemplation.

Carr tries to find time for more of what he calls deep reading, but he says that many of his friends are also facing difficulties in fighting Internet-influenced attention deficit disorder. In the article, he quotes one friend of his who told him: “I can’t read War and Peace anymore. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

Perhaps it might be instructive to put here Steve C. Scheer’s essay The Art of Reading.

I frequently beg to differ on surfing doing something to reading and being something inferior to book reading: it is possible to trip lightly over many pages a book or a research paper too, despite Steve’s strictures.  This  skipping might be because one feels one knows – more or less — what is before one’s eyes as much as because one can’t concentrate. If, after having sped-read a book,  or much of it, one changes one’s mind and feels a more thorough reading is necessary, one can do so, surely? Traditionally  a novel is read from cover to cover because it is a story and we are playing the author’s game. (Go back at this point to some of The Electronic Labyrinth’s pages perhaps, because it is a hypertext itself, from here.) With non-fiction we are  not obliged to digest every word. In a way  we can and often do treat a book we are studying quite like a hypertext, reading, skimming, reading, skimming, turning to the index, reading elsewhere, going back to where we left off. Perhaps eventually, because we think it is significant, going back to read it more thoroughly.

I think, rather than the Web being some sort of artificial and worse way of reading and thinking than paper texts, it is closer to how the mind works. Books are the anomaly. You may come away from reading the labyrinth that is The Electronic Labyrinth thinking that the opposite is true: I doubt it.

So what was it in Lecture 21 that took my fancy?  It was a reminder of the views of the Romantics and the philosophes and wondering how they would view the internet.  Would Wordsworth be concurring with Nicholas Carr?  Would Diderot be moaning about reliability and scholarship sensu Wikipedia? Who would relish it and who would  be appalled by it sucking the time of them and away from serious sustained reading and thing?

This particular surf of mine will have been like no one else’s.  Anyone reading this will see they might have take a different route starting from my to be looked up words. Others of a more disciplined nature may have stopped at the definitions, or gone on but completely bypassed Fourier because they knew all about him or through lack of interest.

Reading briefly about him turned up something interesting and stimulating to me: thinking about who would be claiming this process, surfing the web, the Romantics or the philosophes?  Maybe I’ll attempt as essay on it, or at least another post. I should really be getting back to my novel.

July 24, 2008 Posted by | Google, Internet, reading | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Evolution of literary Darwinism

Literary Darwinism popped up again in 3 Quarks, so thought a few markers might be useful here. It mentions a new short article in a The New York Times blog, Papercuts, How Would Darwin Read? by Jennifer Schuessler which links to D.T. Max’s 2005, review (‘The Literary Darwinists’) of Literary Animal, The Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, Edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson

David contributed a talk to The Science Network forum in 2007.

Here will be a links as I find them on (for and against) literary Darwinism:

(1) Literary Animals? a post in Valve mentioning an essay:

(2) Signposts for a Naturalistic Criticism by William Benzon

(3) The Pleasures of Fiction Denis Dutton, Philosophy and Literature 28 (2004)

(4) Reading Homo Sapiens David Michelson (Skeptic Magazine 2005)

(5) The Nature of Literature Michelle Scalise Sugiyama ( a review of Madame Bovery’s Ovaries)

February 23, 2008 Posted by | reading, Writing | | Leave a comment

Walter Benjamin – The Storyteller

There aren’t that many Benjamin texts out there on the interweb. This one

The Storyteller : Reflections on the work of Nicolai Leskov

came my way via Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog , which in its turn arrived through looking for more on the quote in my previous post

Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli.

There is a tantalising Italian wiki on the saying {1} and a link to an English Wiki:Terentianus on its author, which doesn’t give a lot away.

When the quote wiki is automatically translated it comes out as:

Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli
Depending on the apprehension of the reader, the book their fates

which is the sort of garbled translation I am fond of because it reminds me of the sort of English in the instruction sheet in flat-pack furniture.

For a second I misread it as some sort of fear of the reader……perhaps it could just as well be the other meaning or both at the same time: as in ‘I haven’t a clue what this book is about.’ [Chucks it in the waste paper basket]; or, ‘This book scares the hell out of me.’ [chucks it in the waste paper basket]

Would be grateful for a quick lesson on where to put the full stop in a quote: is it .’ or ‘.

October 18, 2007 Posted by | Literature, Reader, reading, Terentianus, The fate of books, Walter Benjamin | , , , , | Leave a comment

The fate of books depends on the discernment of the reader

Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli.
The fate of books depends on the discernment of the reader.

– Terentius Maurus, De Literis, Syllabis et Metris (1286)



The task had been to find something to explain simply Barthes’s, “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?”. There was nothing I could understand much of. The surf came to a natural end with an essay, A Blueprint for Melville’s “Bartleby”, by Steven C. Scheer – not what I was looking for but clearly written, not full of jargon, interesting and informative: a serependipity – arrived on my screen because he cites Barthes’s essay at the bottom of the page, which in turn led me to his home site and two nice long essays, The Art of Reading, from which the quote above came, and A Writer’s Notes on Writing.

He has a blogspot, Words Matter, which he has written occasionally to, but there are several very interesting posts, including one on Hellen Keller.

October 15, 2007 Posted by | Barthes, Book, Literature, non-fiction, readability, Reader, reading, The fate of books, Writing | , , , | Leave a comment