May 26 • 12:07 PM

High speed not as good as deep read

August 13, 2008
No doubt the Internet has had a profound effect on our society and this is especially true with respect to our language and writing style.

Instead of simply looking up something in a book we log onto the Web and have thousands of articles relating to our inquiry as fast as our Internet connection and computer can produce them and text messaging is another by-product that has affected our writing style.

Anybody who has seen a text messenger at work soon realizes speed is more important than writing style and spelling has become a lost art. As writer Nicholas Carr recently noted in The Atlantic the Internet is not just a passive channel of information but it "also shapes the process of thought," and chips away at our "capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles."

To illustrate Carr quotes the experience of Bruce Freedman, a pathologist at the University of Michigan. His thinking has taken on a

"staccato quality" reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. "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."

In other words, quoting Scott Karp who writes a blog about online media, "the way I THINK has changed."

As we use what sociologist Daniel Bell has called "our intellectual technologies, the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities."

Ever since Socrates bemoaned the development of writing fearing the "written word as a substitute for knowledge carried inside our heads" and that we would "cease to exercise our memory and become forgetful," the critics of technological change have sounded warnings against new innovations such as the printing press because "the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness," there has always been a natural skepticism to the new.

This applies to the changes which the Internet has or will have on our society today. There are, no doubt, a few Luddites out there that will resist the impact the Internet will have. After all, when the printing press was invented it did undermine religious authority and often times spread seditious and revolutionary ideas; but it did expand human knowledge and made information available to all instead of a chosen few.

I would hope, however, it does not replace the written word, for as Carr notes, "The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds.

"In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading…is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

"If we lose those quiet spaces…we will sacrifice something important not only to ourselves but in our culture."

Should we allow the Internet to drain "our inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance"…we run the risk of spreading ourselves too wide and thin as we hurry to connect ourselves with the vast resource of information "accessed by the mere touch of a button."

So we need to balance the advantages of the written word we acquire from deep reading with those Google and its successors give us at our fingertips. All that requires is a little intellectual discipline.

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