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Haiku Culture? February 23, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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Since the advent of new computer and network technologies, commentators have been worried that the “web” was changing our intellectual abilities, distracating us with superficial facts in short bursts of information, rather than engaging with lengthy analyses that require focused thought and longer attention spans.

Via Ars Technica, The Pew Internet & American Life project polled 895 Internet experts to see what they thought of such doom-laden prophecies.

Here is a smattering of opinion:

Peter Norvig. Google’s Research Director, not surprisingly, defends the merits of skimming, saying that it sets the stage for more prolonged mental effort. As to whether people want to make that effort, it remains up to them.

“My conclusion is that when the only information on the topic is a handful of essays or books, the best strategy is to read these works with total concentration. But when you have access to thousands of articles, blogs, videos, and people with expertise on the topic, a good strategy is to skim first to get an overview. Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist.”

Dean Bubley, wireless industry consultant, says that the Web is merely the extension of a process that has been going on for millennia: using technology to free up our minds for other tasks.

“I think that certain tasks will be ‘offloaded’ to Google or other Internet services rather than performed in the mind, especially remembering minor details. But really, that’s a role that paper has taken over many centuries: did Gutenberg make us stupid?”

Andreas Kluth, a writer with The Economist, agrees. “This is the continuation ad infinitum of the process launched by abacuses and calculators: we have become more ‘stupid’ by losing our arithmetic skills but more intelligent at evaluating numbers.”

Sandra Kelly of 3M says that whether “Google makes you stupid” or not is up to you. “I don’t think having access to information can ever make anyone stupider. I don’t think an adult IQ can be influenced much either way by reading anything and I would guess that smart people use the Internet for smart things and stupid people use it for stupid things in the same way that smart people read literature and stupid people read crap fiction.”

But there are those who endorse the “doom and gloom” scenario:

Andrew Nachison, cofounder of We Media, argues that access to so much digital knowledge might be edging out other kinds of knowing, leaving us to drown in a sea of facts.

“It has confused and overwhelmed us with choices, and with sources that are not easily differentiated or verified. Perhaps it’s even alienated us from the physical world itself—from knowledge and intelligence that comes from seeing, touching, hearing, breathing, and tasting life. From looking into someone’s eyes and having them look back into ours. Perhaps it’s made us impatient, or shortened our attention spans, or diminished our ability to understand long thoughts. It’s enlightened anxiety. We know more than ever, and this makes us crazy.”

Nick Carr. Carr sticks to his guns. It’s not that IQ scores are going down, but that the change in mental activity promoted by long exposure to Google and the Web has real problems.

“What the ‘Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking.”

As someone who engages in focused, lengthy analysis for a living I can’t say the new technologies have influenced my cognitive “style”. But the real danger I suppose is that these technologies could influence our reading preferences. If we get “intellectual payoff” from short bursts of information will we want to engage in deeper analyses anymore?

Some of the people interviewed predict we will lose our interest in longer pieces that require focused attention:

Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU and a prolific author himself, says that over the next decade, “Long-form expressive fiction will suffer (though this suffering has been more or less constant since the invention of radio) while all numeric and graphic forms of rendering knowledge, from the creation and use of databases to all forms of visual display of data will be in a golden age, with ordinary nonfiction writing getting a modest boost. So, English majors lose, engineering wins, and what looks like an Up or Down question says more about the demographic of the answerer than any prediction of the future.”

I’m not convinced that we will lose our interest in in-depth analysis or long-form expression. Anyone who seeks to genuinely understand something will be dissatisfied with superficial analyses. And the pleasures of long-form expressive fiction are distinctly different from the pleasures of brief narratives. The often reported decline in the reading of fiction today has more to do with the lack of time and a wider variety of options for relaxation than an inability or unwillingness to concentrate. (The condensed narratives of film have their own virtues)

On the other hand, we may lose patience with lengthy stories or analyses that don’t repay the effort. This may make us less willing to invest the time in authors with no track record. New writers may have difficulty getting noticed.

This post is quite long. Congratulations if you made it to the end!

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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