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In 2008, a pair of internet journalists had an interesting disagreement about how the internet has changed the way our minds work. In “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Nicholas Carr suggests that an over-abundance of information is transforming our society into a cohort of shallow information skimmers. In a rebuttal titled “Why Abundance is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr”, Clay Shirky disagrees, discrediting Carr by pointing out his nostalgia and Luddism. As a recovering internet addict myself, I take exception with Carr’s characterization of the problem. While I identify with Shirky’s overall stance, I believe he didn’t say what needed to be said: Carr sounds like an alcoholic blaming the drink for his problems.

Carr tries to frame his loss of concentration as a symptom of extensive net usage, blaming the medium for turning him into a husk of the reader he once was. He laments his new inability to sit and read long articles and books, even saddened by missing out on the infamous War and Peace. He recalls colleagues telling him of changed reading habits, and even quotes Plato’s argument against the use of written word. Despite blaming the internet for this change in brain mechanics, the only clear fact he presents is a longing for the “good ol’ days” of reading, and Shirkey takes exception to this.

Shirkey, however, spends a majority of his article criticizing Carr’s opinion personally, stopping just shy of calling him a grumpy old man telling kids how it was “in my day…”. He does take a moment to say, on the more progressive side of the issue, he rejects the idea that the medium itself is at fault. He rebukes Carr’s usage of War and Peace as an example of the public’s inability to ingest long texts by claiming “the reading public has increasingly decided… [it] isn’t actually worth the time it takes to read”. He closes by saying the internet (as a medium) needs time to show us its true genius, in much the same way the printing press changed the world over the course of decades and centuries.

Shirkey, apparently too offended by Carr’s condescension to fully articulate what he believes, suggests we simply have to learn to use it better. He notes the difficulty of the issue because the medium has yet to reach maturity. Building on Shirkey’s opinion, I suggest that society has failed to assess itself and teach appropriate net usage. Hindering Carr’s ability to concentrate is a symptom, but Carr is ultimately responsible for no longer being able to read his beloved War and Peace.

Carr certainly has a point in suggesting the structure of online text affects the way we ingest information, but he misappropriates blame onto the medium itself. He claims hyperlinks, placed mid-article, propel readers toward other sources. In doing so, he says, they also rob the subject of their concentration. Consequently, this line of reasoning also absolves the reader of any responsibility for their own habits (which is clearly Carr’s way of saying “it’s not my fault!”).

It’s easy to suggest that the net itself is reshaping the way we think and read; everything we do changes us. Carr points out a study by British Library1 that shows internet readers have a tendency to exhibit skimming-like behaviors. Still undecided, however, is what the overall cause is, or what we can do to counteract that tendency and teach ourselves how to harness such a powerful corpus. To clarify this, let’s explore the problem within a new context: alcohol use and alcoholism.

As we all know, alcoholism is a real problem with a long, long list of causes, problems, and potential treatments. One thing we’re sure of is that prevention is infinitely more effective than treatment at improving any given person’s life. If we prevent an alcohol user from crossing the line into a problem, then we never have to treat anything. To frame how this relates to our conversation about net usage, we only have to ask one simple question: if Carr’s symptoms are indicative of irresponsible internet use, then is the solution to treat people who have the problem or to educate society before it becomes pandemic? (Trick question, we should do both!)

To elaborate, as research has shown2, educating children about the consequences (symptoms) of alcohol abuse at an age when they are at highest risk has proven effective in preventing abuse from occurring later in life (to some extent). Likewise, educating recovering alcoholics on the signs of relapse can help prevent a relapse. In both cases, success hinges on how well we can teach these people to self-assess their situation and how well they can make changes to correct it. If we, as a society, can recognize that abundant net usage has negative consequences, as Carr suggests, then the solution is education, not abstinence (or worse, prohibition).

Howard Rheingold suggests just that in his book Net Smart, asserting that doing something as simple as introducing a modicum of mindfulness into our net-use habits can go a long way to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Rheingold spends nearly a fifth of his book talking about attention and how the net (and always-on media) has changed our daily lives. He recalls an interaction with his daughter, wherein she hardly looks away from her phone to greet him as he picked her up at the airport. In this case he points out how our focus of attention has changed dramatically, but he also asserts that our browsing habits also have an effect on how well we can formulate deep meaningful thought. He, like Shirkey, also believes it is not the medium itself that has forced this change upon us, but our own self-indulgence that has created an atmosphere of acceptable shallowness.

At this point you may be asking yourself, “If this is so prevalent, why do I feel relatively unaffected by this so-called pandemic?” Well, it very likely differs depending on what generation you belong to. To put it simply, the average 15-27 year old has nothing to compare their behavior to. Unlike those born before the age of the all-powerful internet, always-on media has always been there. For the generations before us, it’s probably surprising to find research online turned into an everyman-everyday activity. Interestingly, however, the symptoms of over-exposure to the net are relatively similar regardless of generation.

I can relate to Carr, I’m the shining example of a recovering net-addict. Since the peak of my “Internetism”, how I interact with the net has changed drastically over the past half-decade. At 20 years old, I was about as motivated to read a book as a 13 year old boy being told to read A Tale of Two Cities while staring at an XBOX (actually that’s not too far off). I would agree with Carr, asserting the problem was caused by over-exposure to internet media, online forums, and attention grabbers like facebook. My habits began to turn around while studying at an acting studio. Scott Rogers3, my coach, suggested a simple attention adjustment exercise: no TV for one month. During that month (unsurprisingly), my concentration, attention to detail, and all-around personal accomplishment skyrocketed. Since that exercise, I have cut cable service, started reading books regularly, and most importantly started metering how (and how much) I use the internet. I’m unsure that it’s purely a result of less net usage, but it was certainly part of my solution.

If the “No TV” approach sounds drastic to you, there are small steps you can take right now to adjust your concentration. When facing an article filled with mid-text URLs (usually citations), open the URL in a separate tab and return to it after reading the article. Two things might surprise you. First, authors often take the time to summarize the article anyway, and you will (usually) decide not to read it. Secondly, you will have obtained a better grasp of the author’s opinion, and potentially formulated an opinion or your own, prior to reading further. That’s what Carr suggests is disappearing.

Although I easily identify with Carr’s experience, it’s likely that Shirkey’s analysis of the overall situation is correct. I was able to reverse the process of diminished attention through years of study in areas that require ingesting long texts, analyzing complex information, and formulating opinions through sustained deep thought. These are all abilities Carr laments losing. If it was simply exposure to the medium itself that caused issues, I would still be an addict.

Varying types and severities of net-addiction have cultivated Carr’s society of skimmers. This isn’t the internet’s fault for merely existing. This doesn’t mean the internet is bad for us, or that being on the computer 8 hours a day is a problem. If we teach our society responsible net usage, maybe we’ll see less “Internetism” in the future. At the very least we’ll be a little more conscientious of our use.


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