I am about to finish "War and Peace". At last! It has been a mammoth, but totally enjoyable, read. I had read it before, long ago, and found it hard going, but this time I have had the benefit of the new (Penguin edition) translation and that or a greater maturity or both, has made all the difference. Easy to read though I have found it - even the names were no bar to my enjoyment - I have taken an inordinately long while over it, so long, indeed, that I am not giving any clues as to how long. The possible reasons for a slow read are legion, of course. Indeed, there are reasons and there are causes. A reason might be a desire to savour the work and to give due attention to its deeper issues; a cause might be technical or a tendency to nod off. Beyond saying which, I will remain stum - except to point out that reason and cause are not necessarily mutually exclusive and to add that I had been feeling very inferior about my declining reading powers, but that all has now changed, and I am feeling positively superior. And for why? Because I glean from an article by Nicholas Carr in The Independent that Bruce Friedman, a pathologist at The University of Michigan Medical School, a blogger on the use of computers in medicine, has put it on record that his use of the internet (and of Google in particular) has so messed with his mind as to have completely deprived him of the ability to read "War and Peace" at all. His internet searching has changed - and not for the better - the way he reads and, because of that, the way he thinks. It seems that this belief he has is shared by many, and is the basis of a polemic that has been rumbling around on the blogs for some time, though I must admit that I had not come up against it before now.
Back in April in my post One Man's Meat is Another Man's Haiku I discussed the contrasting mental processes involved in the reading of alphabet- and ideogram-based scripts. I also touched upon the consequences that it is thought this has for the brain, for the way we use the brain, for its future development and for the ways in which different parts of the brain are involved and their structures modified by the different demands placed upon them. Subsequently, I gave as a dramatic illustration of this, the case of a bilingual man (speaking Chinese and English) who had a severe stroke, as a result of which he totally lost the ability to read English, though his reading skills remained unaffected so far as Chinese was concerned.
What I did not make clear at that time was the degree to which these structural changes take place right across the brain, and are not restricted to the areas specifically concerned with reading and writing. They occur, for example, in those areas which give us our memory and in those devoted to the interpretation of visual stimulii in general, including those which on the face of it have nothing to do with reading and writing. They have also been shown to affect concentration. It is this more general effect, some now believe, that is the cause of Friedman's inability to read long texts slowly and with the deeper thought they require. To cast doubts on the unalloyed benefits of modern technologies or upon our ways of working with them is to run the risk of being dubbed a Luddite, and no one wishes that upon themselves, yet the Luddites have always been proved right in what they warned against. The machines introduced in the Industrial Revolution did cost jobs; the introduction of printing and even writing -(opposed by no less a person than Plato) did have the detrimental effects they were warning their peers about; computers have not been a total boon. Where they have been wrong, the Luddites, has been in failing to foresee (or to admit) the undoubtedly great benefits that would considerably outweigh their objections. But that is not to say we should close our eyes to the disadvantages and stumble blindly on, ignoring them.
So is there some way we can have our cake and eat it, have the benefits of Google, but perhaps a much enhanced Google capable of opening its doors to the desires of those of us who miss the more joined-up, bookish way of working? At present it would seem not, if only because there are too many vested interests stacked against that idea, too many providers, sponsors and promoters on the internet who would have too much to lose if we were ever to stop bouncing from site to site. The more we bounce, the more the cash tills ring for them.
Carr was simply reporting how Friedman and others now believe that other differences in reading and study methods influence the development of our brains and minds in ways that they see as alarming and of the greatest profundity, that the alphabet/ideogram example I blogged about back in April is just that: just one example of a general effect, that the ways in which we choose to go about our reading, writing, studying and collating, and that whatever tools we decide to use for those purposes will have a profound effect upon the way we think, and through that upon the way in which our neural connections are made and broken. In other words, will have a profound effect upon the way in which our brains are structured. In a small way I have found this for myself: if I am working, let us say on the first draft of a poem, and choose to do so using a ballpoint pen, that will not produce the same result (I am absolutely certain, but have found no way to prove) as attempting the same end using a keyboard. Indeed, Carr gives an illustration involving Nietzsche which points in the same direction: Nietzsche when going blind and unable to read or write without considerable distress and severe pain to his eyes, switched to using a typewriter. Once he had learnt to touch-type, he did so with his eyes closed. The words, which had stopped, flowed again - but differently: where they had previously produced rhetoric, now they were telegrammatic. (read more)
What Friedman is saying is that his own thinking has become "staccato" in that he is regularly scanning short passages of text at speed and from many different sources, but can no longr absorb the information in an extended piece of text. The latter requires the ability to make less obvious connectios at a deeper level, which the former does not. He can no longer read War and Peace, but could presumably read a less demanding paperback. Scott Karp, another blogger, this time on online media, reports the same symptoms, but suggests an even more alarming diagnosis. It may be that some of us have had the same misgivings, have felt that because we skim and read shallowly a lot of the time, we are getting out of the way of reading deeply, as a marathon runner who, for whatever reason, took to training over shorter and shorter distances might soon discover that he could no longer run the full marathon. (Though Karp and Friedman would argue that the analogy is not apt, that what is going on is more profound than that.) Maybe we have felt the truth of that a little, but have comforted ourselves with the thought (reasonable enough so far as it goes) that we do what we do because it is the quickest and most convenient way in which to assemble the information we require. We Google because days of searching dusty books in dismal libraries are replaced by a few moments clicking away on the mouse. The living is easy, and if we no longer have the opportunity to make those deep and rich connections that reading (books) used to allow, well, that is unfortunate, we miss it, but for now such pleasures must wait.
"What, though," asks Karp, "if I do all my reading on the web, not so much because the way I read has changed" (he might have added 'or because the purpose for which I read has changed'), "ie I am just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?" Studies made into the way people use online facilities in institutions such as The British Library, have found that the vast majority "bounce" from text to text, skimming never more than a page or two at the most, usually a paragraph or two, and hardly ever returning to a previous page. The evidence would tend to suggest that they have become information decoders and rarely progress beyond that. I would love to try an experiment: give to a group of researchers and students the task of studying some topic new to them, and let them cut-and-paste to their heart's content or use whatever technique they might prefer, then give a matched group the same task, but with the proviso that they research it from books. I guarantee that the second group, though they would almost certainly take longer, would be more critically aware and that their resulting text would be characterized by more 'joined-up' threads of thought. Perhaps then we could even give the first group the books to read to see if there were any 'after thoughts'.
That short reverie brings us, I believe, to the heart of the matter: the differences and the relationships which exist between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Computers work with data, but are the hub of information technology, so we will start there - and at the beginning. The word information from the Latin informatio / informationis means an outline, an idea, and from informare / informatum, to give form to, describe. But it is data that is the most basic element of Information Technology: the ages, test scores and ethnic origins of the children in my class perhaps. We - or the computer - may give the data shape so that it becomes information: say, the average age or the percentage of children being disadvantaged by having to learn in a language that is not their mother tongue, for example. From these we may be able to draw certain consequences, such as the degree to which the non-english pupils are being disadvantaged. This is knowledge. Wisdom might involve the ability to rank in importance the various pieces of knowledge we have gained, to see what can be done to improve the situation, and to establish priorities.
But computers are so good at processing data that they encourage us to stay at that level. They began life as cryptographic machines. That is where they have come from, and where, you begin to feel, they would like to stay, but they have become hugely influential in everything to do with reading, writing, the production of graphics and with printing. It is almost inevitable, therefore, human nature being what it is, that those who use them should tend to stay with what they (the computers) are good at. I could almost draw the analogy of a carpenter who for some reason decides one day that he will no longer choose the best tool for the job, but instead will confine himself to the jobs his favourite tool is good at.
But it doesn't even end with computers and Googling, for since the time when such means of research became all-pervading, the more pernicious aspects of the web's "good life" have spread out through the rest of society: Newspapers have begun to shrink in size and their editors have reduced the length of their articles; T.V. programme-makers have shortened their productions, face-to-face interviews have positively shrivelled and their tone has become less searching and more 'staccato', even when the interviwer is trying to be aggressive - though more frequently now they are shallow and the interviewee's answers are not followed-up, but we are bounced straight to the next prepared question. I can recall when in the '70's and '80's Michael Parkinson might interview no more than three guests at something like depth for anything up to an hour. More recently he would have interviewed half a dozen or more people in that time. Even the news, political and current affairs programmes pander to the quick-dip brigade - which, alas includes myself and, I guess, most of us. But if we cannot do too much to modify the nature of the technology, we could maybe put a little more of ourselves into the way we use it. My own feeling, which is little short of a conviction, is that the devil is not in Google, but in the hyperlinks. They have often been compared to the footnotes in a book. The analogy is apt in some ways, but with one mighty big reservation: when you break off from the thread of an argument in a book to consult a footnote, that footmote does not then present you with a dozen footnotes to the footnote, any one of which might lead you off to another score of footnotes, on and on ad infinitum, further and further from the thread you were following. Perhaps hyperlinks should come with a health warning... Bounce we must, I see that, but maybe we could at least try to bounce with our eyes open and the brain engaged to remind us of where we were before we lost our focus.
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