In my previous post, I summarized some of the major critiques of the Internet as a medium of distraction that undermines our ability to read closely and think deeply. As Carr argues in The Shallows, “[w]hen the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image.” When a printed book is transferred to the Internet, its words “become wrapped in all the distractions of the networked computer” with hyperlinks and other interactive features that encourage distracted and fragmented reading. For Carr and other critics like him, there is a strong connection between attentive reading and deep thinking fostered by the printed book, and they warn that we need to be wary about what the Internet is doing to our brains and, explicitly or inexplicitly, to our way of life.
In contrast, many proponents of the Internet see this kind of skepticism towards the Internet as neo-luddism. Shirky, in particular, refutes the notion that deep thinking is tied to the type of reading advocated by Carr as “there are a host of people, from mathematicians to jazz musicians, who practice kinds of deep thought that are perfectly distinguishable from deep reading.” Shirky argues that the concerns raised by Carr focus on “literary reading, as a metonym for a whole way of life.” He believes that such skepticism arises from “cultural anxiety” as our society shifts away from literary/print culture to techno/digital culture. While Shirky’s claim that “no one reads War and Peace [because it’s] too long, and not so interesting” might seem philistine, if not downright obnoxious, to people who love literature (and War and Peace), he is right that the debate about the Internet and the printed book is fundamentally about culture. It is telling that Carr calls a book reader’s brain a “literary brain” as he laments the eroding of “our rich literary tradition” and “the book ethic” by the Internet: “After 550 years, the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges.” Similarly, underneath Birkerts’ fear about replacing context with access through “a one-stop outlet” such as Wikipedia and Kindle is his palpable cultural anxiety:
I see in the turning of literal pages—pages bound in literal books—a compelling larger value, and perceive in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding, one that I’m not confident that we are replacing, never mind improving upon.
For Birkerts, Carr and many others, printed books are cultural objects inseparable from a literary tradition that values long-form, linear reading/writing and private contemplation. However, Weinberger argues that “we’ve elevated private thought because of the limitations of writing [physical books],” a mostly solo, isolated act. Using Jay Rosen’s site PressThink.org as an example, he notes that Rosen’s blog series on the Internet and journalism constitutes a long-form argument (stemmed from deep thinking):
The six posts combined contain 110,000 words, which make the series longer than The Shallows, and about one and a half times as long as this book. Of those 110,000 words, Rosen wrote only 15,000—about twice the length of this chapter. The rest are comments left by readers. Rosen’s posts, however, attract high-quality comments.
In this case, the acts of writing and thinking are public, interactive, collaborative and evolving, and Weinberger argues that this new type of writing and reading offers unique advantages over the traditional reading and writing based on the printed book.
Esposito points out that we have come to associate a well-thought-out argument or story with the length of a physical book because printed books have been our primary intellectual medium for more than 500 years. Thus, “the accident of the convenient size of a single volume has served to create an arbitrary image of an intellectual category.” Coining the printed book “the primal book,” Esposito argues that the most important aspect of the primal book is “its air of authenticity,” the sense that “such a book is a bit of the inner life of the author brought into the world for all to admire.” However, the Internet disrupts this sense of authenticity because “in electronic form, anything goes” – e-books are not bound by pages, neither is authenticity (and consequently, authority) associated with ink and paper; the very notion of authority/authenticity has become unstable. What is gained in placed of uncertain authority/authenticity is the networked world of ideas embodied in what Esposito calls “the processed book” – “the book where the primal utterance of the author gives rise to hyperlinks and paralinks and neural networks and whatever other kinds of connections and cross-connections computer scientists come up with.”
In the context of the processed book, therefore, “the primal book doesn’t disappear; rather, it is stripped of its air of being a vital expression of a human being and is reduced to its text.” Such a non-humanist approach to text would probably appall Carr and Birkerts, who see books as the epitome of human thought risen from our collective intellectual history, in a linear, orderly fashion. Carr warns in his book that “[c]hanges in reading style will also bring changes in writing style as authors and their publishers adapt to readers’ new habits and expectations.” For Carr, a printed book is finished and “indelible” and “the finality of the act of publishing” has fostered great writing by pushing writers to “write with an eye and an ear toward eternity.” For others, however, the impermanence of electronic text and the demythologizing of authenticity/authority offer new possibilities:
Words very well might not only be written to be read but rather to be shared, moved, and manipulated, sometimes by humans, more often by machines, providing us with an extraordinary opportunity to reconsider what writing is and to define new roles for the writer. While traditional notions of writing are primarily focused on “originality” and “creativity,” the digital environment fosters new skill sets that include “manipulation” and “management” of the heaps of already existent and ever-increasing language.
Perhaps it’s true that our brains are changing, but in the end, the debate between the Internet and the printed book is not so much about our changing brains but rather our changing culture in which the traditional intellectual values are losing their hold. Carr believes that “the Net is sapping us of a form of thinking—concentrated, linear, relaxed, reflective, deep—that [he] see[s] as central to human identity and, yes, culture.” Shirky, on the other hand, is optimistic that “cultural sacrifice in the transformation of the media landscape” would be worth what we gain from the Internet and the networked abundance it offers.” Maybe “cultural sacrifice” is inevitable, but technological change doesn’t always have to result in “winners and losers,” as Postman claims in “Informing Ourselves to Death.” People find ways to adapt and negotiate between the old and the new.
Hayles, for example, argues that we need to develop both deep attention and hyper attention in the Information Age. Hayles defines deep attention as characterized by “concentrating on a single object for long periods (say, a novel by Dickens), ignoring outside stimuli while so engaged, preferring a single information stream, and having a high tolerance for long focus times.” Hyper attention, on the other hand, is characterized by “switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.” Hayles argues that hyper attention is necessary in information-intensive digital environments because it enables the reader to switch between different information streams and quickly grasp the gist of material; however, without deep attention, we wouldn’t be able to solve complex problems and understand challenging literary works. Hyper attention and deep attention are both acquired skills. It is quite possible that we are already learning how to switch between two modes of attention depending on why and what we read, print or otherwise.
Birkerts, Sven. “Resisting the Kindle.” The Atlantic, March 2009. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/03/resisting-the-kindle/307345/.
Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows : What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDM2644019&R=2644019.
———. “Why Skepticism Is Good: My Reply to Clay Shirky.” Britannica Blog, 2008. http://blogs.britannica.com/2008/07/why-skepticism-is-good-my-reply-to-clay-shirky/.
Esposito, Joseph. “The Processed Book.” First Monday 8, no. 3 (March 3, 2003). http://ojs-prod-lib.cc.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1038.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age. Columbia University Press, 2011.
Hayles, Katherine N. “How We Read.” In How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012. http://raley.english.ucsb.edu/wp-content2/uploads/Hayles-HWT.pdf.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes.” Profession, 2007, 187–199.
Postman, Neil. “Informing Ourselves to Death,” 1990. http://faculty.cbu.ca/rkeshen/other%20courses/222/overheads/Second%20Term/technology/Informing%20Ourselves%20to%20Death.pdf.
Shirky, Clay. “Why Abundance Is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr.” Britannica Blog, 2008. http://blogs.britannica.com/2008/07/why-abundance-is-good-a-reply-to-nick-carr/.
———. “Why Abundance Should Breed Optimism: A Second Reply to Nick Carr.” Britannica Blog. Accessed July 28, 2016. http://blogs.britannica.com/2008/07/why-abundance-should-breed-optimism-a-second-reply-to-nick-carr/.
Weinberger, David. Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
 Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows : What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 105.
 Ibid., 121.
 Clay Shirky, “Why Abundance Is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr,” Britannica Blog, 2008, http://blogs.britannica.com/2008/07/why-abundance-is-good-a-reply-to-nick-carr/.
 Clay Shirky, “Why Abundance Should Breed Optimism: A Second Reply to Nick Carr,” Britannica Blog, 2008, http://blogs.britannica.com/2008/07/why-abundance-should-breed-optimism-a-second-reply-to-nick-carr/.
 Shirky, “Why Abundance Is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr.”
 Carr, The Shallows. 80.
 Ibid., 92.
 Sven Birkerts, “Resisting the Kindle,” The Atlantic, March 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/03/resisting-the-kindle/307345/.
 David Weinberger, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room (New York: Basic Books, 2011)
 Joseph Esposito, “The Processed Book,” First Monday 8, no. 3 (March 3, 2003), http://ojs-prod-lib.cc.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1038.
 Carr, The Shallows.
 Ibid., 201.
 Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (Columbia University Press, 2011),
 Nicholas G. Carr, “Why Skepticism Is Good: My Reply to Clay Shirky,” Britannica Blog, 2008, http://blogs.britannica.com/2008/07/why-skepticism-is-good-my-reply-to-clay-shirky/.
 Shirky, “Why Abundance Is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr.”
 Neil Postman, “Informing Ourselves to Death,” 1990, http://faculty.cbu.ca/rkeshen/other%20courses/222/overheads/Second%20Term/technology/Informing%20Ourselves%20to%20Death.pdf.
 N. Katherine Hayles, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes,” Profession, 2007, 187–199.
 Katherine N. Hayles, “How We Read,” in How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), http://raley.english.ucsb.edu/wp-content2/uploads/Hayles-HWT.pdf.