google is making us stupid

I recently learned Nicholas Carr’s newest book was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction this year. That news cause me to return to an article he’d written a few years ago in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

It’s interesting to note that Carr can’t even make his point without using the trope he’s criticizing. His continued use of the words “circuitry” and “hardwiring” to describe brain functions testify to the fact that the industrial way of relating to the world–including the human mind–is, in some sense, inescapable.

Here’s a fascinating nugget from the article:

But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

I can think of at least two additional implications Carr didn’t hit on in the article.

First, our college students are unable to engage the critical skills necessary for analyzing a text. Unless they’re English or philosophy or religion majors, they’ve likely never been asked to read something and arbitrate between competing interpretations. They seem to assume that someone will simply give them the “right” interpretation.

Indeed, Carr notes that imaginative, independent thought–the sort of intellectual work that the university’s mission and culture is defined by–is under attack. He distinguishes the sort of reading (and thinking) that characterize one’s engagement with the internet from those that characterize one’s engagement with a book:

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, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

I have only dealt with one instance of plagiarism in my (exceedingly short) career as a college instructor, but it railed me. I was so completely astonished that a student could think it was permissible to cut and paste into their own paper whole sentences–even whole paragraphs–from another’s published work. But had I considered the differences between the way my students access and engage information and the way I was taught to access and engage information, I might have been less surprised.

Plagiarism in the age of the internet is not only easier to accomplish (one should note it has also been made easier to catch), but it’s easier to morally justify as well. In other words, if we construe the human mind as simply a decoder and transmitter of information, then what does it matter where that information originated? After all, the plagiarist claims, my brain accessed the relevant information and transferred it to my paper, which I then submitted. What more can you ask of me??

That’s the first implication. The second I’m experiencing on a more personal level.

In short, I’m having trouble praying. I know, I know–I don’t need to blame my spiritual indolence on the internet. But seriously, if the internet alters the way we read as well as the way we think (so Carr argues), might it not also alter the way we pray?

It’s way easier to consult God briefly for things that are already on my mind. It’s far more difficult, I’ve found, to enter into a meditative state, to allow the presence of God to open up a catalogue of desires and needs and anxieties and fears–in order for these items to be subjected to God’s purifying flame.

I began Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation today. In it, he speaks of “every moment and every event in every man’s life… [planting] something in his soul” (p. 17). For these “seeds” to grow, for them to “spring up one day in a tremendous harvest” (p. 18), one must cultivate the contemplative life.

Is the internet anti-contemplation? In its content, Lord no! There’s much one can find on spiritual direction and discipline on the internet–and more eyes have viewed the words of spiritual masters as a result.

But in its execution, in the way in which it beckons one to engage one’s world, one’s heart–one’s God, even!–it just may be antithetical to a robust theological conception of what it means to be human.

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