The “stupid” argument, again

Is Google Making Us Stupid?:

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Such is the lament of the bookish mind as it faces annihilation from the Internet.

Restating my mantra, media constantly go to war with other. They constantly compete for the center of attention by moving in and out of the periphery to the center and back again as new technology changes how we consume and share information. Often the winner incorporates/repurposes/remediates elements of the old into the new (the Internet, for example, uses text, and newspapers use more images, color and article summaries for Web influenced info snackers).

So as the Internet is pushing books to the edge of the mediacological ecosystem, book people are fighting back. The most prominent pugilist recently entering the fray is The Atlantic’s Nicholas Carr, whose article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, revises the persistent argument that new digital media are dumbing us down. The thing I don’t like about this argument is that it assumes there are good kinds of aptitude and bad kinds, the classic-book-deep-thinking being a good kind of intelligence, and the being-in-the-moment of net surfing is bad. We need both.

Carr’s article is actually quite good and outlines how knowledge work is an extensions of Taylorism and the systematizing of work and thinking. Where I fault the piece is how it focuses too much on loss, and not enough on gain. Some of the major benefits of the information economy, which MIT new media guru Henry Jenkins refers to as Convergence Culture, are described by the following characteristics (BTW, I go into this in more detail in my book, Mediacology, ch. 8, “Media Lit’s Mediacological Niche”):

  • collective intelligence,
  • affective economics,
  • transmedia storytelling, and
  • participatory culture.

Consequently, Jenkins believes that in order to be fully engaged participants of convergence culture, students (and teachers) need to develop skills that allow for

the ability to pool knowledge with others in a collaborative enterprise (as in Survivor spoiling), the ability to share and compare value systems by evaluating ethical dramas (as occurs in the gossip surrounding reality television), the ability to make connections across scattered pieces of information (as occurs when we consume The Matrix, 1999, or Pokemon, 1998), the ability to express your interpretations and feelings toward popular fictions through your own folk culture (as occurs in Star Wars fan cinema), and the ability to circulate what you create via the Internet so that it can be shared with others (again as in fan cinema) (p. 176).

There is nothing stupid about these kinds of skills. Thus, I think the argument that the Internet makes one more shallow often ignores the other aspects of emerging cultural practices that are greatly needed and are deep in their own way. In particular, I find these latter skills necessary to develop strategies for sustainability, just as much as those cultivated by the isolated mind of the solitary book reader.

Still, I have to admit. I was depressed after reading the article because I felt that there really is too much to do, read, search, and write. The Internet compounds that. Upon reflection I thought some meditation would do the trick, because what I really needed was to clear my mind of books and the Internet. As Skype tells us, just breath.