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A Lamentation of Google et al.

- July 4, 2008

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I’m a split-personality technophile-Luddite. I seem to buy just about every new technotoy as soon as it hits the market and love it until the next new technotoy comes along, at which point I set the old one aside and have a fling with the new one, and the cycle spins and spins and spins. Increasingly I rely on younger colleagues — the younger, the better — to help me solve the manifold mysteries that these widgets hold out for someone who grew up in a pre-television world. At the same time, while I’m reading magazines and even books online, I’m carping about how much I hate to see amazon.com and Google and JSTOR and their ilk displacing bookstores and libraries and good old-fashioned browsing, about how much I enjoy reading a real, i.e., paper copy of the morning paper, about how much better the literary quality of our professional journals was back in the old days before the spell-check and grammar-check routines that are built into word processors made it easy to scribble something down and send it off without worrying about the subtler niceties of style. So yes, I want it both ways. Nothing wrong with that.

Some of my ambivalence is nicely expressed in the following excerpt from Nicholas Carr’s essay in the current issue of The Atlantic, provocatively titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”:

bq. Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of wring. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, ‘cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.’ …

bq. The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, int he 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafco worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men ‘ess studious’ and weakening their minds … But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.

bq. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valudable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off withoun 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. …

bq. …[W] risk turning into ‘pancake people’ — spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.

For the full text of Carr’s essay, you can click here. But I think you’ll get more out of the experience if you pick up a paper copy of the magazine and read the essay that way. After you’ve finished and given yourself a little time to think about what you’ve just read but while you still have the magazine at hand, you might even browse the other articles and find a couple more, serendipitously, that look like they’re worth reading. What you find by accident, when you’re not actively “searching” for it, often turns out to be the best thing you’ve come across.