Friday, August 15, 2008

In praise of skimming: A response to Nicholas Carr's "Is Google making us stupid?"

Nicholas Carr's essay in the Atlantic -- provocatively titled "Is Google making us stupid?"-- has, not surprisingly, aroused a lot passionate reactions.

Channeling Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid, Carr makes the reasonable assertion that the way we read shapes the way we think. And increasingly, we do most of our reading on the internet: skipping, skimming and scanning our way through articles and blogposts. He contrasts this style of reading with the kind of deep contemplation that is necessary for reading, say, War and Peace. If reading on the internet discourages "deep" reading, Carr worries, does that mean we are all starting to think differently -- becoming more "transient" and less reflective? Is deep thinking is on the way out? Is Google making us stupid? (I know, I know, this sounds like one of those voiceovers from Sex and the City).

This is an interesting and important question. But Carr's article, at least in the way it is framed, manages to conflate a number of related issues. It's fundamental flaw is the implicit assumption that there is only one (correct) way to read and it involves "strolling through long stretches of prose". It doesn't matter whether we're reading fiction or non-fiction or whether we're reading for work or in our leisure time. The result is an essay whose underlying anxiety manages to resonate but whose point isn't at all clear. I actually agree with Carr. I certainly think that the internet is changing something in the way discourse producers work (and by this term I mean academics, journalists, writers etc who read and write for a living). Notice that this is a much narrower claim -- how they think is another, more nebulous issue and I am not particularly sure that that's going to change.

Consider the disconnect in Carr's first anecdote.
Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
Notice that there are two arguably unrelated things here:
  • (a) Friedman's inability to "read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print": This presumably has to do with his work as a blogger.
  • (b) Friedman's inability to read War and Peace in his leisure time.
Carr clearly seems to be implying that (a) and (b) are related, and that both are caused by the amount of time that Friedman, a blogger, spends on the internet for work.

I suspect that reading War and Peace after a hard day's work is ... difficult, even for those whose work doesn't involve reading tons of things on the internet. Indeed, as Friedman admits here (scroll down for his comment) -- he reads a lot of novels (mainly mysteries and thrillers) for recreation in his leisure time. We can therefore safely eliminate Friedman's high volume of internet reading as the cause of (b).

(a) is much more interesting but Carr has next to nothing to say about it. Now presumably, as a discourse-producer, Friedman has to look at different books, articles, blog-posts, papers and then synthesize/summarize them in blog-posts of his own. But notice that when Friedman says that he cannot read a blog-post of more than 4 paragraphs, he means that he does not read it word for word, instead he skims it. In other words, when something slightly longish presents itself to him, Friedman slips, almost by default, into "skim mode".

Carr clearly despairs at this but my own reaction is: so what? Carr seems to think that all reading takes place in isolation -- that we read for the sake of reading. But while this may be true for our leisure reading, this is almost certainly not true when we read for work. The real issue here is that assuming Friedman skims more now than he did pre-internet, has it affected his output? Is his writing better or worse? Are his arguments sharper, deeper, shallower? Does he write more? Or less? These are all very interesting questions but it doesn't seem to me that Carr is really interested in these. (Of course, these questions might get you published in an academic journal but they certainly wouldn't be cover-story material for The Atlantic Monthly, no?)

So now let me restate Carr's point -- which he may or may not buy. His thesis is that the internet and Google will change the way that these producers of discourse go about their work, that they will skim more than they used to -- and more worrying for Carr, I think -- and they will not think as deeply because deep reading is deep thinking.

I am not convinced about the second part of this at all. First, because discourse producers don't just read aimlessly, they read for a purpose (an article, an essay, a review) and that purpose itself will require rigorous thinking. In the course of their project, they may go through a variety of reading material (blog-posts, journal papers, books). They may skim most of it, deep-read a few. But in the end, they have to synthesize their arguments and marshal facts and sources to back them up -- and to do all this well, deep thinking is essential.

  • The weak part of Carr's thesis is certainly true -- we do skim more. And perhaps reading on the internet may have reduced our "skimming threshold" -- like Friedman who starts skimming if an article is more than 4 paragraphs. But the reason for this is that the internet presents us with ten times the reading material we would otherwise have had.
In my own case, to write this blog-post, I read Carr's original piece in the Atlantic the "traditional" way, word for word. I skimmed through most of the reactions the article generated -- concentrating on the few that seemed most relevant. (Clay Shirky's is the most penetrating, if a bit short. Jaron Lanier's is bizarrely short and off-topic.) I knew the New Yorker had reviewed Proust and the Squid but after looking it up on Google, I ended up skimming four reviews:, Bookforum, The New Yorker and the Guardian. Google also led me Bruce Friedman's comment about his reading habits. And it took me to the study by University College, London, that Carr quotes from.

This is perhaps the key problem that discourse producers face -- what to skim and what to read deeply. And the internet has exacerbated it -- because now everything is available at our fingertips. To be successful today, it not only becomes necessary to skim but it becomes essential to skim well.
  • We may end up writing in shorter bites -- almost certainly a good thing in my opinion.
As Kevin Drum points out, most non-fiction articles are grossly padded. Knowing that there will be a lot of articles users will want to browse, will writers try to be more concise in their arguments? More brief, to the point? I am sure this will not be a completely unwelcome development.

Conclusion? The internet certainly encourages skimming -- but skimming isn't easy! It could certainly mean less deep-reading in the long run but deep thinking will almost certainly remain. Finally the very fact that there is so much to skim will compensate to some extent the fact that we have less time to read something word by word.

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