I'm not sure I'm shallower than I was

Wed, Sep 8, 2010, 01:00

The web may have changed our reading patterns but the appetite for considered, in-depth writing is not going to disappear – it might even increase, writes HUGH LINEHAN

MY BRAIN is turning to mush. My ability to concentrate on . . . oh, hang on a second. Gosh, look at that . . . now where was I? Yes, my brain is . . . Hey, look! A new email. What happens if I click on this? That was stupid. Right, so my brain is turning to . . . what’s that beeping noise?

Distractions, distractions . . . Not only do they get in the way of writing, they also get in the way of concentrated reading. Our reading habits over the past decade have shifted inexorably from printed page to glowing screen. The benefits have been enormous but the costs are high, according to Nicholas Carr, whose new book, The Shallows, argues that the internet is rewiring the neural pathways of our brains in unexpected and fundamental ways, taking away the capacity for in-depth “deep reading” which has been the foundation for the development of western civilisation since Gutenberg invented the printing press more than 500 years ago.

Talking to Karlin Lillington in this newspaper last week, Carr described The Shallowsnot as an attack on the internet, but rather “as an elegy for the literary mind”. According to the book: “If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the internet.”

On this, and on other subjects, The Shallowsposits some intriguing and well-argued theories about where we might be going. But some of the conclusions are tenuous at best. It’s far too early to pronounce on the effects of the digital revolution. Personally, I’m not convinced that I’ve become even shallower than I already was. I certainly spend a lot more time on computers than I did 10 years ago. Has that time pushed print reading aside? In the case of newspapers and periodicals, definitely. But I’m reading a far broader range of newspapers online than I could ever have done in print. Yes, I skim, but haven’t people always skimmed newspapers?

And I still read books, so the 250 pages of The Shallowsdidn’t seem such a terrible hurdle. Mind you, like Carr, I’m a middle-aged “digital immigrant” who grew up in the pre-computer age, when reading always involved pieces of ink-stained paper. We’re only starting to see the impact of digital natives, adults who have grown up with the internet. Not surprisingly, some see them in apocalyptic terms.

“Concentration on a sustained conversational theme becomes impossible because of helpless availability to incoming calls,” wrote the usually astute Declan Kiberd in a recent jeremiad against the pernicious effects of new technology, which took in everything from personal stereos to Facebook to wearing sunglasses when they’re not strictly necessary.

It’s hard not to see some of this stuff as just Grumpy Old Man syndrome. The young don’t pay attention; they know nothing about the past; they revel in their own ignorance; they will never measure up to the high standards we have set them. They are, in short, a terrible disappointment to us all, and the future of the human race looks bleak in their hands. No change there, then.

Perhaps for polemical reasons, Carr barely allows for the possibility that digital technology might change the reader-writer relationship for the better. For example, writers can be held to account in a way that was never possible before. Blogger Scott Karp is held up in The Shallowsas an example of the new breed: despite being a graduate in Spanish and English literature, he now never opens a book, apparently. But John Harris of the Guardianemailed Karp in California recently and found that, while he may have given up printed non-fiction, he still reads novels – a not unimportant correction, sourced in a matter of minutes, that 20 years ago would almost certainly never have happened.

Meanwhile, there’s an interesting online trend towards disseminating longform writing – essays, fiction – on the web. The Instapaper app on my smartphone allows me to save and read lengthy articles and essays offline. Services such as longform.org and Read It Later do something similar. The appetite for considered, in-depth writing is not going to disappear. In fact, as digital tools become more sophisticated, there’s even a chance it might increase. The barbarians may have to wait a little longer at the gate, after all.

Try the "shallows" version on my blog, where you can use the hyperlinks to read the other material referred to. You can also check out Nicholas Carr's blog or watch a video interview with him. You can even buy a copy of the damned book if you want. And then you can tell me what you think. I've also put in a funny cartoon of a talking dog. As you do.

Hugh Linehan is Online Editor of The Irish Times