Is Google Making Us Stoopid?Posted: September 6, 2008
Such is the title of a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly. You can (if you dare risk the neurons) read it here.
I post the link, in part, because I want to get back to it–yes, reflection and further reading is possible (at least for me) in digital spaces. In fact, since I don’t subscribe to the magazine, I wouldn’t be reading the piece at all if not here. It is also the case, by the way, that I have been meditating on this piece since I stumbled upon it earlier today; and have returned her to add to this posting several times. What, then, in this technology doesn’t open up to a kind of thinking and reading we also do, when we can get our hands on them, with books?
There are ideas in this “Google” article that speak to some of our reading from the past week, and also look ahead: from Birkerts to Shelley to Hayles. I noticed that several of you in your glogging, and in class discussions from Friday 9/5, started to turn to the style of Hayles and how that differed from Birkerts. Glad to see that attention (as you know, I want us all to pay attention to style and then play with it in writing). One implication that emerged from the initial reading of Hayles: that the ease of her style (or as the case may be for some, the difficulty of her style) is in some way influenced by the computer and the world of computation that she is embracing. Denise, for example, explored that implication in her recent post. I am fascinated by that implication–and look forward to exploring it with you as we continue to read and also as we begin to give more attention (the first writing project coming up) to the ‘machinery’ of our own writing. Remember, writing is already a technology, an invention, a medium that relies and builds upon other media: language, print, pen, press, paper, book, goat skin. The Google article gets briefly into a reminder that writing technology has a longer historical life–did not begin, or come under threat, only with the internet. But as with any communication medium, I agree with the author (he cites McLuhan on this point), the medium comes to shape not just the message but its production–shapes the messenger. Our brains have been wired for writing and literacy and (since 1500) for writing in rows of print. And our brains are being wired and re-wired, I assume, now, for the different processing of information and writing (still, writing) we find in the digital library.
On this issue of a longer historical perspective on the technology of writing, Birkerts falls short. I saw this especially in chapters 3-7, where at key points I noticed that he makes brief reference to print as technology, but doesn’t elaborate (pages 70-71 are one location). There is very little discussion or understanding expressed regarding Gutenberg (and the technological revolution the printing press brings) in a book with Gutenberg in the title. Birkerts earlier distinguishes between reflection and nostalgia–and is guilty here of the kind of quick and immediate nostalgia for the book and the way writing used to be. His argument falters. The charge was also made that books and writing itself would make us stupid–it is in Plato’s “Phaedrus,” for example. So I am suspicious of Birkerts for not bringing that into his argument. Isn’t he “stupid,” in a sense, for failing to connect with this? (If only he would spend more time on wikipedia–lol! but seriously, you can at least move around in that networked environment among discussions of printing, writing, Plato, technology). Here, a problem with his logos (argumentation) affects his pathos and ultimately, his ethos. I trust him less, am suspicious that he is either not intelligent in his views of reading/writing or stacking the deck.
Katherine Hayles, to my mind, is a thoughtful guide in this regard. She published an article recently about the kind of “hyper-attention” that digital literacy develops and its difference from the kind of deep attention that tradition print-based learning cultivates. [she posted a copy of this article on her blog for her Media Theory course at UCLA; she too uses wordpress. Yet she doesn’t value one to the exclusion of the other (the move Birkerts makes). She recognizes value in both; and suggests teachers in the humanities reflect both in their teaching. Something to keep our eyes on when we read her further. And this coming week, working on the writing project, something to keep our hands and eyes on: to what extent are we influenced by the machines we use to communicate? and what are some ways we can learn to use those machines more effectively and imaginatively?