So, is Google making us stupid?
Sven Birkerts, years before Google emerges, says yes: the web is trapping us in a world of shallowness, a web that erodes language, flattens historical perspective, and destroys privacy. I suggest Carr’s essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” offers some updating of Birkerts’ concerns, but also some possibility for counter-argument. For our purposes, I would emphasize that Carr’s rhetoric (how he writes and presents his argument) is, at any rate, stronger than Birkerts in key places. It is more effective in what it does, how it develops and complicates the argument–even as it makes a similar claim for a dramatic shift in how we read in the electronic age.
The scene from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the one discussed in the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The computer HAL being dismantled by Dave.
The article also refers to Plato’s “Phaedrus,” part of the section that opens up counter-argument. It reminds us that various technological changes stretch far back–and that writing was once the “Google” of ancient Greece. You will recall that McLuhan also refers to this famous dialogue, as does Birkerts and Joseph Harris and Dennis Baron.
Does my ability, or my desire, to access these ideas from the essay–I might call them, to use a loaded term, these links–in digital form, from the same screen with which I read the essay, constitute deep or shallow reading? Perhaps the problem is we need some different terms to describe what I am doing.
Think back to The Medium is the Massage and our discussion of the way that this print book extends or mediates the traditional book, one could say “hypermediates” the conventional form of an argument. Is this also something to fear–or does this return us to something more crucial and fantastic in storytelling or literature? Would lots more types of books like The Medium is the Massage make us stupid?
Carr has turned his article into a book titled The Shallows. Here is a review from the NY Times.
Some additional links to consider–and return to as you develop your argument for the third writing project:
A recent argument that cites Carr, but offers a more interested, hopeful vision for the ways digital reading is creating and influencing fragmentary readers and writers. “Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age”
A review of, and argument with, Carr’s book The Shallows (the book that emerges from his Google article).
A NY Times review of some new children’s books that blend print and digital; the reviewer suggests it as an updating of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.
Gibson, article in Wired on writing as cut and paste remixing.
And here is Birkerts himself writing in response to Carr’s book The Shallows.
As you can see, we are participating in a critical conversation with lots of forwarding and countering going on.
As I hope you know by now, the sort of forwarding and countering of ideas and texts is not just something we (this includes you) academics do for the sake of an argument. It is that, but it is also how people participate in intellectual conversations more broadly. Carr is doing that in his original article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and in the book that he develops from that, The Shallows. And critical readers of that book participate in its conversation by doing the same.
Here is an example of a critic, Matthew Battles, who takes up Carr, forwards his argument and premise about reading (and the shift Carr asserts from deep to shallow), and then counters it: “Reading isn’t just a monkish pursuit.”
And, just to prove to you that in our exploration of this theme and these critical perspectives we are engaged in a very current and lively conversation, consider this posting: “What Do You Think Marshall McLuhan would have said about ebooks?” One of the respondents is Nicholas Carr.
The logic and rhetoric of counterargument:
For addition practice with counterargument, consider these resources from Harvard University’s first-year writing program. An overview of the concept; an example of a student essay in which counterargument is a key element of the dynamic of the essay, moving from the thesis through the conclusion.