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. McLuhan, who years before began the process of making an “inventory of effects” of the electronic age on our minds and culture, argues “No.” Substantial changes are happening, for McLuhan, but he is more optimistic that they are leading to something positive he calls a “global village.”
I suggest Carr’s essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” offers some updating of Birkerts’ concerns, but also some possibility for countering. 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. Toward the end of the essay, Carr provides a very good model for how to present an effective counterargument.
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 further reading 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.
Harris’s chapter on “Remixing” refers to the scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick and the digital versioning of her later print book Planned Obsolescence. See it here. Does this type of reading counter Carr, or provide further evidence for his concerns?
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.
This moment from chapter 7 of The Gutenberg Elegies engaged me, but also jarred me. I think it sheds light on where he is coming from in his vision of reading, and why he views books (or at least, books he thinks we should be reading) as though they were sacred objects. I also think it offers a view of writing that is, simply put, unsustainable. In other words, I will urge you in this course (and beyond) not to follow Birkerts’s vision of how one writes.
First, here is the passage in which Birkerts describes a vision of writing that is “beyond revision.”
When we begin to write our description, then, we find that we already have a sense of the kind of shape we want, and some intuition of the pace. This is not because these are necessarily properties of the reality we would render; rather, because we have a very particular expectation built up from everything we have read and internalized. We know just the feeling–the effect–we want. In a sense we proceed toward our expression by trying to read in ourselves the very prose we are about to write. Writing, then, becomes a kind of matching up of the right words to the specific word-impulses that are lined up inside. This is all very Platonic–to see the act of discovery less as an inventing than a recovering, an anamnesis. In writing we grope toward what we think of as the inevitable wording, as though the prose were already finished in an inner place we can just barely reach. And when we do succeed, when from time to time we reach it, we know we are beyond revision. 
The reference to Plato reiterates Birkerts’s vision of perfection: writing, or at least what he implies is successful writing, writing that is worth our time and attention, is discovered or recovered whole (Plato’s notion of the ideal–coming out of the cave and into the light of truth); writing is thus not invented (rhetoric) or made (poetry)–Plato banishes the poets and rhetoricians from the republic of letters, or wishes to. Put another way, Birkerts believes that true writing is not made through the process of revision. I would most directly disagree with Birkerts here by asserting that writing and revision are synonymous, that there is no beyond revision, that the ideal is to make and invent the discovery of writing through the process of revision. To that extent, I suggest that Birkerts, oddly–but perhaps the strangeness can be located in his strange family dynamics with reading?–defines a vision of writing that seeks to remove much of the material, even mechanical, process of writing from its view. Wanting to be a writer without having to write.
This, I would argue, is a perfectionist vision of writing that we get from reading great books. The vision is misleading if we believe that those books dropped from the sky. If we don’t get behind the curtain and see the not-so scary man (who doesn’t look that different, when you think of it, from the guy back home in Kansas) working the machinery of poetics and rhetoric. If you wait around for the right word to come, you won’t do much writing, possibly won’t write at all. Perfectionism, it seems to me–and this comes from my own experience, from the voice of a recovering perfectionist–might lead to perfect writing but it also leads to lots of weakened writers, writers afraid to get messy in writing, unwilling to write if they have to revise–in other words, leads to writers who don’t write.
A better goal, the one we are after in this course: to go through revision, get a better grasp of the poetic and rhetorical potential of writing, of mediating our thought through language, print, electronic signals–through various processes of mediation. And perhaps in that better grasp, to become stronger writers in knowing where and how to revise; and perhaps even, therefore, needing to revise less. But wanting to get ‘beyond revision,’ since very little writing takes place there, at least on earth.