You Say Staccato, I Say Sfumato: A Reply to Nicholas Carr
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completely change the way students and other enthusiasts learn about astronomy. Indeed, it’s so easy to create guided tours inside WorldWide Telescope that students can use it to teach each other about the climate of Mars, the meanings of the constellations, and the life cycles of stars. It could not have been built without Web-based technologies.
Or take a slightly more prosaic Web tool—Netvibes, my favorite RSS aggregator. If anyone has managed to approximate the “Daily Me,” the personalized electronic newspaper envisioned by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte in the early 1990s, it is Tariq Krim, Netvibes’ founder and CEO. By cramming about 70 headlines from my favorite blogs onto a single Web page (and hundreds more if I scroll down), Netvibes gives me a quick sense of what other Web writers are obsessing about on any given day, and helps me decide what I should obsess about for the next few hours.
It’s an excellent way to stay connected—and to see the connections among the themes oozing across the blogosphere’s inner membranes. But for Carr, it’s all a big, boiling mess that prevents him from fastening onto any one piece of information long enough to absorb it. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” he writes. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
None of my criticisms here are meant to impugn Carr himself, whom I found to be a fascinating interviewee back in January, when his book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google had just come out, and who—despite his protests that the Web is making his brain spongy—writes with admirable clarity, firmness, style, and insight. But when I look at the technologies that Carr believes are sapping our concentration—hyperlinks, search engines, blogs, blinking banner ads, and the like—I see the apparatus of an unprecedented global conversation, with more people sharing their insights, their fears, their experiences, their creations, and yes, their products and services, than anyone could have imagined would be possible just a decade or two ago.
I’m all for independent thinking and carving out one’s own intellectual space. But it’s almost frightening to think about what a comparative information vacuum we all lived in circa, say, 1988, when I was in college, and how easy it was as a consequence to stumble around in ignorance of what other people were thinking and writing. Back then, the shape my term papers took depended pretty much on what books weren’t already checked out at the library, what references I stumbled across in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, and how much change I had for the photocopiers. It all seems positively medieval next to the glories of the Web, which, while certainly full of misinformation, at least helps a young scholar today get a reasonable sense of the range of current ideas about a given topic, the better to stake out an original position.
Now, Carr is absolutely right that for writers, especially journalists, the Web is a double-edged sword. If you don’t have your thoughts in order, there is no better way to put off writing than to spend all day surfing the Web, telling yourself that you’re just gathering more background information, or that the last tidbit of evidence you need to drive home your argument is just around the next link. At some point, you do have to step away from the browser. I do some of my best writing in my head, when I’m in the shower or walking to Starbucks. And I’ve come to love Thursdays—the day I write this column—because that’s the day when I have an excuse to stop blogging (a curious operation that sometimes amounts to ingesting information and regurgitating it at the same time) and actually think for a while.
But somehow I find that when I do make that mental shift, my deep-thinking neurons are still there, waiting for a workout. (As Carr’s must be, if he’s writing 4,000-word articles for The Atlantic). I don’t recognize myself in Carr’s world, where Google is supposedly reducing Web users to … Next Page »