You Say Staccato, I Say Sfumato: A Reply to Nicholas Carr
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Skinnerian lab rats, clicking on contextual ads all day long in return for shiny pellets of information. “The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements,” Carr writes. “The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.”
But frankly, the argument that computers are reprogramming our brains is getting a little shopworn. Arlington, MA-based essayist and scholar Sven Birkerts started sounding this refrain as early as 1994, when he wrote The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age; the book is an eloquent, if premature, warning that language itself would erode as the printed word gave way to pixels on a screen (parts of Birkerts’ book are online here). And if you really want to count up the many warnings that free thought and the intellectual lifestyle are about to be smothered by modern media culture, you can go all the way back to 1950, when Lionel Trilling published The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society.
Please don’t think that I’m insensate to the crass, uninformed, anti-democratic, anti-intellectual nature of much of what’s on the Web, or to the countervailing pleasures of curling up with a good book. I relish the quickening of the soul that Carr is gesturing at when he praises old-fashioned book reading. “The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds,” Carr writes. “In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading…is indistinguishable from deep thinking.”
All of which probably true. But deep reading is hardly the only route to deep, richly connected thinking. On the Internet—which is, for better or worse, my workplace and often my playground—I find the inspiration for dozens of small acts of contemplation every day. And I think Leonardo himself—the original poster boy for attention deficit disorder, who dawdled for years over paintings, left many commissions unfinished, and filled hundreds of notebooks with his musings on everything from the way water eddies to the construction of siege-proof castle walls—would have loved the Web’s endless variety. He would have seen its potential as the nursery for a new generation of thinkers, people who know instinctively where to turn to supplement their own resources with those left by others, people sensitive to the infinite varieties of human experience and creativity and eager to remix them—in short, a generation capable of a kind of sfumato of the mind. And I think he would have felt right at home.