You Say Staccato, I Say Sfumato: A Reply to Nicholas Carr

6/13/08Follow @wroush

One of my prized possessions is an enormous book called Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Drawings and Paintings. You know how a lot of old art or history books have a few glossy color plates bound into the center? Well, this book has 695 of them, each one measuring about 12×18 inches, and together they weigh an incredible 19 pounds, enough to put a permanent sag in my coffee table.

When the publishers put “complete” in the title, they weren’t kidding. If you want to see how Leonardo grew as a draftsman and painter between the time of his earliest known works, around 1472, and his death in 1519, there is no better source. Of course, with so much to offer, the book encourages grazing. You can’t help turning the pages to see how the chaotic theatricality of The Last Supper gave way to the sfumato serenity of the Mona Lisa, executed only a few years later. (Sfumato, from the Italian for “smoky,” is the term for gradations in shade, like those in the Mona Lisa’s cheekbones, that are so smooth as to be imperceptible.) With a book this large—many of the reproductions are larger-than-life—you don’t have to see the actual paintings in Milan or Paris to be overpowered by Leonardo’s genius.

Yet I have a feeling that this would trouble Nicholas Carr, whose provocative article for the July/August issue of The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, was published online Wednesday. The article, which is only obliquely about Google, argues that the hyperlinked structure of the Web encourages staccato reading and staccato thinking. On the Web, Carr asserts, it’s so easy and so tempting to flit from page to page that people who use the Internet extensively lose the ability to hold a thought, to analyze an issue with any depth, and ultimately to construct a personal interpretation of the world. When we consume information online, Carr writes, “Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

Mona LisaWhat objection could Carr have to my Leonardo book? To the extent that it packs the man’s entire visual oeuvre into one volume, it’s just like the Web, which brings all the world’s information to one place (your browser window). But each Leonardo canvas is worth deep, protracted study—up close and in person, if you can arrange it. Indeed, if we were all credentialed art historians or wealthy world travelers, this would be the surest path to true art appreciation. The book lets me short-circuit that laborious process and flip from painting to painting. From one perspective, then, you could say that photography, color printing, binding, and all the other technologies that brought the Leonardo book into my living room are intellectually impoverishing; the encounters they foster are far more casual than a visit to the refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie (where The Last Supper continues to deteriorate) or the Louvre.

But that perspective is a narrow and crabbed one, in my opinion. I can accept Carr’s premise that the Internet discourages deep reading. After all, it’s a strain to read long documents on most types of screens, and time spent on the Net is undeniably time taken away from other pursuits (though I suspect that TV viewing has suffered more in this respect than book reading). But the idea that deep reading is the only way people form rich mental connections is much harder to swallow, and suggests to me that Carr may be too caught up in the romantic image of the poet or professor lost in his book. I think he misses the many other ways in which these connections arise—some of which, believe it or not, are happening right on the Internet.

Take, for example, some of the online learning and reference tools I’ve written about in this column, such as Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope. The depth and detail of the image databases brought together in this virtual planetarium are nothing short of astonishing, and as a platform for both solo exploration and prerecorded lessons, the program promises to 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.”

The Atlantic: Is Google Making Us Stupid?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 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.”

Leonardo da VinciAll 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.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Andrew Koyfman

    Looks like a great article Wade, but I flitted away to some hyperlinks half way through :-).

    Actually, I did read the entire piece. I think that the way we interact with printed text is quite different from how we interact with online text. Personally, I’ve been noticing that I read much slower (which also means more carefully) when the text is printed. So, for reading for pleasure I vastly prefer printed text. But for gathering information, initial breadth is often far more valuable then depth. Otherwise, how will you know what you don’t know.