Is the Internet killing the American reader?
The big debate in America this summer isn't Obama versus McCain, free trade versus protectionism or the Boston Red Sox versus New York Yankees. It's the digital literacy debate -- the debate about whether or not the Internet is killing reading.
This brouhaha began with the cover story of the current issue of Atlantic magazine. In an article entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid" the Internet's most erudite and articulate critic, the New England based writer Nicholas Carr, argued that the Internet has been "tinkering" with our brains. It's a scientific rather than moral argument. The Internet, Carr explains, is eroding our ability to intellectually concentrate and contemplate -- the key mental requisites that enable us to effectively consume and digest books. Instead of readers, the digital revolution is transforming us all into skimmers -- highly agile at mentally jumping from hypertext to hypertext link, but increasingly unable to digest long or complex textual information, particularly in book form. Quoting Maryanne Wolf, the Tufts University developmental psychologist, author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain", Carr reminds us that we are not only "what we read" about also "how we read". Thus, he says, today's online skimming generation is more and more illiterate -- unable to think in anything beyond the intellectually infantilizing currency of instant-messaging, emails and short blog posts.
Carr's article caused a viral eruption of intense debate in America, both and on and off the Internet. Two other popular books released this summer also support Carr's thesis -- Emory University Professor of English, Mark Bauerlein's "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future" and Boston Globe columnist Maggie Jackson's "Distracted: The Explosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age". Unlike Carr, both Bauerlein and Jackson's argument is ethical rather than scientific. They both fear the end of Western Civilization in the digital revolution's destruction of reading culture. Jackson even suggests that we need to historically posit our current predicament in AD 410, that notorious lights-out year when the Goths sacked Rome thus destroying classical civilization and inaugerating a thousand year Dark Age in western civilization.
Not surprisingly, the pro digital camp dragged out its heavy hitters to pull apart Carr's apocalyptic argument. In "The Reality Club", a discussion group on the scientific website Edge, a online group of leading digital thinkers such as Wired magazine founding editor Kevin Kelly, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger and popular novelist Douglas Rushkoff all critiqued Carr's article. The incorrigible Kelly even had a chutzpah to publish a counter essay on his blog entitled "Will We Let Google Make Us Smarter". Meanwhile, the Encylopedia Britannica website also ran a debate on its website featuring New York University digital media idealist Clay Shirky who argued in "Why Abundance is Good" that the growing irrelevance of a text like Tolstoy's War and Peace had more to do with the fact that it was "long and uninteresting" than because of the Internet.
And now America's most venerable newspaper, the old lady herself, the New York Times, has entered the fray. In this Sunday's Times, book publishing beat writer Motoko Rich wrote a 3,500 front page piece entitled "Literary Debate: Online, R U Really Reading," which, in meticulous detail, laid out the complex battle lines of the great debate. Amazingly, Rich's piece is just the first in a series of articles about the impact of technology on reading that The Times intends to run over the next few months. This debate, then, is only just beginning. My guess is that its narrative will soon grow longer and more twisted than War and Peace.
So who, so far, is winning the great digital literacy debate? Ironically, it's the supposedly endangered species, the American reader, who is the real victor. Carr's remarkably provocative piece has unleashed a wealth of compelling writing, both on and offline, from all of America's most articulate Internet luminaries. The jury may still be out on whether the Internet is killing the poor defenseless American reader, but I'm pretty confident that, over the next year or two, we are going to see a explosion of new books about the impact of the digital revolution on reading by popular American authors like Carr, Kelly and Shirky. And some of these books, I suspect, will even be published in digital form on the Internet.