In a previous post titled “Reading—By Book or by Nook or By..?”, I wrote about my not owning an e-reader. I had some good reasons. Note the verb tense. I had good reasons. Now I am the owner of a latest generation Kindle.
While some of the concerns remain, one simple factor influenced the decision. My book bill. I realized that I could pay for the device rather quickly just in what I would save by purchasing e-editions. I also like the idea of being able to have numerous books with me at once. Wanting a book and having it in seconds is awesome. It’s light and easier to hold open in various positions than a regular book. Only one hand is needed, making it easier to pet the cat or sip on some coffee. The biggest perk may be not needing my glasses. I love my Kindle so much that I even bought it a nice protective case.
The first book I read on it is Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. This book grew out of Carr’s widely-read essay from the Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (What can I say? I appreciate irony.) Carr makes an impassioned and logical argument based on neuro-plasticity and how we use the Internet. To perhaps oversimplify, Carr posits that the frenzied pace of Internet use and our so easily being tempted by distraction are changing our synapses and brain structures in undesirable fashion. The upshot? We are losing the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time and to probe ideas in sufficient depth.
I don’t doubt Carr’s points, and I certainly share some of his concerns. No, this isn’t going to become one of those “kids today” gripes. In fact, in some ways it is the opposite. Yes, in some ways we clearly are changing. We may be in some others. At the same time I would argue that they are changes that, while perhaps not desirable, are borne of human desire. People are novelty-seeking creatures, and we like to reach quick conclusions based on scant evidence. Is that good? Not really. But it’s true. I think that Carr ignores that more people have long been drawn to light best sellers than scientific-philosophical treatises such as his. After some initial success, Herman Melville was dismissed as a “lunatic” and Moby-Dick basically ignored.
Besides, when the earliest books first appeared, Socrates and his pals bemoaned the havoc they would wreak on human culture. Our individual and collective memory would be wiped out like a magnetized floppy disk. Throughout history similar doom criers have predicted dire catastrophe due to some human folly.
As an educator, I find perhaps the most alarming part of Carr’s theory the evidence that academic scholarship shows signs of the shallowness he sees developing. For instance, the same references are showing up in a wider variety of papers on any given topic, a suggestion of people relying on search engines. So the problem may be affecting even those innately drawn to more intellectual pursuits.
And therein lies the rub. I’m fairly judicious when doing on-line research. When using my Kindle, I’ve actually found myself being more thoughtful. Annotation takes a bit more effort, so I find myself underlining less but writing better notes. I actually find myself reading a bit more slowly, perhaps because less appears on the screen at a time. I don’t feel as pulled along by the following text.
At the same time, of course I worry about young people growing up in the on-line world and all that that implies. I ponder how it affects all of us—individually and collectively. We can wax nostalgic all we want. But we’re not going to stop, and probably not even slow, the worlds’ accelerating rate of change. It doesn’t alter the eternal challenge educators face to engage young people in the life of the mind. It simply means that we have to rethink how to do it in the difficulties of the current context. And shouldn’t we always be rethinking education in that fashion?