When Nicholas Carr wrote the infamous article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (2008), he made waves in the education community who had bought into the Marc Prensky vision of today’s students as “digital natives” (2005). While making impetuous decisions about technology integration in schools, Carr halted everyone into thinking maybe we should be a bit more skeptical about technology’s long term effects on the brain. Essentially, Carr asks if our depth of thinking has been doomed to ‘the shallows’ with the advancement of digital technology. He cautions that society has lots of breadth in the sources we have available to us to skim and scan, but that we are losing our ability to read deeply. Using himself as a research subject, he argues that his behaviour in reading digital material appeals to his need for instant gratification, but has caused to become more easily distracted and more susceptible to the control of information corporations.
I really appreciate how Carr maps out in history how the very nature of reading has changed with advances in technology. Carr (2011) says: “it is our intellectual technologies that have the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think. They are our most intimate tools, the ones we use for self-expression, for shaping personal and public identity, and for cultivating relationship with others” (p. 45). The argument of the publication’s power has existed since the invention of the printing press … what are we going to publish and with whose voice? Who is being left out of publishing and at what cost to society? It’s possible to question this same problem of equity if we admit that “reading and writing are unnatural acts” (Carr, 2011, p. 51) and are shaped by parents, environments and school. My concern is that in public education in a G8 country, that we need to try to level that playing field so that every student has an equal opportunity to learn.
I read a lot of news and magazine articles from my iPad which I control the flow of information using an app called Zite. It allows me to turn on or turn off subjects of my interest and filters in my favourite writers, and filters out writers who I deem unworthy of my attention. I love that every time I connect that there is a magazine filled with articles just for me. Yet I’m turning into one of those people at parties who can’t talk about anything other than books, school libraries, chiweenies and the humble kitchen garden. I read a lot but what I read doesn’t represent my renaissance upbringing. It represents what Amazon has recommended for me based on my past choices, or what my filters have chosen for me in Zite. However I don’t think that I’m reading any less deeply. I’m able to make big leaps in my intellectual logic, because I’m able to make room in my brain for bigger ideas than the quick facts that I can Google.
In contrast to Carr’s premise, Jim Collins (2013), Department Chair at the University of Iowa, argues that in order to get past “the debate between the defenders of traditional literary experience and the celebrants of digital culture…we need to distinguish between a delivery system and a medium.” I’m still choosing to read a breadth of material on deep topics, but my reading has definitely changed in that I’m able to now metatag and share my reading with others in a way that I never have before. Collins (2013) also argues that “Reading literary fiction on an e-reader is not a gateway drug that leads to the hard stuff of digital culture — become psychologically dependent on that e-reader, and you’ll find yourself in an alley somewhere with a cell-phone novel written by promiscuous Japanese teenagers sticking out of your arm.” Although I may be juggling a lot of new information (Carr, 2011, p. 139), I’m also making connections in new and interesting ways. Instead of tapping into a culture of fear about the internet’s potential for corruption, we should be using it to further our culture of reading into something more participatory.
Although Carr wrote The Shallows in 2011, his vision of libraries (p. 98) doesn’t represent my reality in 2014. In 1994, the main floor of my library was converted to an open computer lab that could accommodate two classes at once and the books were relegated to a new lower level. We’ve just made a major overhaul in moving the desktops out, the books back upstairs and doubling our computers by using cheaper, lighter mobile devices. The emphasis isn’t on computers or books…it’s on learning. Which makes me question once again Carr’s opinions on how schools should scaffold the use of technology? I am more concerned that students in my community are missing out on technological advances, than if they’re indulging in technology for self-gratification. Where is Carr’s research on the digital divide? Does Carr believe as the United Nations does that access to the internet is now a fundamental human right? (Jackson, 2011).
While Carr has some valid arguments, especially those steeped in the rich history of language that he outlines in detail, I don’t want to believe him. I want to believe that we are in a cultural infancy and that while we may be sacrificing some skills, that new ones will emerge. Someday I believe that society will use the power of the global internet to solve the world’s problems rather than spending it playing Candy Crush Saga…unless each candy crushed will somehow eliminate poverty and hunger.
Carr, N. (2008, July 1). Is Google making us stupid?: What the internet is doing to our brains. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/
Carr, N. (2013, April 20). The death of deep reading [Blog post]. Retrieved from big think website: http://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/the-death-of-deep-reading
Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Collins, J. (2013). Reading, in a digital archive of one’s own. Publications of the Modern Language Association, 128(1).
Jackson, N. (2011, June 3). United Nations declares internet access a basic human right. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/06/united-nations-declares-internet-access-a-basic-human-right/239911/
Prensky, M. (2005/2006). Listen to the natives. Educational Leadership, 63(4).