by Karl Arnold Belser
8 February 2014

I read the article Is Google Making Us Stupid? by Nicholas Carr, which made me realize that the world civilization is undergoing a fundamental paradigm shift, more than I describe in my post Books, Journalism and Education.  

Carr's article was a 2008 article in The Atlantic which resulted in the book The Shallows. The Shallows was a finalist for the 2011 nonfiction  Pulitzer Prize, and it was one of the 2014 Silicon Valley Reads recommendations.

One of the points of the book is that people that are used to getting information interactively on the Internet might (and according to Carr usually do) get bored at the slow rate of information transfer from a book. I agree and I found that the Atlantic article was much more digestible and to the point than the book.

I wondered: How could the Internet be bad?

I had the opportunity to talk to the author at the Santa Teresa Library near my house, and I asked him why. He stated that there were too many distractions when one uses the Internet - advertisements, pop-up messages for mail, twitter and RSS feeds. Further there are usually links in the articles on the Internet, like in this post, and people can follow a link and get distracted.

I thought  initially that Carr was a Luddite, who was defending the old paradigm of learning. He was defending long articles and the reading of books. He must surely be biased because he was making his living by this type of writing. I changed my mind somewhat when Carr admitted that he used the Internet all the time to speed his research.

I had just finished reading How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. This book describes in detail how to read various types of written material,, and the reading process requires work that I don't believe any reader today would do. They wouldn't do this amount of work because they could use what I would call Active Reading in which the reader takes charge of educating himself via the Internet. Adler does point out that the most sophisticated readers would do Syntopical Reading, which is essentially a type of active reading. 

As a side bar, Adler wrote the two volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica called the Syntopicon, which describes the books that an "educated person" might want to have read. When I went to Stanford in the early 1960s I had to read these books in a course called Western Civilization. This requirement was discontinued in the decade that followed. Allan Bloom laments this general loss of reading in the humanities in his book The Closing of the American Mind.

Carr is not arguing Blooom's case. Rather he is saying that he thinks that people are not thinking deeply, i.e. thinking skeptically,  about what they read. Carr would probably argue that this lack of digestion of material is a problem.  

I think that people try to be as efficient as possible in absorbing information, and that he has missed part of the paradigm change. I pointed out that the way I digest material is that I write a BLOG, this BLOG, in order to think about what I have read. In the end Carr admitted that he essentially was doing the same thing. He writes his BLOG to organize his thinking.

I conclude that the new paradigm is that of Active Reading along with writing a BLOG entry to digest what has been read.

As another side bar, Claude Shannon derived in the 1940s the channel capacity of a communications medium, which is the maximum rate of information transfer for that media. Later the feedback channel capacity was derived. The channel with feedback is enormously more effective in information transfer. One can think of the difference as being that of reading a book and that of having a conversation with the author in which you can get instant clarification feedback about what he says. I think that the Internet lets the active reader ask questions as he goes via Google searches in order to maximize information transfer.

I think that the Internet and Google are tools that can allow us to become smarter. However, it takes the self discipline to not allow one's attention to be sidetracked. One has to learn how to do Active Reading.

Last updated February 10, 2014
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