Is Google Changing the Way We Read?

This essay was first published in Scottish Review on Tuesday 9th November 2010.

A new daily newspaper was launched in Britain this week. Not a headline you would have expected to read in 2010, given the rapidly declining circulation of newspapers generally and the current economic climate. If you blinked you may have missed it, as the new publication comes under the snappy title ‘i’, short for ‘Independent’ rather than a direct reference to the iPhone and iPad generation, although I’m sure the association was more than a happy coincidence. This is a newspaper with a difference, however. Along with the short title and the small price (20p) the stories are short too, with condensed versions of news, business and sports items from its more obese big brother. The Independent’s group director Andrew Mullins said at the launch: “Time-poor newspaper readers, and especially commuters, have been telling us for years that they are inundated with information and just don’t have the time to read a quality newspaper on a regular basis.” The solution, it seems, is to inundate them with more information: the paper runs to more than fifty pages of mini-stories,  enough to keep even the most impoverished time-traveller occupied for a fairly long time should they read it from cover to cover. It is a newspaper for people on the move, a newspaper for people who don’t read newspapers, the thinking-man’s Metro, Twitter in print, the pot noodle of new media.

Whether the Independent’s Russian oligarch owner Alexander Lebedev is making a smart business move remains to be seen. Whether the apparent need for ‘nuggets of information’ rather than in-depth analysis represents yet another beginning of the end for serious reading, or a sign that the internet is affecting the way we read, is a matter of conjecture. One person who would argue that that is indeed the case – unless he has changed his mind in the past couple of years, which I very much doubt – is Nicholas Carr, whose influential essay ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ appeared in Atlantic magazine in August 2008. Ironically, its influence was largely thanks to the power of the Web and Google in particular. Carr writes: ‘For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded…But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.’ Neat metaphor. To use another, less original one, the rapid expansion of the internet and access to it was always going to be a double-edged sword.

Carr’s concerns were not new, even in 2008. A year earlier, in her excellent book ‘Proust and the Squid – The Story and Science of the Reading Brain’, Professor Maryann Wolf compared the current seismic shift from a largely written culture to one dominated by visual images and massive streams of digital information, to a similar cultural upheaval just over two thousand years ago, when Socrates warned that the creation of the Greek alphabet and subsequently the written word would have disastrous consequences for learning, as he firmly believed that it was through spoken discourse and the exercise of memory that real learning took place and knowledge was acquired. Wolf draws parallels between Socrates’ fears for the consequences of writing and the effect of these ‘endless streams of digital information’ on the evolution of the reading brain, and wonders whether ‘the rapid, almost instantaneous presentation of expansive information threatens the more time-demanding formation of in-depth knowledge.’ However, having examined the evidence in some detail she reaches the rather more optimistic conclusion that the two are not mutually exclusive, that one will not replace the other, but rather that the brain will adapt and learn a new set of skills to add to our intellectual repertoire. If you are still following this rather flimsy thread of an argument perhaps you are helping to prove her point.

As for the new ‘i’, it would be easy to be cynical, but apart from reminding me of the extent to which the cult of celebrity has engulfed modern-day Britain, flicking through it was not an altogether unpleasant experience, and if I wanted to read any of the stories in more detail it would be easy to follow them up in another place or time. Am I likely to repeat the experience? Probably not. Will it survive? Time will tell. A more relevant question I suppose might be, ‘What are newspapers for any more?’

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