Saturday, July 26, 2008

Loading Content . . . Reflection Optional

What Nicholas Carr is afraid that what happened to time will happen to knowledge. In his July/August Atlantic Monthly essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" he points to how before the clock, time had a human element. We told time by means of sun and moon, seasons and harvest, births and deaths, and in general natural and human events. He points out that Socrates, decried the writing down of ideas, said without the contemplation of discourse, wisdom would be lost. Partially true, but look at what we gain by storing the accumulated wealth of words.

Carr notes that the Internet is mostly designed to browse, not to read, and that our very ability or desire to read long texts, to become immersed in say the world of a novel is fading with each click of the mouse. More troubling, while at the same time somewhat amusing, is Carr's mention of Google's stated mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." It seeks to create a search engine that "understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want."

Futurists have predicted that nanochips encyclopedic volumes of information will someday connected to our brains. The assumption is that we'll all be better off with every bit of information. What I find worthy of concern is Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page's belief that "certainly if you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off." Carr notes:

In Google's world, the world we enter when we go online, there's little place
for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for
insight but a bug to be fixed.
Information is a resource, but it's not knowledge and it's not intelligent, artificial or otherwise. So much meaning can come, from ambiguity, fuzziness, subtlety, and nuance, recollected with clarity. As a reader and teacher of literary texts, whether fiction or non, I believe the most rewarding parts come from the spaces where all the dots don't line up, where there is room for multiple interpretation and that kind of knowing that can only survive in a human consciousness.
I do find it troubling that we are encouraged to browse rather than digest information. I see it in my students approach to literary texts—they scan and skim for the headlines, and when a novel doesn't work that way, and most of them don't, my students give up, and go to Sparknotes—online no less—to get the gist of the text. Like Prospero, "this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning, make the prize light." I know my students will spend much more time with computers than books, despite the equally revolutionariness of both inventions. Still, I'd like them to relish the reward of thought and enlightenment that comes from deep reading.
Carr points out that:

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable
not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the
intellectual vibrations those words set off within our minds. In the quiet
spaces opened up the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other
act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our
own inferences and analogies, forster our own ideas.
Yes, reading and thinking are changing with technology. I share Carr's concern for the loss of reflection and in fact the ability of reflection in my students. The Internet itself doesn't foster thought the way books do. And books don't foster reflection the way a teacher can. With Plato's writing we got to know Socrates and settled with less rhetoric, with Gutenberg we quit illuminated manuscripts in lieu of plain type. As Google perfects its search engines, knowledge is more accessible, wisdom remains rare.

I'm no Socrates, the Internet is not a book—but as teachers we must endeavor to foster reflection's power. Reflection is perhaps the best kind of intelligence and furthest from artificial. It's what develops and changes our thinking whether we are speaking in groups, reading books, or surfing the Web.

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