James Wanless

this is where I write

Does tech make us stupid, or just rude?

OK, so maybe not stupid, but apparently lazy. At least according to The Atlantic‘s Nicholas Carr it does. Based on the length of the piece, his writing chops are certainly still intact.

Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do …. I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.

Carr seems to think the web’s delivery format, and the sheer volume of information he is exposed to, is making it harder for him to concentrate on longer, more involved reading. The fact that so much information, including that used for research, is often just a click or two away and digestible an excerpt at a time, says Carr, is making us impatient. He says that his friends agree:

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether.

But, is this about capacity to read more deeply or just not taking the time? I’m probably as guilty as anyone of not reading as much, but I do try to make sure I have a book going most of the time. I actually relish the opportunity to get into a novel or work of nonfiction. I certainly don’t find it any harder to concentrate, despite the fact that I follow lots of feeds and scan plenty of online content on a daily basis.

The Technology Liberation Front‘s Adam Thierrer feels reasonably positive about the change communications tech is bringing:

The death of media scarcity and the rise of information abundance was bound to have profound implications for how we read, write and communicate—in most ways for the better, but perhaps in some ways for the worse. I doubt we’ll ever have a Shakespeare arising from the world of Twitter, for example, but I believe we are better off for having technologies and media platforms like it in our lives.

On this point I also have to disagree. Not necessarily with the fact that a variety of more immediate and engaging ways of communicating is a good thing. It is, but it’s often manifesting itself at the expense of social skills and manners. Grammar and eloquent writing is mostly a lost art form, based on the general level of discourse in the blogosphere. A great deal of this can be traced directly to IM and email, where shorthand acronyms are the order of the day.

I can’t begin to count how many times inappropriate cell phone conversations punctuate the air or cause car accidents, or encountering kids who can’t turn their iPod down long enough to be polite to the store clerk. Don’t even get me started on the whole issue of texting or IM-ing via cell. Handy yes. Annoying and unpleasant? Often. Why? Because too often we use gadgets as an excuse to avoid and ignore our fellow human being.

There’s no doubt that our behaviour is changing as a result of the volume and format of information we are now exposed to. I would suggest, though, that it’s crucial for us to try to be mindful of a couple things. Take the time to read. A real newspaper, a novel, anything that forces us to focus a little more. By extension then, take that notion of focus and target it on other people. Don’t use technology as an excuse for anti-social or disengaging behaviour.