In praise of fragments…

Yesterday I said this on twitter:

now suffering reading fatigue. i think this may be a chronic rather than acute illness

It’s the sort of half-idea I often tweet out. But I have noticed that I find it harder and harder to persist with non-fiction books, essays and longer blog posts.

ksfranck tweeted this back:

A bad case of internet induced ADD? viz. Nick Carr: https://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google

I’ve seen mention of that article before, and this prompted to read it (well, some of it I skimmed). It’s full of interesting ideas about how our thinking can be shaped by technology. I’m guessing a sub-editor gave it the title – “Is google making us stupid?” because Carr’s prose is much less dogmatic than that.

The core of his argument seems to be that we’re in danger of outsourcing our thinking to systems that operate mechanically:

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. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

I’m the first to lament treating humans in mechanistic ways but there’s a big difference between a system called Google, and a system in which human beings use Google. Google may not handle ambiguity, but I think we can.

Carr is also concerned about our shortening attention spans (this is where my tweet comes in, I guess). But I would disagree that this means we are becoming more computer-like in our thinking. I’d argue that we are inherently conversational, relational thinkers and that the net allows us to work more in a way that suits us better – finding one idea, being provoked to look for related ideas elsewhere, and joining them together.

It was older technology and distribution that gave us the more linear experience of reading long books and essays. In that world, it made sense to read to the end as there was less other stuff available. So maybe we just associated persistence with long books with intelligence, accidentally lending status to verbosity?

Carr is very concerned about contemplation. Well I’m hugely in favour of reflection and contemplation, but I don’t think I’d equate contemplation with the willingness to read long books. In fact, one of things that makes me contemplate is the collision of ideas. For instance, when ksfrank tweeted me back yesterday, I was prompted to reflect quite a lot. Hence this post. I think I get more of that kind of collision in online discussion than I do reading most books.

I think the linear is overrated, and there’s no inherent merit in long books and articles.

(I’m also reminded of The Alphabet versus the Goddess which I blogged about last year. The author argues that literacy itself promoted linear, abstract predominantly masculine thinking at the expense of more holistic, intuitve feminine thinking. He goes on to propose that tv and internet are shifting us back to more imagistic thinking, reversing that bias.)

7 thoughts on “In praise of fragments…

  1. Charles Frith

    I skimmed the article too because I’m well aware of any changes I’m going through. I like it this way and I also think we belong to a golden age where we can do something I’m looking forward to. A few very long train rides (sleepers) with a couple of books I want to work through. Slower and more contemplative and as soon as I’m online back to the naturally fragmented life.

    I’ve also read more rubbish books/chapters through perseverance than I care to admit. Not wasted time but not exactly a natural use of it either.

    Reply
  2. Andre Ling

    Interesting post. I have started living an increasing part of my life in webworld – especially since getting into blogs… But the trend of searching for faster ways of getting more ideas, knowledge and inspiration started at university.

    When I discovered that reading lists full of books could be substituted by articles from various online article repositories, my life changed. I could get far many more perspectives on the same subject in the same amount of time – giving me what I felt was a much broader sense of what really mattered.

    Now, into the world of blogging. When I look for blogs a certain amount of substance is required. Something important that I am interested in or can relate to has to get communicated. With access to so many different viewpoints, it’s harder to be patient and trudge through lengthy passages unless they entice quickly.

    Web 2.0 provides access to networked knowledge: pre-digested, inter-connected and diverse. In a world of complexity, I think this suits the learner’s mind. Given the desire to make creative use of time (for example, by having real conversations, pondering or creating things – individually or in groups), it’s preferable to get 20 inter-connected angles on something than 20 pages on the same thing from just one angle. Plus we get a higher likelihood of coming across random and entertaining spin-offs that we didn’t expect… 🙂

    So I don’t think there’s anything to worry about!

    Reply
  3. Andy

    Johnnie,

    I ate up Carr’s essay in The Atlantic. But I like your counter too.

    We are where we are. We can read books and we can read snippets.

    As with most things, balance is needed. To me, a writer and student of literature, I’m troubled by the idea that people won’t or can’t read long form material. Smart people!

    Yet, I see the value in 140 character narrative bursts.

    Both have value.

    —–

    Random and serendipitous inputs would seem to me to be only one half of the equation. If there is no time for reflection, noticing and synthesis the will the collision of ideas actually rsult in anything different?

    Perhaps the underlying impact of the multiple sources of input is less about the dimensions of the input, and more about the Quality of Attention. If I’ve always got part of my attention on twitter, or the crackberries little red light am I doomed to skitter across the surface of everything without taking it to any level of depth?

    Fragment the input, Yes. Fragment my attention… sorry what was I saying? 😉

    Reply
  4. Johnnie Moore

    Here’s another way of looking at it. A long form essay is a series of fragments assembled in a particular order by its author. If we choose to read a couple of those fragments, and then turn to fragments from somewhere else, maybe we are just creating our own connected series of fragments.

    And just because our series of fragments isn’t put down on paper for everyone else doesn’t make them bad.

    I think I agree with Andy that we might think about the quality of our attention. As a bit of a fan of meditation, that’s something I believe we have within our control so that it doesn’t have to get hijacked by google.

    Reply
  5. BrianSJ

    I think we need to distinguish slow-time reflection and soaking in a good book.

    Guy Claxton makes a very strong argument in ‘Hare Brain Tortoise Mind’ for slow-time reflection over a period of say months. This could be chewing over narrative fragments from blogs and putting them together. It is a quite different thing to really soaking in someone else’s worldview in a long article or book.

    Both are valuable. Indispensible.

    Reply
  6. Johnnie Moore

    Brian: good point (I’m a big fan of Claxton’s book). I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that there’s stuff out there, and then there’s how we choose to engage with the stuff. As someone who’s recently gone back to fairly regular meditation, I really appreciate the value of slow time reflection!

    Reply

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