Editorials

We are how we read

A year ago, the satirical newspaper The Onion reported some startling faux news under a Palo Alto, Calif., dateline:

"A new report published this week by researchers at Stanford University suggests that Americans spend the vast majority of each day staring at, interacting with, and deriving satisfaction from glowing rectangles.

"'From the moment they wake up in the morning, to the moment they lose consciousness at night, Americans are in near-constant visual contact with bright, pulsating rectangles,' said Dr. Richard Menken, lead author of the report, looking up briefly from the gleaming quadrangle that sits on his desk. 'In fact, it's hard to find a single minute during which the American public is not completely captivated by these shining ... these dazzling ...'

"'I'm sorry,' Menken continued. 'What were we discussing again?'"

As usual, the geniuses at The Onion were ahead of the news curve. Now comes some startling real news that ubiquitous interaction with glowing rectangles -- particularly computers, cell phones and other Internet-connected devices -- may be altering not only the way we interact with other people, but also our fundamental intelligence.

"Is Google Making Us Stupid" was the title of a controversial article published two years ago in The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr, the author and social critic whom computer nerds love to hate. Now, Carr has elaborated on the subject in "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains."

"The Shallows" is a 276-page book. Ironically, if Carr's theories are right, its very length means that it won't be read by the people who most need to read it.

In his Atlantic article, Carr quoted Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University: "'We are not only what we read. We are how we read.' Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts 'efficiency' and 'immediacy' above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become 'mere decoders of information.' Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged."

Carr notes that similar worries were expressed in the 16th century when Gutenberg's printing press began to make books widely available and in the late 19th century when typewriters began making writing faster.

In fact, he says, Plato wrote in ancient Greece that Socrates was worried that the development of writing would mean that people would be able to "receive a quantity of information without proper instruction," thus making them appear to be "very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant."

"Then again," he warns, "the Net isn't the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. 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 own minds."

The effect is not just philosophical or theoretical, but biological. Carr explores the science of neuroplasticity, which has demonstrated that the neural pathways in the human brain can be rewired. "Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind -- over and over again," he writes.

In theory, the Internet, over time, may rewire our brains so that we are less capable of sustained attention and deep thought. "The mental functions that are losing the 'survival of the busiest' brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought, the ones we use when traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on when we reflect on our experiences or contemplate an outward or inward phenomenon."

Already some social scientists have identified a symptom they call "FOMO," or Fear of Missing Out. People who are wired 18 hours a day -- assuming they spend six hours sleeping -- report symptoms of anxiety, even addiction, to their Internet connections.

If you ever have spoiled a family dinner or vacation or interrupted a face-to-face conversation with a friend to check e-mail or Facebook, you could be at risk for FOMO. But if you've made it this far -- 762 entire words into a newspaper column -- you're probably safe.

Contact Horrigan at khorrigan@post-dispatch.com.

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