Now I'm up to episode 13, where the guest is Clive Thompson and the topic is how technology affects our minds; particularly whether the Internet is making us dumber (spoiler alert - Thompson's new-at-the-time book is titled Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better). McRaney compares Thompson to thinkers like Nicholas Carr, author of a very similarly-titled but diametrically opposed book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains as well as a 2008 Atlantic article titled Is Google Making Us Stupid?
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.
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. "I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader," he wrote. "What happened?" He speculates on the answer: "What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I'm just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?"
Thompson agrees that the way we think is changing, but contends that that's a good thing:
. . . has produced bold new forms of human cognition, worthy of both celebration and investigation. We learn more and retain the information longer, write and think with global audiences, and even gain an ESP-like awareness of the world around us.
And as I listened to the interview, I realized that I think they're both right, and the thing that makes me think of is diets. I have this hypothesis that every medically-not-insane diet works for some people, but we're all too different for one diet to work for everybody. Likewise, Google can make you stupid and lazy - IF YOU LET IT; conversely, the Brave New Internet World can make you smart and accomplished - IF YOU EXPLOIT IT.
And it's a total coincidence that I'm writing this post on January 1.