Over at the Wall Street Journal Clay Shirky says that, yes, the Internet is transforming our lives and societies in unexpected ways. But he suggests that people like Nick Carr are missing the larger context of these changes:
Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid. This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type.
Shirky even marshals Martin Luther and Edgar Allan Poe to help make his argument:
Whenever media become more abundant, average quality falls quickly, while new institutional models for quality arise slowly. Today we have The World's Funniest Home Videos running 24/7 on YouTube, while the potentially world-changing uses of cognitive surplus are still early and special cases.
That always happens too. In the history of print, we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals, and complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, "The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing." Edgar Allan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, "The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information."
The response to distraction, then as now, was social structure. Reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers. Literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Now it's our turn to figure out what response we need to shape our use of digital tools.
If we believe that humans benefit from being able to concentrate for extended periods of time, it behooves us to heed Shirky's message. Kids won't learn to read novels unless we teach them the pleasures and rewards of doing so.