Sunday, July 27, 2008

Am I Losing My Mind?

Nicholas Carr's recent article in The Atlantic with its scintillating title "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" is making waves through the edublogosphere. Carr's article actually focuses less on Google and more on how online reading has changed the way we interact with literature. Our media has changed our medium. For the most part, reactions to Carr's work have reiterated this thesis. Not many seem to disagree that the Internet has changed the way that we interact with text.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. agrees with Carr's assertion that the omnipresent internet is perhaps rewiring our brains. With so much information filtered into our email inboxes, returned by search engines, coming through our RSS feeds, it is no wonder we are distracted by the sheer volume of information bombarding us the minute we flip open our laptop screen. "So perhaps it is to be expected that we learn to skim and scan information but lose the ability to truly absorb and analyze it," asserts Pitts.

This is not a new idea. Neuroplasticity, the idea that the connections in our brains are not static but can be changed over time by certain stimula, was first discovered in the 1990s and has been written about by many involved with technology. In 2001, when Marc Prensky first coined the term "digital natives" to refer to those who had grown up with technology and whose brains seem to work differently than "digital immigrants" who were forced to learn how to interact with technology later in life, he relied heavily of the research of neuroplasticty to support his claims.

But even before scientists coined the term neuroplasticty, Carr points out, writers have been keenly aware of how media can change the medium. I was struck by Carr's connection to Nietzche. Upon switching to the typewriter, this 19th century philosopher noted that “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Technology changes how we interact with one another, how we interact with the world, so of course, it would change the way that we as readers interact with the written word.

Although I haven’t noticed as much of a change in my reading habits when I have a physical text in hand, I have noticed a change in how I read online. For example, the way that I read the newspaper on Saturday mornings is very different from how I read the news online. Saturday mornings I seek out the feature articles, look for the indepth stories of human interest while I sit sipping my coffee, my fingers turning inky as I flip slowly through each printed page. But when I go to the New York Times online, I seem to follow each link, forgetting sometimes the original article I was reading. I have multiple tabs open on my browser so that I can make a connection at a moment’s notice.

It is this type of reading, the frenzied, madly clicking, quickly connecting, stream of conciousness type of reading that most bloggers seem to be reacting to. However, I believe the following idea from Carr's article has the most impact for educators:
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.

Does the web provide us with so many easy to find answers that we are losing our ability to problem solve, our ability to think critically? Carlo Scannella over at extensions also seems to ask this question when he writes, "Can we really spell all that well anymore, when our spell-checkers do it for us? Can we write in cursive, when we now type our expressions? Can we continue to remember, when wikipedia does it for us?" As readers, are we more concerned about getting what we need from a text and less about the message? Is reading about answers instead of questions? And if this is the case, what does this mean for teachers of reading? Do we embrace this change or challenge it?

I do not disagree that the internet has changed the way we read. The web, much like the typewriter did for Nietzche, has definitely changed the "forming of our thoughts." As an English teacher, I wonder how I will need to change the way I teach reading.

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