When I picked up the current Scientific American my eye was immediately drawn to the cover line, "Google Is Changing the Way You Think." Given the sensationalist tone that often accompanies explorations of how Internet use affects cognition (even Nicholas Carr's sedate 2007 discussion of the topic was entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" by Atlantic editors hoping to boost sales), the article was a measured summation of studies that indicate a) we often go online to answer questions we used to ask friends and b) relying on the Internet for information we or our friends used to remember means while we have access to more information than ever, we know less.
Ever since the "Web" became a household word in the early nineties, there's been a great deal of fretting, if not full-blown bursts of rage, over our increasing reliance on computers and related technologies to inform, entertain or distract ourselves, and the consequences for our intellectual culture or the functioning of our brains. The most notable in recent months was Jonathan Franzen's hissy fit in The Guardian about our "own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment," in which " the physical book goes on the endangered-species list...responsible book reviewers go extinct... independent bookstores disappear, [and] literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion." And--apparently one of the bitterest pill of all--Salman Rushdie, "who ought to have known better, [has] succumb[ed] to Twitter."
Could those of us who remember the pre-Internet world take a collective breath and calm down? The physical book is alive and well. Booksale statistics show purchasers of e-books buy printed books as well. A recent market survey found readers under 24, the so-called "digital natives," actually prefer printed books to e-books. Independent bookstores are enjoying an unexpected renaissance. And while I'm disappointed by the decreasing number of paid opportunities for critics and the near extinction of newspaper book review sections, there's no lack of online venues for quality criticism, such as Full Stop, The Critical Flame, and The Rumpus (full disclosure: I review for The Rumpus). As for Franzen's disdain for "Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion," writers have always had to self-promote in some form, whether it's Ben Jonson writing smarmy poems to the Countess of Rutland or Ernest Hemingway posing for beer ads in Life.
And I am anything but a techno-utopian. I think all the money and effort spent on initiatives like One Laptop Per Child would have been put to better use in training opportunities for teachers from communities in the developing world as well as providing their schools with books and classroom supplies. And I love printed books. I occasionally splurge on books from publishers such as the Library of America, known for the quality of their paper and binding. I own a handful of first editions. And I hate many changes of recent years, such as the seemingly continuous thinning of newspapers. But we simply cannot blame everything that seems wrong with American print culture and media on the Internet.
As for the question of whether the Internet is changing our brains--it almost certainly is. Internet use is addictive. I've seen the addiction in myself. I've seen troubling manifestations of it in small children. I check email compulsively. During evenings when I used to read books I often now flit around online from Salon to Slate to Arts and Letters Daily and, yes, Gawker. And as Nicholas Carr lamented in The Atlantic a few years ago, I sometimes find concentrated, immmersive reading harder than it used to be. But I can still lose myself in the pages of a book.
Plus ça change. New means of transmitting information have always changed people's brains and behavior, and people have always complained about it. Roughly 2400 years ago Plato complained that reading and writing would weaken people's memories. And he was correct. The explosion of printed material and the near-universal adoption of silent reading during the Renaissance arguably changed how we think as well. Marshall McLuhan, famously argued that the act of silently scanning lines of printed text (as opposed to reading illuminated manuscripts out loud) had decisive consequences for Western thought and society: reading aloud to other people is a communal act; reading alone is an individual one. While McLuhan has his detractors, no historian seriously doubts Elizabeth Eisentein's assertion in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change that "the thoughts of readers are guided by the way the contents of books are arranged and presented." And Franzen's complaints about our "media-saturated moment," echo the complaints of Renaissance curmudgeons that the printing press made it too easy to reproduce existing books and publish new ones. As 15th-century Venetian magistrate Filipo di Strata put it, "The pen is a virgin, the printing press is a whore."
Here we are at another such moment of change. And we can choose how we respond to it. I don't know anyone who honestly wants to go back to the pre-Web world, but Internet addiction and diminished concentration can be serious problems. So you know what? I sometimes turn off the iPad and read a book. I know parents who limit their children's Internet time. I know people who became so concerned about how much time they spent online they canceled their home Internet access. Computers, tablets and smart phones aren't going to blunt our minds unless we use them to do so.
And really, Franzen, it's fine if Salman Rushdie wants to tweet.