Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What Do I Know?

One of my university professors was a genius. That word gets bandied around a lot, but the man possessed an exceptionally subtle mind. John Buell taught Communications Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. He had a PH.D in English Literature from the Universite de Montreal and was also a playwright and author. Several of his books were adapted for the big screen. I remember him well; gesticulating, guffawing and delighting at his own logic, animating heady material for dopey kids barely out of their teen years. We had to read McLuhan and Innis. We studied the history of the alphabet. We dutifully avoided the language of marketing. He had compassion too. Feeling lost and fragile, I once hung back after class and asked him if irony was an emotion. He looked at me, put a hand on my shoulder (yes, you could do that back in the mid-eighties) gently smiled and said, “It’s hard being young.”

The one thing that has stuck with me all this time is something he insisted on — that we distinguish between information and knowledge. To this day when I offer an opinion, I weigh it and try to figure out if I’m just parroting something I gleaned, or if I feel it to be true.

In the July/August issue of Atlantic Monthly, the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid” has had commentators ruminating. Margaret Wente at the Globe confessed that she didn’t have time to read anymore and that Google ate her brain. Indeed, several people interviewed for Nicholas Carr’s excellent article admitted to having their mental habits altered because of the internet. The author laments the demise of his attention span eloquently:
“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 feel his pain.

Allow me to demonstrate.

Try to get through this paragraph without hitting one of the hyperlinks. Try to stay focused on what I’m writing. Now imagine if it were dense, like a very technical policy report or a 19th century novel luxuriating in detail and description. Do you feel like Steven Page after his drug bust, all twitchy and sweaty? Do you feel ready to skim over these words? Do your eyes jump ahead?

Do you feel like you’re missing out on something? Do you wish you were somewhere else?

Altering our brains is nothing new (hey — I’m firmly in my Carlsberg years myself). I’m just acutely, uncomfortably aware that media is changing my thought process.

I don’t know what I know sometimes. And it scares me.

Carr refers to a U.K. study that found people using sites hopped from once source to another, rarely returning to the site they were first reading. The conclusion is “It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

Does this mean we’re all ADD? Is Novartis in cahoots with Google?

It’s easier to skim a website, more convenient to consume bits of info.

But really, do I know anything as a result? What do I retain?

Thorough reading involves a kind of dialogue with what’s being read. This requires concentration and contemplation — grappling with meaning. Above all, reading in the traditional sense sharpens a person’s critical and analytical skills. Not so easy to question a source when a person has five different sites going at once.

I read novels. I force myself to read because I’m a writer. I want to appreciate how other writers use metaphor, how they beat out rhythm, how they paint a picture with words. I want to do the work of imagining myself.

I wonder about my nieces and nephews and how they think. Can they read Dickens? Do they know how? It’s not their fault if they can’t.

I blame Al Gore. He invented the internet. I read that somewhere.