Edge’s annual question for 2010 is “How is the Internet changing the way you think?” Some 170 folks submitted answers, including me. (I found it a bit of a challenge, since I wanted to avoid pre-plagiarizing my upcoming book, which happens to be on this subject.) Here’s my submission:
As the school year began last September, Cushing Academy, an elite Massachusetts prep school that’s been around since Civil War days, announced that it was emptying its library of books. In place of the thousands of volumes that had once crowded the building’s shelves, the school was installing, it said, “state-of-the-art computers with high-definition screens for research and reading” as well as “monitors that provide students with real-time interactive data and news feeds from around the world.” Cushing’s bookless library would become, boasted headmaster James Tracy, “a model for the 21st-century school.”
The story gained little traction in the press—it came and went as quickly as a tweet—but to me it felt like a cultural milestone. A library without books would have seemed unthinkable just twenty years ago. Today, the news almost seems overdue. I’ve made scores of visits to libraries over the last couple of years. Every time, I’ve seen more people peering into computer screens than thumbing through pages. The primary role played by libraries today seems to have already shifted from providing access to printed works to providing access to the Internet. There’s every reason to believe that trend will only accelerate.
“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology,” Mr. Tracy told a reporter from the Boston Globe. His charges would seem to agree. A 16-year-old student at the school took the disappearance of the library books in stride. “When you hear the word ‘library,’ you think of books,” she said. “But very few students actually read them.”
What makes it easy for an educational institution like Cushing to jettison its books is the assumption that the words in books are the same whether they’re printed on paper or formed of pixels or E Ink on a screen. A word is a word is a word. “If I look outside my window and I see my student reading Chaucer under a tree,” said Mr. Tracy, giving voice to this common view, “it is utterly immaterial to me whether they’re doing so by way of a Kindle or by way of a paperback.” The medium, in other words, doesn’t matter.
But Mr. Tracy is wrong. The medium does matter. It matters greatly. The experience of reading words on a networked computer, whether it’s a PC, an iPhone, or a Kindle, is very different from the experience of reading those same words in a book. As a technology, a book focuses our attention, isolates us from the myriad distractions that fill our everyday lives. A networked computer does precisely the opposite. It’s designed to scatter our attention. It doesn’t shield us from environmental distractions; it adds to them. The words on a computer screen exist in a welter of contending stimuli.
The human brain, science tells us, adapts readily to its environment. The adaptation occurs at a deep biological level, in the way our nerve cells, or neurons, connect. The technologies we think with, including the media we use to gather, store, and share information, are critical elements of our intellectual environment and they play important roles in shaping our modes of thought. That fact has not only been proven in the laboratory; it’s evident from even a cursory glance at the course of intellectual history. It may be immaterial to Mr. Tracy whether a student reads from a book or a screen, but it is not immaterial to that student’s mind.
My own reading and thinking habits have shifted dramatically since I first logged onto the Web fifteen or so years ago. I now do the bulk of my reading and researching online. And my brain has changed as a result. Even as I’ve become more adept at navigating the rapids of the Net, I have experienced a steady decay in my ability to sustain my attention. As I explained in an Atlantic Monthly essay in 2008, “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.” Knowing that the depth of our thought is tied directly to the intensity of our attentiveness, it’s hard not to conclude that as we adapt to the intellectual environment of the Net our thinking becomes shallower.
There are as many human brains as there are human beings. I expect, therefore, that reactions to the Net’s influence, and hence to this year’s Edge question, will span many points of view. Some people will find in the busy interactivity of the networked screen an intellectual environment ideally suited to their mental proclivities. Others will see a catastrophic erosion in the ability of human beings to engage in calmer, more meditative modes of thought. A great many will likely be somewhere between the extremes, thankful for the Net’s riches but worried about its long-term effects on the depth of individual intellect and collective culture.
My own experience leads me to believe that what we stand to lose will be at least as great as what we stand to gain. I feel sorry for the kids at Cushing Academy.