Eric Schmidt’s second thoughts

I admit to having a bit of a personal interest in this, but I’ve been fascinated to see how the thinking of Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, has evolved over the past few years on the question of the Net’s effect on reading and cognition. Here are three quotes from Schmidt, the most recent of which came yesterday:

ericatlantic.jpgJuly 30, 2008: “I just got this in my in-box. Anybody read it? The Atlantic: ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ I mean, we’ve got a problem if this is true, right? In the article, the author … points out that deep reading is equal to deep thinking, and since we’re not reading deep anymore, we’re obviously not deep thinking. And what I was realizing in reading this – and I encourage you all to read it – is that this is exactly what people said when color television arrived in my home in Virginia 40 years ago. This is also what people said 25 years ago when the MTV phenomenon occurred, about short attention spans and so forth. And I observe that we’re smarter than ever. So the important point here is that [despite] all of these sort of histrionics about the role of information and other changes, society is enormously powerful, enormously capable of adapting to the threats.”

March 6, 2009: “I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something.
 And I worry that we’re losing that.”

January 29, 2010: “The one thing that I do worry about is the question of ‘deep reading.’ As the world looks to these instantaneous devices … you spend less time reading all forms of literature, books, magazines and so forth. That probably has an effect on cognition, probably has an effect on reading.”

I’m glad Schmidt has continued to ponder this issue, and I salute him for having the courage to air his concerns publicly.

14 Comments

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14 Responses to Eric Schmidt’s second thoughts

  1. He said (back in 2008) “And I observe that we’re smarter than ever.”

    He should think harder on that, if he please.

  2. Nicholas Roberts

    I guess there is a commercial rationale too.

    As Google Books becomes a bigger market/library and a better user experience, as new “book” like devices become standard (and no doubt there will be Android style products) “deep thinking” via The Google will be more of a commercial reality.

    Google is already making data a kind of entertainment, and making serious money from it.

    Google has the data depth for the “deep thinking” market

  3. Can you elucidate upon how you may have co-opted the term ‘deep reading’ in your essay in a way that reduced the richness of its meaning, as Maryanne Wolf seems to be alleging in an interview pulse-berlin did with her?:

    “I will say that I was unpleasantly shocked when I read the Atlantic Monthly article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ In that article, the writer used part of my book as well as an interview with me in which I called all these processes ‘deep reading’ processes. He used this term ‘deep reading’ in his article. …” (http://www.pulse-berlin.com/index.php?id=160/)

  4. Labadarianfan,

    I think you need to read Maryanne Wolf’s entire answer. What shocked her, you’ll see, was not my article but some of the reactions to it (which cavalierly dismissed the importance of deep reading).

    I heartily recommend Professor Wolf’s book, Proust and the Squid.

    Nick

  5. With all due respect, Mr. Carr, I did read her entire answer, in fact, the whole interview, very carefully. She said that she was “was unpleasantly shocked when [she] read the Atlantic Monthly article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’”. She did not say that it was the responses to your essay of which she was “unpleasantly shocked,” but rather from reading your essay. She then said that she found the responses to your essay to be “reductionistic”. All around she appeared displeased with the publishing of your essay. On top of that, she didn’t seem to want to mention your name, referring to you simply as “the writer”. I am wondering if perhaps there is more there. To me it seems like she didn’t quite agree with your treatment of the term “deep reading,” which was perhaps applied in too sensationalist a manner for her, though being an Atlantic essay sensationalism is usually per the course. I have already read Proust and the Squid and enjoyed it immensely.

  6. Labadarianfan,

    By all means, drop Professor Wolf a note asking her what she meant – that would be the simplest and most decisive way to resolve the question. But I’m pretty sure you’ll find that what left her “unpleasantly shocked” was what she describes as transpiring “as a result” of my article – the dissing of Tolstoy, etc. – not my quoting her about deep reading.

    Here’s the full answer, as well as the question:

    Q: I don’t think we can live without the arts, and without what I think “reading” for you represents. It’s how we learn what is possible. I think everyone knows this but doesn’t think about it. You’re trying to get us to think about it. This is necessary. And I understand your worry, but I don’t think these things can go away. Change, yes, but not dissappear.

    A: I hope you’re right. But I will say that I was unpleasantly shocked when I read the Atlantic Monthly article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” In that article, the writer used part of my book as well as an interview with me in which I called all these processes “deep reading” processes. He used this term “deep reading” in his article. As a result, the Encyclopedia Britannica had a Blog on this topic and people wrote things like “Who cares about War and Peace? Who cares about Tolstoy? This is too long and we don’t need it. It’s boring.” So the kinds of responses to these questions were more often than I would ever have believed possible, reductionistic, a thought bite and sound bite mentality and not appreciating what you are now saying about how important art and writing are for our culture. I could not agree with you more. That’s what I believe too. But I’m seeing evidence that a portion of society believes that it can get along very well without it.

  7. Well, I disagree, but I may be wrong. I have fired off an email to Maryanne Wolf in which I wrote:

    “To me it seems that you are saying that you were ‘unpleasantly shocked’ by Carr’s essay and that you found the responses to it to be ‘reductionistic.’ Carr believes you were solely referring to the responses to his essay and not his essay itself. I disagreed with him based on a close reading of your response, but perhaps you misspoke? I believe that you were hinting that his essay had been designed to elicit such responses, being sensationalistic as most Atlantic essays are, and that you didn’t appreciate his own reduction of your ideas.”

    Terms are important, obviously, and if there are different meanings for the term “deep reading” between you and Mrs. Wolf, then it would be great to know that. Hell, there’s even Sven Birkerts’ meaning for the term to consider, you know that guy who seems to have coined the term?

    It is an important term in the study of the differences between screen reading and print reading. Alright, I’ve gone on long enough about this. Toodles.

  8. ordaj

    Remember the scene in Contact where Jody Foster is in the space capsule that was constructed with directions from the aliens? (Our infinitley wise scientists added a chair because they thought it had to have one.) The chair vibrates like hell until it breaks loose from its moorings and then all is calm again and Jody floats serenely while travelling at breakneck speed throught the universe.

    Information flow is like that. We’ll be inundated with more and more of it until, at some point, we just break free from it…and float blissfully apart from it. We’ll become overwhelmed and step back from it. At this point, we will pause, reflect, and read a book. And continue to travel through the universe at breakneck speed.

  9. Hi Mr. Carr, I got a response from Prof. Wolf and she has permitted me to submit it here since she is very busy:

    “What a kindness it is for you to alert me to this situation and to attempt to set the record straight. I had no idea there was any controversy, and there indeed should be none. I have been thinking, researching, and writing about ” deep reading” processes for some time. Nicholas Carr is one of the few people early on who understood the threat to the formation, development, and “maintenence” of these processes from various sources in a digital transition period. I wish I had the time to go back to the actual interview, but what I meant was quite straightforward. I was truly dismayed by the primitive reactions that occurred as a response to his article. With an irony that Thomas Mann might have appreciated more than I can, the very nature of some (certainly not all) of these responses gave a perfect and unfortunate reflection of the kind of thinking that I worry most about. As does Mr. Carr. And, if I may be forgiven for saying so, as do you, Mr. Carter, or you would never have taken the time to write. Thank you so much for this kind gesture.”

    Okay, so my apologies for perhaps “fishing”. If anyone is interested in reading more about Wolf’s definition of the processes of “deep reading” there is her paper on the subject:

    Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai (March 2009). “The Importance of Deep Reading”. Educational Leadership 66 (6): pp. 32–37. http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el200903_wolf.pdf.

    Bill

  10. Thanks, Bill, for posting that clarification. I agree that the interview transcript was a bit ambiguous, as interview transcripts often are.

  11. Kirk House

    You could argue that books are just amalgamations of chapters which are collections of paragraphs comprised of sentences. The fact that they’re linear in a book doesn’t necessarily imply depth.

    Authors usually try to push some point of view. When your conclusions are based on the Bazaar of opinion instead of Gutenberg’s Cathedral there are more opportunities for discovery. You just have to do a bit more math.

  12. traintalk

    I would like to understand how we will be able to benefit from the developing ‘omnivorous’ search engine” (Marissa Mayer http://bit.ly/50FFS9 ) if the significance regarding whatever is happening re: deep reading and deep thinking is that we will lose the ability to discern what our search results *mean* in human cognitive discursive form.

    traintalk: so do you think there will be a google personal appliance that will hook up with our internal net and index it and find answers before we do

  13. Ron Wolf

    Yes, a positive model of deep discourse between you (Carr), Labadarianfan, and Prof. Wolf (by proxy, and no relation to me). No doubt this is what we need and need more of.

    To the point of your post, it is fascinating to see Schmidt reverse his point of view. As others, note his reversal supports his business interests. Who knows what Schmidt really thinks? Who cares either? He is Google.

    Beyond all that, I find the deep reading topic amusing & almost trivial. Why? My guess is that we are not that far from direct brain interface being common. By “not that far” I mean 20-80 years – hey, its only a guess. Whatever the timing, it brings, not only the end of reading, but the end of media. Its somewhere between difficult and impossible to imagine what it will be like to be directly wired. The virtual world sci-fi vision is lacking and silly. I think that even the concept of ‘interruption’ will become passe. Always wired, always parallel. Our current times and the related aspects of interpreting media thru our eyes & ears, they won’t be of much interest except to some historians.

  14. I am really happy to read about Eric Schmidt’s thoughts on “deep reading”. It really set me thinking deeply. I agree that we have a lot more information today and more power consequent upon acquisition of information.

    I had a related article up on my blog on the role of search engines and content (http://consult4content.com/blogs/http:/consult4content.com/blogs/contenttype/defining-content/are-search-engines-killing-content). Of course, I had written that article from the perspective of search engines and how it impacts the design of content and how one searches for content/information.

    regards

    Dr.Vanitha Vaidialingam