Babies and Bath Water

I am reading a fascinating book: ‘The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains’ by Nicholas Carr. I strongly recommend it. I was particularly drawn to his analysis of the differences between ‘deep reading’ and the kind of interconnected, hyperlink driven reading that we engage with when we read on the internet.

Deep reading is the thoughtful, internalized reading we engage on when we read a book from cover to cover, when we engage with it at a deep level and contemplate the characters or the ideas contained within it. It is essentially linear – we start at the beginning and go on to the end.

Internet based reading is a different animal. It is filled with distractions and opportunities to be sidetracked that take up working memory as we decide whether to ignore them or follow their seductive paths. Carr is afraid that this kind of reading – and it is fast becoming the predominate form of reading – will lead to superficial thinking.

In a recent conversation with a university professor friend I heard her bemoaning the kind of ‘gist thinking’ that she felt was becoming far too commonplace among her students. “They think they understand, but they are satisfied with just the gist of the idea”. This, I think, is exactly what Carr is writing about.

But when something new comes along we are naive to think it will simply replace what has gone on before. Every new medium does not mark the previous media for obsolescence. People feared that TV would bankrupt cinemas. It has done no such thing and multiplexes thrive and continue to grow. We thought TV might destroy live theatre, but it has not. Certainly the CD led to the demise of the cassette tape, but that was because the CD did exactly the same thing as the cassette tape – only better.

Internet reading, with its interconnected, networked nature involves a very different kind of thinking from the deep, linear thinking that a good book offers. They both have us thinking in different ways, and both ways are powerful.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. We need to teach our kids how to navigate the rich, interconnected world of the internet. We need to encourage them to make connections, to link old knowledge with new discoveries, to create networks in their understandings than are essentially horizontal, broad and integrating. But we also need to make sure they see the value of deep reading, of mining at depth a rich seam of knowledge. There is a place for ‘gist’ thinking, but it doesn’t replace deep thinking.





Filed under Language and literacy, technology, Thinking

7 responses to “Babies and Bath Water

  1. suevanhattum

    My reading (of a book) becomes deeper when I can interact with it somehow. It has been a very long time since I’ve been in classes myself. Writing book reviews with my reactions to what I’m reading helps me to think more deeply about it. So the internet, with the blogging I do, has helped me to read more deeply.

    • Thanks for the comment Sue. I agree. Isn’t blogging about a book serving a similar function to the book group discussions we can have. Blogging about a book is a bit like talking about a book and it deepens our understanding as we have to put our understandings into words. But the deep reading comes first, doesn’t it?

      • suevanhattum

        What does deep reading mean to you?

        I almost always read very quickly, carried along by the storyline (which even non-fiction has, as its best). Trying to write about what I’ve read gets me to analyze it more than I otherwise would. I guess that’s part of what deep reading must mean to me.

      • Deep reading, as Carr uses the term, refers to the concentrated reading we engage in when we focus on a complete work – article, book etc – and read the complete thing. He contrasts this with the searching for highlights, quotes and bits and pieces that can be found with a google search.

  2. Last winter in a class with Troy Hicks, we read both The Shallows and Net Smart by Howard Rheingold, which pushes back a bit against some of the ideas presented by Carr. I agree with Carr about how we operate on the internet–I can observe his descriptions in my own behaviors, yet I am comforted by Rheingold’s notion of concentrated attention and choice.
    Here is the link to my related post:

  3. Well said, Pat. I rarely comment, but follow your blog faithfully. Here’s a couple of other suggested works along these lines:

    The Net Delusion:The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov
    To Save Everything, Click: the Folly of Technological Solutionism, Evgeny Morozov
    Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, Diana Senechal
    The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, Mark Bauerlein
    musing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman
    Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges
    Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Charles P. Pierce
    High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classrooms and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian, Clifford Stoll (one of the pioneers of the Internet!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s