The debate about the future of book publishing is largely focused on two questions: First, how will books be sold (bricks and mortar vs. the Internet)? And, second, how will the content be delivered (traditional bound books vs. digital)? Both of these issues are, of course, being driven by the new realities made possible via the Internet.
But I think something even more profound is happening. While the Internet is shaping how we read, it is also shaping how we think.
In a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly (July/August 2008), Nicholas Carr asks, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He then goes on to describe what the Internet is doing to our brains. This is a must-read for anyone in the book publishing industry.
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
I can definitely relate to this. Something is happening to me, too. I am finding it increasingly difficult to focus when I read books or even long articles.
Carr notes that he no longer really reads. He just skims:
And 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. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
He goes on to say that it’s not just reading. Something is happening to our brains:
When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”
What does this mean for book publishing? I don’t know. But I do think Carr is onto something significant. If he is right, then how books are sold and delivered are the least of our worries.