Tag Archives: Nicholas Carr

Edges

What may be more insidious is the pressure to fiddle with books for commercial reasons. Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.

The promise of stronger sales and profits will make it hard to resist tinkering with a book in response to such signals, adding a few choice words here, trimming a chapter there, maybe giving a key character a quick makeover. What will be lost, or at least diminished, is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.

Not long before he died, John Updike spoke eloquently of a book’s “edges,” the boundaries that give shape and integrity to a literary work and that for centuries have found their outward expression in the indelibility of printed pages. It’s those edges that give a book its solidity, allowing it to stand up to the vagaries of fashion and the erosions of time. And it’s those edges that seem fated to blur as the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.

Nicholas Carr

There is so much to unpack here! It seems so weird that there are laws that keep private what library books you borrow (i.e. the titles), yet, if you’re an ebook reader, someone’s analyzing how long you pause on each individual page. I suppose it’s analyzed in the aggregate, but still. Somewhere, someone knows what you, individually, are doing. I guess that’s also true of the library info, but again, they only know the titles of the books you read, and again, laws.

Beyond privacy or the lack thereof, how accurate is that kind of info anyhow? Maybe you just got distracted by something. You know, like when you leave a browser window open for a half a day. You’re not actually spending 12 hours reading a 500-word article. You just haven’t got around to reading it yet.

And the rest gets into the whole literary vs. commercial work, especially when you’re talking about fiction. Everything I’ve read about ebooks makes it seem like people are more keen on fiction ebooks than nonfiction ebooks. This just seems backward to me. I totally see the benefits of ebooks for books that are frequently updated (guidebooks, textbooks, etc.). There’s also the convenience. Physical textbooks are heavy/bulky; with ebooks you can have them all with you at once. Same for guidebooks. These kinds of books are about the content, not the form. They’re also, frequently, works for hire, written by multiple authors working for a corporation.

But fiction? Fiction is an art. It’s a creative work. There’s an emotional investment in the work on the part of the author. While it’s true that some authors have revised work after publication, this is their own choice. Suggesting that writers revise their completed/published work on the basis of market research (i.e. reader feedback), changes the whole artistic process. No longer would the writer whose name is on the work be the sole author, whether or not this acknowledged. This is not to say this can’t (or hasn’t) been done; it’s just that it’s a different creative process.

You can see this how this happens by looking at the evolution of blogs. Early blogs were clearly the product of individual writers, but at this point, the voice of any blogger who has a substantial readership and continues to blog, has been drastically affected by their readers (& sponsors/advertisers). What they write and how they write it is a collaborative, not individual, process. (It might be a subconscious effect, but it’s still there.)

Revising published fiction based on reader feedback would be like an artist revising a painting after reading the comment cards from the gallery where the painting hangs, then rehanging it, so that the visitors who see the revised painting are seeing something different than the original visitors did, even though the painting has the same title. Would this change be acknowledged? Or would it be something that is not mentioned unless a visitor happens to return and notice the difference? And would the changes continue? Would the process be repeated again and again? And what happens when the artist dies? Would someone else continue the revisions? And how does all this revising affect new output? Is the artist so busy revising things already created that s/he has no time to create anything new? Shouldn’t an artist’s energy be put into new projects?

So many questions.

Nothing else going on

Just finished watching (well, listening) to this Nicholas Carr lecture in which he says:

I think one way to think about this is that what the web does—despite the fact that it’s this incredible high technology and we think of it as the cutting edge and everything—is bring us back to a much more primitive and in a way more natural style of thinking. I mean I think Fred and Barney would have been very happy online and using our new technologies, because our brains seem to be naturally wired to shift our focus very rapidly. And you can understand this if you think about our distant ancestors in Stone Age times and so forth. You were rewarded by your ability to keep track of as much of what was going on around you at once. You know by shifting your attention all the time, by shifting your focus, you were the person who survived because you saw the predator approaching before everyone else, or you were the person who survived because you spotted that bush of berries that you could eat that everybody else missed. And so in a way we’re naturally wired to be distracted, to be interrupted, and what’s hard for us is to pay attention, what goes against our instincts and our nature is to focus on one thing. You know, the worst thing a caveman could do is actually focus on one thing for a long period of time because then he would end up being eaten pretty quickly.

And I think in this regard it’s very very interesting and very informative to compare what the web is doing to us with what the other great modern information technology did for us and that is the book. I mean, think about the difference between being online between looking at a screen and sitting down with a book. The fundamental difference is that whereas the screen bombards us with distractions and interruptions, the book, the printed page, shields us from those distractions and interruptions that come at us all the time. You know, we tend to think of the book, the printed book, as somehow being flawed today because it doesn’t have links, it doesn’t have video, it doesn’t have multimedia, you can’t like check your email while you’re reading a book, but in fact that’s the fundamental strength of the book as a technology. There is nothing else going on. And so that way of thinking that’s very hard and very unnatural for us, for we human beings, that very attentive way of thinking was encouraged by the book and in fact I  think you can argue that for many people over the last 500 years the story of our intellectual lives is the story of how the book helped us to pay attention. And that, because the brain is adaptable and plastic, our ability to pay attention that we learned from reading could then be applied to all sorts of other aspects of our mental lives.

Nicholas Carr
(starting @ 49:40; emphasis added, obvs.)

The first part (single-minded focus vs. multitasking) is interesting because it fits into where I”m going with my dissertation, this idea that in online writing we have conflict and misunderstandings because of a clash between worldviews, i.e. writers (creators) and non-writers (communicators). (Or literacy/individuality vs. orality/community.)

The second part… I’m like, hmm, I’m sure I’ve said/written something to this effect before. So then I dug around in my archives a bit and aha! I did indeed. Now I just need figure out how to get people to pay me to write books and give lectures based on my amazing and prescient blog posts.

The Internet has changed us

The point, it seems to me, isn’t whether the Internet is “good” or “bad” for our brains. The Internet has changed us, just as the printed book and the typewriter did. The Internet sharpens us and makes us faster thinkers, more adept at shifting between tasks, even as it erodes our ability to focus on a single topic, a single work, for long periods of time. The point is that whether you think the Internet is “good for your mind”, or exactly the opposite, depends on your values.

it seems to me that [Nicholas Carr has] approached this problem primarily as a writer—in other words, as someone whose profession requires the ability to close oneself in a room and remain utterly focused on the business of researching and completing a manuscript for hours at a time. For a writer, an inability to focus for long periods on the work at hand is at best an impediment, at worst a disaster.

Emily St. John Mandel