The world is getting better, In the Plex edition

From Steven Levy’s In the Plex; How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes our Lives, an astonishingly good and detailed book that, as of page 146, doesn’t feel padded:

[. . .] the founders themselves embraced ‘Don’t be evil’ as a summation of their own hopes for the company. That was what Google was about: two young men who wanted to do good, gravitated to a new phenomenon (the Internet) that promised to be a history-making force for good, developed a solution that would gather the world’s information, level the Tower of Babel, and link millions of processors into a global prosthesis for knowledge. And if the technology they created would make the world a better place, so would their company; Google would be a shining beacon for the way corporations should operate: an employee-centric, data-driven leadership pampering a stunningly bright workforce that, for its own part, lavished all its wit and wizardry on empowering users and enriching advertising customers. From those practices, the profits would roll in. Ill intentions, flimflammery, and greed had no role in the process. If temptation sounded its siren call, one could remain on the straight path by invoking Amit Patel’s florid calligraphy on the whiteboards of the Googleplex: ‘Don’t be evil.’ Page and Brin were good, and so must be the entity they founded.

Ambition linked to knowledge of how to execute is evident throughout the book, but especially here, given that the company’s major players aren’t just content with being big—they want to be big and be good, with a presumably evolving definition of what “good” means. This is a bit like the United States itself, which isn’t collectively content to merely be—there’s a very long cultural strain of being an icon or role model. Such a desire often leads the country to unfortunate lurches that mostly seem to be corrected as time goes on.

Reading the news on a day-to-day basis often gives one a sense of doom and disaster. Reading a book like In the Plex reminds one that the world is going places even if politicians and the politics they make don’t realize it. The world is big and strange, and it’s getting more so over time—if one takes the time to realize it. Google may or may not “be a shining beacon,” but its goals are hard not to admire, even if they’re cloaked i religious language (“the straight path”). I use Google most days without thinking about all the thought behind the company, which is busy making the world a different place very fast.

It helps that Levy is telling the story; much like Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything, he manages to compress a great deal of information and personality into a small space. He imparts some of the sense of magic Google itself is supposed to inculcate—notice the reference to “wit and wizardry”—and some of the sense of optimism that we can do things if we really want to.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains — Nicholas Carr

One irony of this post is that you’re reading a piece on the Internet about a book that is in part about how the Internet is usurping the place of books. In The Shallows, Carr argues that the Internet encourages short attention spans, skimming, shallow knowledge, and distraction, and that this is a bad thing.

He might be right, but his argument misses one essential component: the absolute link between the Internet and distraction. He cites suggestive research but never quite crosses the causal bridge from the Internet as inherently distracting, both because of links and because of the overwhelming potential amount of material out there, and that we as a society and as a people are now endlessly distracted. Along the way, there are many soaring sentiments (“Our rich literary tradition is unthinkable without the intimate exchanges that take place between reader and writer within the crucible of a book”) and clever quotes (Nietzsche as quoted by Carr: “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”), but that causal link is still weak.

I liked many of the points Carr made; that one about Nietzsche is something I’ve meditated over before, as shown here and here (I’ve now distracted you and you’re probably less likely to finish this post than you would be otherwise; if I offered you $20 for repeating the penultimate sentence in the comments section, I’d probably get no takers); I think our tools do cause us to think differently in some way, which might explain why I pay more attention to them than some bloggers do. And posts on tools and computer set ups and so forth seem to generate a lot of hits; Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have is among the more popular Grant Writing Confidential posts.

I use Devonthink Pro as described by Steven Berlin Johnson, which supplements my memory and acts as research tool, commonplace book, and quote database, and probably weakens my memory while allowing me to write deeper blog posts and papers. Maybe I remember less in my mind and more in my computer, but it still takes my mind to give context to the material copied into the database.

In fact, Devonthink Pro helped me figure out a potential contradiction in Carr’s writing. On page 209, he says:

Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies […] every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function.

But on page 47 he says: “Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to. Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’ requirements.” So if “sometimes our tools do what we tell them to,” then is it true that “The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function?” The two statements aren’t quite mutually exclusive, but they’re close. Maybe reading Heidegger’s Being and Time and Graham Harman’s Tool-Being will clear up or deepen whatever confusion exists, since he a) went deep but b) like many philosophers, is hard to read and is closer to a machine for generating multiple interpretations than an illuminator and simplifier of problems. This could apply to philosophy in general as seen from the outside.

This post mirrors some of Carr’s tendencies, like the detour in the preceding paragraph. I’ll get back to the main point for a moment: Carr’s examples don’t necessarily add up to proving his argument, and some of them feel awfully tenuous. Some are also inaccurate; on page 74 he mentions a study that used brain scans to “examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction” and cites Nicole K. Speer’s journal article “Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences,” which doesn’t mention fiction and uses a memoir from 1951 as its sample text.


That’s a relatively minor issue, however, and one that I only discovered because I found the study interesting enough to look up.

Along the way in The Shallows we get lots of digressions, and many of them are well-trod ones: the history of the printing press; the origins of the commonplace books; the early artificial intelligence program ELIZA; Frederick Winslow Taylor and his efficiency interest; the plasticity of the brain; technologies that’ve been used for various purposes, including metaphor.

Those digressions almost add up to one of my common criticisms of nonfiction books, which is that they’d be better as long magazine articles. The Shallows started as one, and one I’ve mentioned before: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The answer: maybe. The answer now, two years and 200 pages later: maybe. Is the book a substantial improvement on the article? Maybe. You’ll probably get 80% of the book’s content from the article, which makes me think you’d be better off following the link to the article and printing it—the better not to be distracted by the rest of The Atlantic. This might tie into the irony that I mentioned in the first line of this post, which you’ve probably forgotten by now because you’re used to skimming works on the Internet, especially moderately long ones that make somewhat subtle arguments.

Offline, Carr says, you’re used to linear reading—from start to finish. Online, you’re used to… something else. But we’re not sure what, or how to label the reading that leads away from the ideal we’ve been living in: “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”

Again, maybe, which is the definitive word for analyzing The Shallows: but we don’t actually have a name for this kind of mind, and it’s not apparent that the change is as major as Carr describes: haven’t we always made disparate connections among many things? Haven’t we always skimmed until we’ve found what we’re looking for, and then decided to dive in? His point is that we no longer do dive in, and he might be right—for some people; but for me, online surfing, skimming, and reading coexists with long-form book reading. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to get through The Shallows.

Still, I don’t like reading on my Kindle very much because I’ve discovered that I often tend to hop back and forth between pages. In addition, grad school requires citations that favor conventional books. And for all my carping about the lack of causal certainty regarding Carr’s argument, I do think he’s on to something because of my own experience. He says:

Over the last 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 feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of 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 starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.

He says friends have reported similar experiences. I feel the same way as him and his friends: the best thing I’ve found for improving my productivity and making reading and writing easier is a program called Freedom, which prevents me from getting online unless I reboot my iMac. It throws enough of a barrier between me and the Internet that I can’t easily distract myself through e-mail or Hacker News (Freedom has also made writing this post slightly harder, because during the first draft, I haven’t been able to add links to various appropriate places, but I think it worth the trade-off, and I didn’t realize I was going to write this post when I turned it on). Paul Graham has enough money that he uses another computer for the same purpose, as he describes in the linked essay, which is titled, appropriately enough, “Disconnecting Distraction” (sample: “After years of carefully avoiding classic time sinks like TV, games, and Usenet, I still managed to fall prey to distraction, because I didn’t realize that it evolves.” Guess what distraction evolved into: the Internet).

Another grad student in English Lit expressed shock when I told him that I check my e-mail at most once a day and shook for every two days, primarily in an effort not to distract myself with electronic kibble or kipple. Carr himself had to do the same thing: he moves to Colorado and jettisons much of his electronic life, and he “throttled back my e-mail application […] I reset it to check only once an hour, and when that still created too much of a distraction, I began to keeping the program closed much of the day.” I work better that way. And I think I read better, or deeper, offline.

For me, reading a book is a very different experience from searching the web, in part because most of the websites I visit are exhaustible much faster than books. I have a great pile of them from the library waiting to be read, and an even greater number bought or gifted over the years. Books worth reading seem to go on forever. Websites don’t.

But if I don’t have that spark of discipline to stay off the Internet for a few hours at a time, I’m tempted to do the RSS round-robin and triple check the New York Times for hours, at which point I look up and say, “What did I do with my time?” If I read a book—like The Shallows, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, which I’m most of the way through now—I look up in a couple of hours and know I’ve done something. This is particularly helpful for me because, as previously mentioned, I’m in grad school, which means I have to be a perpetual reader (if I didn’t want to be, I’d find another occupation).

To my mind, getting offline can become a comparative advantage because, like Carr, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain,” and that someone is me and that someone is the Internet. But I can’t claim this is true for all people in all places, even as I tell my students to try turning off their Internet access and cell phones when they write their papers. Most of them no doubt don’t. But the few who do learn how to turn off the electronic carnival are probably getting something very useful out of that advice. The ones who don’t probably would benefit from reading The Shallows because they’d at least become aware of the possibility that the Internet is rewiring our brains in ways that might not be beneficial to us, however tenuous the evidence (notice my hedging language: “at least,” “the possibility” “might not”).

Alas: they’re probably the ones least likely to read it.

EBook Monday: Steven Berlin Johnson, Google Books, and more

* Steven Berlin Johnson speculates on “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write: […] a future with more books, more distractions — and the end of reading alone.”

* I keep being tempted by the Amazon Kindle, despite my many posts on the Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and other problems with the device. Then I see a post like “Amazon has banned my account – my Kindle is now a (partial) brick” and all those bad feelings return. The poster in question apparently returned too many items to Amazon, causing them to suspend his account and causing his Kindle to stop working.

* In other electronic news, a warning: Google Book Search settlement gives Google a virtual monopoly over literature. What am, random joe, supposed to do about it besides joining the Electronic Frontier Foundation? I have no idea. Still, the headline might be more sensationalistic than it should be, as this paragraph shows:

But the real risk is that Google could end up as the sole source of ultimate power in book discovery, distribution and sales. As the only legal place where all books can be searched, Google gets enormous market power: the structure of their search algorithm can make bestsellers or banish books to obscurity. The leverage they attain over publishing and authors through this settlement is incalculable.

(Emphasis added.)

I added a comment pointing out that the real response to this should lie with Congress and copyright law: at the moment, virtually everything published after 1923 is effectively under copyright. The solution is to start rolling the copyright year forward, so that 86 years (2008 – 1923) after a work is published, it automatically enters the public domain. Actually, 70 years would be nice, but the various Senators from Disney passed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, making it seem unlikely to happen, so I stick to the (sightly) more pragmatic hope for 86 years as a possible reasonable length for copyright.

If the material in question isn’t in copyright, Google has no special power over it. Two problems solved at once.

* Speaking of all things Google, Nick Carr’s post “Google in the middle” has some brilliant parts and some absolutely wrong parts. Being the kind of person I am, I like to start with the wrong parts:

For much of the first decade of the Web’s existence, we were told that the Web, by efficiently connecting buyer and seller, or provider and user, would destroy middlemen. Middlemen were friction, and the Web was a friction-removing machine.

We were misinformed. The Web didn’t kill mediators. It made them stronger.

But Carr misses the fact that a) mediators are easier to replace than ever, since I only have to click on another one, and b) fact a has made other mediators ever-easier to find: Hacker News has become my chief aggregator, for example, and Google has nothing to do with them. Furthermore, if I want to use a different search engine, it’s only a click away.

The web still is a friction removing machine even if Google has an unusual amount of (probably temporary) power.

On the other hand, this bit is brilliant:

As I’ve written before, the essential problem facing the online news business is oversupply. The cure isn’t pretty. It requires, first, a massive reduction of production capacity – ie, the consolidation or disappearance of lots of news outlets. Second, and dependent on that reduction of production capacity, it requires news organizations to begin to impose controls on their content. By that, I don’t mean preventing bloggers from posting fair-use snippets of articles. I mean curbing the rampant syndication, authorized or not, of full-text articles. Syndication makes sense when articles remain on the paper they were printed on. It doesn’t make sense when articles float freely across the global web. (Take note, AP.)

Once the news business reduces supply, it can begin to consolidate traffic, which in turn consolidates ad revenues and, not least, opens opportunities to charge subscription fees of one sort or another – opportunities that today, given the structure of the industry, seem impossible. With less supply, the supplier gains market power at the expense of the middleman.

Newspapers are engaged in an almost Marxian race to the bottom in terms of production, and the more efficient the Internet makes news gathering and dissemination, the worse this race will become. It was obvious to me in 2002 (which I wrote about in Media myopia and the New Yorker), when I graduated from high school, that newspapers were bound to contract enormously (and catastrophically for those employed by newspapers); I was tempted to go to a big-time journalism school and try to make it as a journalist, but a rare bout of good sense stopped me. This is why.

(Incidentally, the New York Times has also noticed that J-Schools are Playing Catchup because of changes in journalism. Strangely enough, the Times seems to imply that journalism might become more like something akin to Grant Writing Confidential: people who find niches and then write the hell out of their subject.)

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