The case for deep writing

Letter to the Editor submitted to The Atlantic July 2, 2008 • Nicholas Carr says that Google is making us stupid.[1] The ubiquity of the Internet, he argues, is leading to a change in the habits of information acquisition, a change in the norms of information processing, and an accompanying change in the very structure of our way of thinking. The very strong implication of the article is that this is a “bad thing,” leading to the demise of what he calls “deep reading”. But deep reading requires its complement, deep writing – deep writing requires facts, and the article has, well, none. The handful of anecdotes at the beginning of the article do not so qualify. Neither does the cute story about Nietzsche and the typewriter. They make good journalism, good copy, but they do not make good research. And without facts, deep writing is close to impossible.

There is one part of the article that does, I think, provide an interesting “open door” to such deep writing. “The Internet” Carr writes is “becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and our TV.”[2] Think about the latter for a minute. Carr throughout is presuming a causal relationship between an increase in Internet reading and a decline in “deep reading” (the focused immersion in long articles, books, etc.). Perhaps, however, this is a false, very false, equation. Perhaps the Internet is not a step down from “deep reading” but a step up from channel surfing? That might be a very good thing, as there are many studies about that older medium – television – warning about its baneful effects on literacy.[3]

I go to the Internet, stopwatch in hand (an homage to the reference to Taylor in the article). Two minutes gone. I have a 2002 study by Norman H. Nie and Lutz Erbring (both at the time at Stanford University). “Internet and Society: A Preliminary Report” is worth some deep reading. It indicates that Internet use is cutting into time spent with friends and family, a shift that worries them. But it also concludes that “time on the Internet is coming out of time spent viewing television.”[4] Seen from this standpoint, the spread of the Internet might be seen as a quite positive development – the evolution, if you will, from “Happy Days” and “Rockford Files” to Google, Facebook and Email.

This has me suddenly engaged in what Carr cites (negatively) as “a form of skimming activity”[5] – to whit, wondering about the relationship between email (the Internet’s close cousin) and writing ability. This time it takes longer – three minutes – but the extra minute is worth it. I find an authority, Al Filreis, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania, who, according to a 2005 Associated Press story, “thinks frequent e-mail improves writing: ‘To become a better writer, you have to write.’”[6]

But the central issue has yet to be broached – the connection, if any, between Internet use and deep reading. Let’s try a hypothesis – that book purchases are a good proxy for deep reading, and that a decline in deep reading would be made evident in a decline in book purchases. You might know where I’m going with this. If my city is anything like your city, one of the most interesting phenomena of the end of the last century and the beginning of this century has been the explosion of big box bookstores. There is also, of course, the Amazon.com explosion. There was also the near hysteria about the release of the latest Harry Potter book, and the interesting sight of millions of young (and old) engaged in what looked quite a lot like “deep reading.”

Can this be quantified? This time the stopwatch records twenty minutes of research – the information is a little more hidden. But then I have it – the U.S. Census Bureau provides information from 1992 to 2007 on sales from bookstores in the United States.[7] The following chart is the result.


What does it tell us? First, bookstore sales in the U.S. have doubled from 1992 to 2007, from just over $8 billion to just over $16 billion. Second, that growth has now flattened in the period 2004 to 2007. What can we conclude from this? Not very much. First the growth rate while real, needs to be qualified by both population increases and inflation. Second, the “flattening” in recent years may be related to the spread of the Internet – or it may be related to the spread of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and resulting economic hardship – another matter that demands both serious deep reading and deep writing. Or perhaps the industry did expand, responding to demand, but did so too quickly – is now in a holding pattern, but will return to growth shortly. What the graph does not show, however, is a steep drop off in purchases of books in the United States. I guess we have to say, then, that the jury is still out.

Enough. This is simply a quick foray into an area opened up by Carr’s provocative article, emphasis on the word “quick.” While this response to Carr is an appeal for “deep writing,” it is certainly not an example of the art. That would require more focus, more time – and perhaps more, not less, use of the Internet.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Atlantic, July/August 2008, pp. 56-63
[2] Carr, p. 60
[3] See for example, Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Children and Their Changing Media Environment: A European Comparative Study (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum: 2001)
[4] Norman H. Nie, Lutz Erbring, “Internet and Society: A Preliminary Report,” IT & Society, Volume 1, Issue 1, Summer 2002, p. 280
[5] Carr, p. 58
[6] Cited in “Is email ruining the way we write?” Associated Press, December 12, 2005
[7] U.S. Census Bureau, “Service Sector Statistics: Estimates of Monthly Retail and Food Services Sales by Kind of Business,” 1992-2007

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