The Importance of Not Being Stupid

If Nicholas Carr is right—and I’m certain he is—most people who start this article won’t finish it. In his excellent The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Carr argues that the medium of the Internet, by its very nature, is destructive of the capacity for deep reading and deep thinking.

As a result, even a slim article (let alone a thick book) lies beyond our technologically enfeebled powers of concentration.

Surfing the Internet is an apt metaphor. Habitual users are masters of skimming along the surface of the web, climbing and dropping from page to page, weaving and ducking from hyperlink to hyperlink.

The unfortunate downside is that all this frenetic cyber-darting causes their minds literally to reconfigure themselves accordingly. They become creatures whose brains are what they do. Skimmers with a cerebral sweeny. Neither out far nor in deep, they have lost the power, the distinctly human power, to go beyond the surface.

Why use the third person, and flatter myself—or you, reader—that we are exceptions?

We already feel our capacities to read a book, a real book, are fast becoming vestigial.

Sure, we might pick up our old copies of Edmund Burke or Tocqueville or Hayek now and again. We try to read a page. We remember fondly the experience of deep concentration, of happily brooding over a delicate passage, of suddenly being illuminated by the shimmering brilliance of particular point. Yet, a new and invisible thread insistently tugs us back to the computer screen, away from the real pages. We obediently lay the book down, overcome by a hollow longing that can now only be filled by chatter and twitter, by the narcotic blink of an email alert, by slumping and mousing.

“So what?” you might say. “This is the information age. Deep and slow are out. Wide and fast are in.”

Here’s what. The deep and slow are what makes us human. The loss of our ability to concentrate, to patiently unearth what lies below the surface, means the withering away of sapiens from homo. The effect of the Internet, argues Carr, is the molding of our brain to habitual agitation. We have become restless intellectual nibblers, flitting from hyperlink to hyperlink, incapable of deep and quiet rumination. Alas, homo stupidus, senseless man, man in an electronically induced stupor.

Wisdom is the defining adjective of the species, but it is a perilous and noble achievement (like being able to play the piano), not a given (like having two legs). Wisdom is not mere information, let alone an endless electronic cataract of indiscriminate information. It is the power to grasp the hidden order of things, to winnow away the ephemeral so we may reflect upon the perennial, to get at the real causes lying well below the bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion on the surface.

Whatever its considerable merits, the measurable effect of continual Internet use is to transform our minds by the bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion itself. Hamlet might be on the Internet, but after reading a few lines, we hit the initial hyperlink to Shakespeare’s bio and skim a couple paragraphs, hit Stratford-upon-Avon and glance at the map, hit Warwickshire out of idle curiosity, then take time out for an email check, click on the Drudge Report and scan the headlines, glide through a few stories, then sample a few blogs, back to the email…

G. K. Chesterton once defined madness as “using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness.” This seems to me to be the real effect of the medium of the Internet on the mind. As Carr makes clear, the effect is caused by the medium itself, by the way the Internet delivers information. It may very well make available any number of literary and philosophical gems, every classic text worth conserving, but the way it delivers forms the brain in the click and skim image of the medium. We become mentally helpless, incapable of the kind of sustained attention necessary for deep reading and the deep thinking that follows upon it.

If there is one thing that Carr’s Shallows makes clear, it is that the Internet and books are two very different media, with two very different effects on the mind. Conservatives need to think very deeply about Carr’s message.

The conservative mind is an achievement, as Russell Kirk’s classic of the same name makes clear, an achievement of books. The kind of deep thinking that defines us as human and that allows us to grasp the profound, underlying principles of conservatism is available in this precious and endangered medium—a medium that, of its very nature, demands sustained attention without distraction, and forms the mind accordingly.

While I’m obviously not for destroying the Internet in a Luddite frenzy (and neither is Carr), no amount of click-and-skimming can replace hours spent with Reflections on the Revolution in France or Democracy in America. Or if it does, the power to think deeply goes with it.