By STEVEN JOHNSON
New York Times
"The point of books is to combat loneliness," David Foster Wallace observes near the beginning of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky's recently published, book-length interview with him.
If you happen to be reading the book on the Kindle from Amazon, Wallace's observation has an extra emphasis: a dotted underline running below the phrase. Not because Wallace or Lipsky felt that the point was worth stressing but because a dozen or so other readers have highlighted the passage on their Kindles, making it one of the more "popular" passages in the book.
Amazon calls this new feature "popular highlights." It may sound innocuous enough, but it augurs even bigger changes to come.
Though the feature can be disabled by the user, "popular highlights" will no doubt alarm Nicholas Carr, whose new book, The Shallows, argues that the compulsive skimming, linking and multitasking of our screen reading is undermining the deep, immersive focus that has defined book culture for centuries.
With "popular highlights," even when we manage to turn off Twitter and the television and sit down to read a good book, there will a chorus of readers turning the pages along with us, pointing out the good bits. Before long, we'll probably be able to meet those fellow readers, share stories with them. Combating loneliness? Wallace saw only the half of it.
Carr's argument is that these distractions come with a heavy cost, and his book's publication coincides with articles in various publications that report on scientific studies showing how multitasking harms our concentration.
Thanks to e-mail, Twitter and the blogosphere, I regularly exchange information with hundreds of people in a single day: scheduling meetings, sharing political gossip, trading edits on a book chapter, planning a family vacation, reading tech punditry. How many of those exchanges could happen were I limited exclusively to the technologies of the phone, the post office and the face-to-face meeting? I suspect that the number would be a small fraction of my current rate.
I have no doubt that I am slightly less focused in these interactions, but, frankly, most of what we do during the day doesn't require our full powers of concentration. Even rocket scientists don't do rocket science all day long.
Presumably, the first causalities of "shallow" thinking should have appeared on the front lines of the technology world, where the participants have spent the most time in the hyperconnected space of the screen. And yet the sophistication and nuance of media commentary has grown over the past 15 years.The intellectual tools for assessing the media, once the province of academics and professional critics, are now far more accessible to the masses.
The problem with Carr's model is its unquestioned reverence for the slow contemplation of deep reading. For society to advance as it has since Gutenberg, he argues, we need the quiet, solitary space of the book. Yet many great ideas that have advanced culture over the past centuries have emerged from a more connective space, in the collision of different worldviews and sensibilities, different metaphors and fields of expertise.
It's no accident that most of the great scientific and technological innovation over the past millennium has taken place in crowded, distracting urban centers. The printed page itself encouraged those manifold connections, by allowing ideas to be stored and shared and circulated more efficiently. One can make the case that the Enlightenment depended more on the exchange of ideas than it did on solitary, deep-focus reading.
Quiet contemplation has led to its fair share of important thoughts. But it cannot be denied that good ideas also emerge in networks.
And the speed with which we can follow the trail of an idea, or discover new perspectives on a problem, has increased by several orders of magnitude. We are marginally less focused and exponentially more connected. That's a bargain all of us should be happy to make.
Steven Johnson is an author and entrepreneur. His new book, "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation," will be published in October.