The following won first place in the Expository/Argumentative Essay division of the Walter Spara Writing Contest sponsored by the Department of English and Communications in the spring semester, 2012.
Tidal Wave: Why Books Are Solid Ground in the Sea of Cyber Chaos
Thanks to the Internet, ours has become the Information Age. Torrents of knowledge flood around the globe each day, connecting and informing opposite hemispheres of the world simultaneously. There is an answer to every question, a solution to every problem, a counterargument to every argument – all available at the click of a button. Much of this information, however, was available long before the Internet made it instant. For centuries, books housed the whole database of human knowledge, on subjects ranging from aeronautics to applesauce. The difference between the time-tested medium of the written word and the explosive phenomenon of the Internet is not the range or amount of information served, but rather speed, quality, and presentation. Books are linear, using chapters to neatly organize ideas for their readers. Truly understanding and synthesizing a book takes a diligent, page-by-page approach, while navigation on the Internet is a mental free-for-all. The Internet does not provide a progression or invite the reader to find one; instead, it encourages the brain to be constantly and impulsively choosing new directions. Says Nicholas Carr, “It seemed ludicrous to think that fiddling with a computer, a mere tool, could alter in any deep and lasting way what was going on inside my head. But I was wrong” (38). Information on the Internet – questionable, segmented, and bordered by distractions – encourages our brains to follow the path of least resistance, whereas books lay out verified, visually focused progressions that facilitate and require mental concentration.
A book itself is a simple thing: black text on white paper, bound between two covers. But the words that line the pages are only the tangible tips of huge abstract icebergs. Those neat lines of text form broad pathways of ideas, journeys of thought that the author has trail blazed. Some authors bulldoze their trails and mark them clearly; others leave only vague footpaths for their readers. Whether it is an involved classic, a scholarly treatise, or a dime novel, concentrated effort is necessary to open a book, latch onto the words, and follow the stream of ideas, page after page. But the journey, according to Nicholas Carr, is one worth taking. Speaking of the generation which experienced the dawn of the printing press, he says, “The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words, but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds . . . They thought deeply as they read deeply” (64-5). Reading a long book requires intense concentration, a mental discipline not easily cultivated. The reward, however, is not only mental stimulation and an increased attention span, but also the joy of “losing oneself’ in a world of abstract thought.
On the Internet, however, abstraction is a vice. We have links, ads and pictures simultaneously competing for our attention, so we don’t have the “time” (by which we mean mental stamina) to follow winding words and ideas. “At risk is our ability to immerse ourselves in a book and fully enter the world of the characters,” Richard Restak writes in his book Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot. We all complain loudly about the ubiquitous pop-up and avoid sites overloaded with ads, yet few people grumble about the obtrusion of a link or the temptation of a search bar, both of which can distract us as effectively, and certainly more seamlessly, than gaudy advertisements. Nicholas Carr says of the link, “[Links] encourage us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them…Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause.” His opinion of search engines is similar: “. . . a search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole” (90-1). Intense concentration is required to follow a book’s linear progression, but the Internet encourages fast-paced and fragmented surface readings.
Instead of cramming rapid idea-bites into their brains, connoisseurs of information prefer lingering over each mouthful. They only frequent the best establishments, where they know they have the best chance of getting a high-quality mental meal. “When you use a research or academic library, the books, journals, and other resources have already been evaluated by scholars, publishers, and librarians” (Kirk). The whole library system revolves around the ideal of the well-informed reader. These quiet storehouses of knowledge are designed to provide people with accessible and accurate information on a variety of subjects. You can check out a library book with a measure of confidence that the material within is wholesome – free of poisoned or contaminated fact. The information has been researched, thought out, and laid out with the reader in mind. “Every resource you find has been evaluated in one way or another before you see it” (Kirk). In this safe, quiet atmosphere, the reader can focus on the challenge of interpreting and unraveling what he reads, without fear of misinformation.
On the other hand, “The Internet epitomizes the concept of Caveat lector: let the reader beware” (Kirk). Like a greasy burger joint, the Internet serves up questionable food to patrons who just don’t care about the ingredients. “Because anyone can write a Web page, documents of the widest range of quality, written by authors of the widest range of authority are available on an even playing field” (Kirk). To successfully navigate this deceptive information minefield, people must become skeptical readers and persistent fact-checkers. According to the Internet Accuracy Project, however, these skills aren’t being cultivated: “Far too many people use the number of hits received from a simple Google search to determine the validity of information. They theorize that the greater the number of hits, the more accurate the information must be” (Home page). And so these web surfers are thrust on by the sheer size of the information behind them, truth and falsity tumbling together into the indiscriminate crest of what Marcia Clemmit calls “The tidal wave of citizen-generated content” (627). The same frenetic atmosphere that sends surfers from link to link, search to search, also keeps them too busy to verify what they take in.
Quality has been replaced with quantity and speed. People who once opened a book for a verified and methodical exploration of a subject now punch up Google for an under-nourished summary. After skimming several sites, their waning attention spans are easily spirited away by stray links or ads. Maybe, seized by a brief spasm of curiosity, they’re off to search another keyword. Reading a book, however, allows for no such aimless wandering. The visual focus and the linear progression of ideas allow readers to concentrate on the text and force them to think – something that the Internet, with all its speed and precision, doesn’t do.
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.
Clemmit, Marcia. “Internet Accuracy.” CQ Researcher. 18.27 (2008): 627. Web. 23 Feb. 2011.
Home page. InternetAccuracy Project. N.p., 20 Mar. 2011. Web. 21 Mar. 2011.
Kirk, Elizabeth E. “Evaluating Information Found on the Internet.” John Hopkins University Library. Sheridan Libraries, 1996. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.
Restak, Richard. Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot. New York: Three Rivers-Random, 2001. Print.