Nicholas Carr, and the decline, or not, of literacy

There’s a tenuous connection between the reference, in the previous post, to Swindon as a railway town, and this post.  Here I’m looking at the work of Nicholas Carr, an influential thinker and blogger, and particularly the author of an interesting Harvard Business Review piece from 2003, on whether IT still mattered to business.  Why the Swindon connection?  Because part of Carr’s argument was that for many businesses IT was becoming a commodity, as power supplies and railways had become in the past.  Whereas I would argue that, whether you are looking at the impact of the rail industry on Swindon in the 19th century, or the importance of the Crossrail construction taking place in the 21st century, very close to where I work, there are plenty of places where rail networks aren’t purely a commodity. 

In general, my answer to Nicholas Carr’s question of ‘does IT matter?’ would be ‘it depends’: of course there are numerous information systems in businesses, particularly back-office systems, which have become commoditised, as the basic components of computer memory and Internet bandwidth have become ever cheaper,  But there continue to be businesses that are exploiting completely new markets that have only been made possible by IT, and the emergence of completely new business approaches (notably apps for mobile devices) in recent years serves as a reminder that these new markets haven’t been exhausted yet.

Carr’s more recent work is best represented by his piece from the Atlantic entitled, rather provocatively, is Google making us stupid?  It’s a well written and considered criticism of the Internet from somebody who uses it a lot – it certainly isn’t a rant against the whole concept of the Internet in the style of Andrew Keen (I’m tempted to suggest that you google him if you want to know more but you could also look back in my blog).  Carr has picked on some important points, notably that the net makes it easy to skip from finding out about one piece of information to another, and that following hyperlinks means that you can instantly pursue any digressions that might pique your interest.  Implicit in this effect is that, to navigate the Internet effectively, we need to have some new skills to manage those digressions and to come back to where you started.  But he also expresses a concern that we are losing something in the ability to read things at length, that we are so innured to the web-browsing approach where we jump around information that we have lost sight of the value of narrative, of the ability to read a long, coherent, piece of text that tells a story.

These are legitimate concerns, discussed at much greater length in the shallows, but I wonder if they are still misplaced, and the article is too pessimistic.  Storytelling is an idea that’s deeply embedded in the way that humans make sense of ideas, and areas of knowledge management such as that promoted by cognitive edge take advantage of this.

Wikipedia suggests that Nicholas Carr was born in 1959, which places him a year younger than both Madonna and Sir Fred Goodwin (now there’s a group of three names that you might not have expected to see in the same blog post).  So  one reading could be that, now he’s in his fifties, he’s a bit more cynical about new tecnology than he might have been a few years ago.  But he’s also a member of the first generations to have grown up with television around as an everyday artefact.  In many ways it would be very different from the television of today: fewer channels, no home video recording, no 24 hour broadcasting, very little colour television when he was a young child.  Still, it had a profound effect on the way that people occupied their lives – if anything simple 1960s television afforded more opportunities simply to slump on a sofa for hours in front of a screen than today’s multi-channel, interactive, equivalent.  Moreover, the advent of television didn’t lead to the end of literacy among Nicholas Carr’s generation, and I wouldn’t expect the Internet to destroy literacy either.

It’s possible, of course, that Amazon’s Kindle is a bit of a special case.  But with its screen, monochrome and not backlit, cleverly designed to mimic the effect of reading off paper, and even its range of literary screen-savers, this is one gadget that sits on the Internet that very specifically encourages reading.  And not just reading fragments of text: the very model that the Kindle sets out to emulate is that of sitting down to read a book from cover to cover.

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