Slate has been running some excellent "how-to" articles on the most effective ways of writing for the Web. Senior Editor, Michael Agger, has a concise and somewhat tongue-in-cheek demonstration of "readable" writing techniques using the theory of Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen. While Editor at Large, Jack Shafer, extoles the superb meditation by Caleb Crain entitled How is the internet changing literary style? Like Shafer, I have to admit, that after reading Crain’s essay, "I’ll never read the Web the same again."
The consequences of these changes in writing (and our habits of "information retrieval" ) are explored by Nicholas Carr in his Atlantic essay, Is Google Making Us Stupid?
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading.
The Atlantic, of course, was the magazine that published the seminal essay by Vannevar Bush in 1945 that anticipated the development of information technology, As We May Think. It’s an essay that is worth re-reading in the context of these discussions. Although the Memex, the mechanical contraption at the centre of the essay was not to be, Bush anticipates many of the most significant features of the new technologised mental landscape. For instance he could have been imagining Google when he writes:
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.
But what is most striking about re-reading the essay is Bush’s urgent conviction that without these information technologies we will be swamped in the vast amount of data that is generated by new forms of science and industry. It’s perhaps worth bearing this in mind when we consider the negative implications of the new orders of thinking and recall.