Nick Carr’s Retreat From the Internet Continues

by Mathew on May 31, 2010 · 91 comments

I’ll admit it — I’ve kind of missed Nick Carr, and his dyspeptic blog Rough Type. After he started on his latest book, he went on a blogging hiatus, and I kind of missed reading his fulminations on a variety of things, most of which I instinctively disagreed with. I think he may have spent too long away from the blogosphere, however, encased in that 16th-century form of blogging known as “books.” Either that or the topic of his new book, which appears to be how the Internet is dumbing us down (Carr and Andrew Keen are kind of a matched set) has taken hold of him and he now believes the internet is a kind of pernicious force in people’s lives.

His latest column is about how he has come to believe — or is close to believing — that links are bad. To be fair, his argument is a little more nuanced than that. He says that links are cognitive overhead, in the sense that they distract readers, even if they don’t follow them:

Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not.

But you don’t have to take my word for it — you can go and read Nick’s argument yourself, because I have helpfully provided a link to it. You don’t have to click it if you don’t want to (possibly because you trust me to give you a fair representation of it), and you can click and open it in a tab to read later if you like, which I often do as I read things. The important thing is that I linked to it. I can also link to other things that might help you interpret it, like Marshall Kirkpatrick’s piece in response to Nick.

I could also link to a piece by Fred Wilson, a web native if there ever was one, about the “power of passed links,” in which he argues that links are the currency of the web. Like Nick’s criticism of links, currency can get in the way in our lives as well — it not only makes our pockets heavy with change, but it warps people’s minds in all sorts of ways. And yet, we couldn’t very well do without it. But links aren’t just useful to readers — I think adding them is also an exercise in intellectual discipline for the writer.

As I mentioned to a number of other people who were discussing Nick’s piece, including Chris Anderson and Vadim Lavrusik, I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else’s, and is hoping that no one will notice. In other cases, it’s a sign of intellectual arrogance — a sign that the writer believes these ideas sprang fully formed from his or her brain, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, and have no link to anything that another person might have thought or written. Either way, getting rid of links is a failure on the writer’s part.

As I said in a comment on Nick’s post, I fully expect his next move will be to remove links of any kind — and then to ban comments as well, as “thinkers” such as Seth Godin have, since they just get in the way of all that pure thought. And then, perhaps, Nick will finally decide that the internet itself is rather over-rated, and will retreat to his books, where no one can argue with him. And that would be a shame, because arguing with him is such fun.

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