The Radical Power of the Book Index

Is Google making us stupid? This was the question posed by the American writer Nicholas Carr in a 2008 essay published in the Atlantic. “I’m not thinking the way I used to think,” he confessed. “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy… now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages.” The internet, Carr posited, was to blame. “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it.”

This argument has become something of a cliché, and Carr was self-aware enough to point out that this was hardly a new concern. Marshall McLuhan had said much the same thing about technology in the 1960s. Nietzsche’s prose, according to a friend of his, became “tighter, more telegraphic” after he began using a typewriter. A minor Venetian humanist lamented that the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century would make people lazy, weak-minded and “less studious.”

Misoneism is the ur-fear. It’s understandable when it emerges as a response to paradigm-shifting inventions like the typewriter, the printing press or writing itself. A passage in Plato’s Phaedrus relays Socrates’ myth about the Egyptian god Theuth, who invented the act of writing. Theuth proudly presents his new creation to King Thamus, attesting that it “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories.” Thamus is unimpressed: “this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practise their memory.”

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