Short attention spans and short memories

August 20, 2008|By RON SMITH

Nicholas Carr thinks that Google is making us "stoopid." In a recent piece in The Atlantic, he says those of us who constantly surf the Net can't concentrate properly anymore - that instant access to virtually all information reduces our attention span. Mr. Carr says he can no longer immerse himself in a book or a long article, something that used to be easy for him. Has this happened to you? I thought so. It's happened to me as well.

Mr. Carr points to research that suggests we may be in the middle of neurological changes in the way we read and think. He has been influential and controversial in his writings on information technology, which he doesn't believe to be the savior so many think it is. If you want to learn more about this man and his message, well, just Google his name; it's as easy as that. Which kind of illustrates his point.

Obviously, there are compensations for the price of having a shorter attention span. No longer does a writer have to camp out in the library stacks in order to do whatever research is necessary for the latest book or scholarly article. It's all there, gobs and gobs of it, available with a few mouse clicks.

"My mind now expects to take in information," says Mr. Carr, "the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

I've been zipping around the Net, reading, among other things, about the extraordinary events in Georgia, the former Soviet republic turned American ally in the Caucasus, whose leader decided to beard the Russian bear in his den. He set about ethnically cleansing (don't you love the bloodlessness of that idiotic euphemism for driving populations from their living spaces by attacking and killing them?) the province of South Ossetia of Russians and Ossetians who are opposed to living under Georgian rule and are in an autonomous region under the protection of Russian "peacekeepers."

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, educated at Georgetown and Columbia universities, seemed to think American assurances of support in moving his troops and armor into South Ossetia meant more than, "We'll hold your coat while you get your butt whipped by the Russkies." He was wrong. When Russia countered his attack and routed his American- and Israeli-trained and -equipped fighters, it became quickly apparent that the United States wasn't about to battle Russia. It would use harsh words and threaten bad things to come if the Russians didn't back off, but that, so far, is the extent of it.

Most of the mass media here have been singing the government's tune on this confrontation - blaming it on Russia and overlooking the Georgian crackdown in South Ossetia. But on the Internet, it's become quite evident that elsewhere in the world there is a different take on the crisis: simply put, that the United States erred in thinking it could continually encroach upon Russia's periphery without consequence.

For years, recent American administrations have been provoking Russia by lobbying NATO to include former Soviet republics while denying Russia itself membership.

And when Sen. John McCain, whose chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, is a lobbyist for Georgia, says, "In the 21st century, nations don't invade other nations" - a statement quickly echoed by President Bush - laughter is heard around the world. If what Mr. McCain said is true, how is one to account for our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the forces we've arrayed against Iran while powerful voices argue for us to attack it? Talk about cognitive dissonance.

The president complained that Russia's response was "disproportionate," perhaps forgetting that he found nothing disproportionate about Israel invading, blockading and bombing Lebanon for more than a month in 2006 following the abduction of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers by Hezbollah fighters.

Finally, The Wall Street Journal points out, "Russia's attack on Georgia has become an unexpected source of support for big U.S. weapons programs, including flashy fighter jets and high-tech destroyers, that have had to battle for funding this year because they appear obsolete for today's conflicts with insurgent opponents."

It may not make sense to most of us to fire up the Cold War again, but to the military/industrial behemoth, it's money in the bank.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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