Nicholas Carr has a problem. “Over the past few years,” he says in his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something has been tinkering with my brain. … “I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading… my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.… My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like guy on a Jet Ski.”
The Carr solution? He moved from “a highly connected suburb of Boston to the mountains of Colorado,” disconnected himself from Facebook and Twitter, cut down drastically on e-mail, and wrote a book, expanding on his much discussed 2008 Atlantic Monthly cover story “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
I live in a highly connected suburb of Boston, and although I recently increased my “social networking” activity—and my addiction to e-mail has hit an all-time high—I find all of these to be easily controlled drugs. I can still concentrate and enjoy reading books. Carr’s lucid prose and engaging writing style certainly helps, so I managed to get through the 276 pages of The Shallows and absorb its main points.
But as a service to readers suffering from heavy information overload, I picked up that ancient technology, the phone, and asked Carr: “Can you summarize the argument of the book in 140 characters?”
Nick laughed and said, “Ignoring the 140-character limit, the argument of the book is that our intellectual history has always been shaped by the technologies we use to gather, process, and share information. What neuroscience has told us recently is that the effects of those media are felt at the cellular level of the brain’s structure. When we do something—in particular do something over and over again—we alter the neural pathways in our brains. I think that’s happening with the Net, particularly as we come to use it as our all-purpose medium for gathering and sharing information in all imaginable forms. I think what we’re doing today is training our brains to be distracted, to take in information in lots of little bits and pieces with lots of distractions and interruptions. And as we do that, we begin to lose our ability for more sustained concentration, attentiveness, deep reading, and even deep thinking. If, like me, you think that attentiveness, deep thinking, and deep reading are really central to personal identity and also central to culture, I think you are right to be afraid of the damage that is being done today.
“In one sense, the Net is a continuation of a media trend we saw throughout the last century where the number of distractions supplied by media—whether it’s telephone, radio, TV, whatever—keeps ratcheting up and keeps making demands on our attention and distracting us. But I think the Net goes far beyond even anything we’ve seen before in its ability to prevent us from concentrating on one thing for more than a few seconds or minutes.”
But communications technologies of the past—as I continued to poke [Facebook reference intended] at Nick’s argument—were not a tool for building communities and providing social connections. Many people have become compulsive in their use of the Net, Nick says, because “they want to feel connected.” That’s a completely different dimension than reading and writing.
Nick agreed, up to a point. “It’s a different dimension, that’s true. But it’s also one of the reasons why we’re drawn to using the Web so much. As the Net becomes a means of instantaneous, continuous social attachment, it becomes ever harder to break away from the Net because we, as human beings, are extremely desirous of getting new information, particularly when it has social meaning. Certainly, we fear that there are interesting social interactions going on that we’re not a part of, so the rise of social networking has pushed us even further along in our dependence on the Internet, and as a result, pushed us ever further into the Net’s way of distributing information in very short, quick overlapping bursts. I think the effects are related, even though there is a lot going on, and it remains unclear how it’s all going to play out.”
That phrase, “There is a lot going on,” prompted me to bring up an ON magazine interview with Esther Dyson in 2007. When asked if she thinks people ever feel overwhelmed by information, Dyson replied, “Not just information, but choice.” She went on to describe the traditional way of life when you knew you might have a good life or a bad life, but you dealt with it. Now, everything is possible. It’s your fault if you don’t make the right career choice, if you don’t marry the right person. People both are and feel much more accountable. If their lives aren’t perfect, they can feel it’s their fault. “That’s a heavy burden,” Dyson said.
When I read The Shallows, I thought that Dyson’s perspective provided the larger context for what’s discussed in the book. I said to Nick: “Our modern culture is very open. It’s very mobile. It provides lots of choices and lots of opportunities.” And Nick concurred, saying, “And as a result, a lot of anxiety as well.”
Encouraged, I continued: “It’s interesting to look at the Internet in this context. It provides more opportunities to find information, more opportunities to connect, and even more opportunities to become famous overnight, out of nowhere. But the choices and the possibilities bring even more pressure: Should I blog? Should I Twitter? Maybe something is wrong with me if I don’t do that, or something is wrong with me if I do it and don’t become famous overnight.”
Nick continued this train of thought: “Even if you don’t become famous in a large group, the personalization of media through the Internet—where we’re all broadcasters of ourselves—does push the celebrity type of culture down to a very personal level. We’re constantly portraying ourselves in the media when we build a Facebook profile, when we send out a stream of texts or tweets. We’re creating a media persona for our self. It does, on the one hand, give us more choice and in some ways more power over the creation of our self, but in other ways it does produce a lot of anxiety and I think can also produce superficiality.”
What’s to be done?
Nick continued: “I blogged briefly about a cartoonist who decided that he was just going to cut off the Internet and get off it. What he noticed immediately was that a lot of the people he knows resented him for that because suddenly they said, ‘Gee, I have to call you?’ There’s growing social pressure to participate in these technologies, to be on Facebook and be on Twitter, and there is resentment when people try to distance themselves from it. It’s really becoming very much a social norm to present ourselves through these social networking services.”
So, other than moving to the mountains of Colorado, is there anything Nick would suggest as a medicine to cure what we are doing to our brains?
“I’ve tried to avoid prescriptions,” Nick added, “because I think it’s important just to describe the phenomenon. I don’t want to turn into some self-help person who tells you to spend three hours sitting quietly in a dark room every day, because I don’t think it’s that simple. I think this is a major technological shift that is also shifting norms of behavior and ultimately habits of thought. The furthest I’ll go on the prescription side is to underscore the fact that I think it’s pretty clear that richness of thinking is very tightly connected to a person’s ability to pay attention and to resist distraction. I think people need to be aware that if they lose that ability, that capacity to really pay deep attention to something, they’re going to lose ultimately an important part of their personality. My suggestion is not to give up that side of human thought—the more attentive, contemplative side of human thought—without at least some consideration of what you and society as a whole may be losing. But there’s no simple solution. The spark for this book was my own realization that even when I’m not at a computer, I’m finding it harder and harder to pay attention and to concentrate.”
Shortly after our phone conversation, Nick’s viewpoint got an indirect but strong endorsement from President Obama, who told the new graduates of Hampton University, “With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations—none of which I know how to work—information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you, it’s putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.”
As has happened many times before, I find myself disagreeing with the authorities. Isn’t it up to us to choose the degree of control we wish or don’t wish to exert over our lives? Nick has no patience with this argument. “In the end,” he writes in The Shallows, “we come to pretend that the technology itself doesn’t matter. It’s how we use it that matters, we tell ourselves. The implication, comforting in its hubris, is that we’re in control. … The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would be churlish to notice that it is also our master.”
[First published in ON magazine]