Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Net is Not Our Only Love: Thoughts on Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows"

Are we losing our contemplative minds by being online?

That’s the central, disconcerting question that author Nicholas Carr asks and then answers with a measured yes in his new book The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing Our Brains (Norton, 2010). In The Shallows, Carr follows up on a concern he first voiced in his 2008 essay in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

The book bolsters Carr’s original argument nicely, backing up anxieties about the human intellect with results of recent neurological studies as well as piles of alarming anecdotal evidence. And, considering it’s a book that so bemoans twenty-first-century attention spans, Carr’s volume manages to maintain reader interest surprisingly well throughout. It’s an enjoyable, engrossing read from an unassuming wordsmith who willingly offers himself as a sort of worst-of-gadget-sinners figure while launching into his troubling cultural diagnosis.

“I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple minutes,” Carr testifies early on in the book. “Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected. Just as Microsoft Word had turned me into a flesh-and-blood word processor, the Internet, I sensed, was turning me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine, a human HAL.”

Who among the wired masses cannot relate to this confession? Who among us has not silently relished seeing a handful of unread messages appear in the inbox and felt compelled to catch up on Twitter and Facebook feeds at almost embarrassing rates of frequency during the day? And yet, as illuminating and informative and relatable as his material is, Carr’s interpretations often wax too apocalyptic to be very believable, overreaching in terms of what it all portends for humanity.

Carr strikes this less convincing note when he writes that while it's “possible” to think deeply while online, deep thinking is “not the type of thinking the technology encourages or rewards.” Instead, Carr goes on to say, the medium tends to transform us into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” Really? Is this truly what we are being reduced to? The online habits of those I have known and lived and worked with bear little resemblance to such descriptions of mindless frenzy.

Perhaps at certain cynical moments images of something akin to lab rats cross our minds as we glance at strangers texting in an airport or watch Droid commercials glamorizing automated efficiency. (I must admit that it was with a kind of otherizing disgust that I passed an Apple store overflowing with a flock of iPhoners the other day, and yesterday when the soulless Kindle commercial aired yet again, the one with the two people seated on the sterile-looking beach, I wanted to shake the ad’s producers for so thoroughly collapsing the magic of the literary world into a bland image of escapism.) But when I consider people more carefully and the technologies and gadgets we employ more closely, I’m generally unable to subscribe to this doomsday vision of where humanity is headed, nor place such primary blame for societal trajectories on the prevalence of digital connectivity. Carr suggests that not only may the digital age of distraction rob our brains of the ability to think deeply but, even more troubling, the ability to empathize with others and have compassion. And while I share his concern over perceived threats to these important qualities, I do not view the latest technologies as the major enemy of them.

Carr and other critics of technology help keep us alert to our penchant for the latest tools and toys. Societal and individual reflection on such matters is valuable and necessary, and The Shallows is a worthwhile contribution to those efforts. What I appreciate most about the book is its pairing of literary and historical figures with the more technical aspects of his argument. Unexpectedly relevant excursions into minds ranging from Socrates to Kubrick and from Nietzsche to Erasmus make it impossible to brush Carr off lightly. He’s clearly done a great deal of deep reading and meditative thinking (however diminished he believes his capacity to do so).

In his original Atlantic piece, Carr concludes with references to the movie 2001, artificial intelligence and the suggestion that we are fast becoming “pancake people” with little depth—all working memory, few longterm cognitive powers on which to draw. It’s a frightening conclusion to consider, but also an unlikely and unnecessary one—at least if we continue to love more than just the Internet. And our day-to-day acitivities, commitments and lives suggest that indeed we do.