The tweets don’t cease — not from the president or pundits or from celebrities, banks, and corporations. And then there are texts and emails at all hours from our bosses, our children’s schools, our doctors’ offices, and grocery stores offering us recipe tips. Our smartphones buzz over and over with breaking news headlines and updates from our social media feeds. It’s enough to drive us to distraction, yet we don’t seem to be able to release our grips on our tiny pocket computers, nor figure out how to loosen their holds on us.
In his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that constant interruptions are among the internet’s defining features — and that these interruptions have a deleterious effect on our collective ability to sustain deep thought for tasks like reading, research, and reverie. Web surfing even has an impact on our short- and long-term memories. Almost a decade later, he said in an interview, the problem has only gotten worse.
“There have been a lot of big hopes and dreams that the internet and digital technology would make us smarter and broader-minded and more open to other viewpoints,” he said. “I argue that it’s made us more superficial thinkers, brought out some of the worst characteristics of human nature, and made us more narrow-minded. I think it’s hard to look at the way technology and our use of it has evolved since then and not conclude that much of what I said was correct and, unfortunately, prophetic.”
He takes no pride in having predicted what could arguably be looked at as the downfall of American intellect, though he admits that he didn’t really anticipate the primary role that social media, then in its toddlerhood, would soon play in our lives. Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, he said, have “distorted the public discourse in ways that nobody foresaw.”
Carr discusses the impact of the internet on our biological and social processes in “Minds in the Net: The Journey from Page to Screen,” the School for Advanced Research annual President’s Lecture on Thursday, May 23.
You might call Carr a curmudgeon, but he’s no Luddite. He was an early adopter of computers as a college student in the 1970s. He blogs. And he’s done — and continues to do — his research online in addition to print. He is the author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (W. W. Norton, 2008), The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (W. W. Norton, 2014), and a plethora of popular articles about technology in The Washington Post, Wired, Politico, and The New York Times, among other publications. His most recent book, Utopia Is Creepy and Other Provocations (W. W. Norton, 2016), is a collection of posts from his blog, Rough Type.
In The Shallows, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, Carr cited numerous studies and articles to back up his argument that the internet’s endless hyperlinks and alerts encourage us to skim instead of reading — to flit about instead of staying in one place. Some critics, however, did not appreciate his negative take. In a 2010 review in The Guardian, Steven Poole wrote that Carr considers us all “pitiable slaves to the machine.” Poole insisted that he was capable of not opening emails and simply turning off those persistent notifications. “This kind of thing is what I would consider basic intellectual ecology in the online age,” he wrote, questioning why Carr couldn’t do the same.
As he mentions many times in The Shallows, Carr actually does attempt to limit the ways in which the internet intrudes upon his life. But he emphasized that the problem can’t always be resolved by tailoring one’s individual behavior. Carr wrote The Shallows before the proliferation of smartphones, which in the last decade have become inextricable from societal functions. We used to have to sit in front of a computer to go online, but now most people are always connected — always scrolling and tapping, uploading a photo to Instagram or “liking” a Facebook post on personal devices. Many of us couldn’t escape the Net if we wanted to, because our jobs (and our relationships) rely to some degree on constant internet access. It would take a counterculture revolution to alter this path, and Carr, realistically, doesn’t see that happening.
“Far, far more than was the case 10 years ago, our lives are wrapped up, or certainly our minds are wrapped up, with the technology,” he said. “One of the biggest and hardest things to do is to not carry your phone with you all the time — to not see the phone, social media, or computers in general as the best tool for all purposes, which is kind of how we look at it now.”
Carr does not regard social media as a platform for real political discourse or serious conversation, although he acknowledges that people use it as such. He said social media platforms encourage superficial “hot takes” on, rather than full analysis of, the issues. And because emotionally driven posts can be shared or retweeted, users are prone to react en masse, in outsize outrage or empathy. “In retrospect, it’s not all that surprising that, given these particular tools, people would become more polarized, less willing to take seriously other people’s viewpoints, less willing to engage in reasoned discussion.”
In his lecture, Carr will also delve into the issues he sees surfacing with the rise of artificial intelligence and automation. Our dependence on computers extends beyond our working lives and into our leisure activities, with services like Amazon Echo’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and global positioning systems (GPS), the last of which has relieved us of the responsibility of reading maps or even knowing our way around the cities and neighborhoods in which we live.
“Navigation and sense of place — those might turn out to be valuable skills,” he said. “How thoughtless we are in handing them over to computers.” ◀
▼ The School for Advanced Research presents “Minds in the Net: The Journey from Page to Screen,” with author Nicholas Carr
▼ 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 23
▼ James A. Little Theater, 1060 Cerrillos Road
▼ $10 for SAR members, $20 for the public; advanced registration required, sarweb.org/news-presidents-lecture-nicholas-carr
▼ For more information, call 505-954-7200