Nicholas Carr on the 'Superficial' Webby Mind

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W. W. Norton & Company

In a 2008 Atlantic cover story, Nicholas Carr asked the question "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" His provocative thesis—that Internet use is literally altering our brains—triggered a massive debate about concentration in a relentless digital world. In Carr's new book The Shallows, he explores in greater depth the cognitive and historic implications of these changes, comparing the Internet's impact to that of other technological innovations, including the printed book. He finds that "in the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us." Carr continues his examination of the Internet's effect on our lives in the July-August issue of The Atlantic, with the article "Googlethink".

Here, Carr discusses the Web's effect on the way we think, and why his life has been happier since he started spending less time online.


You write that the Internet encourages a mental ethic of speed and, in effect, distraction. Tell us a little about how you arrived at this idea.

It was originally spurred by my own personal experience. Like a lot of people, I had been using the Net heavily for more than a decade. In fact, every time the Web gained some new capability, I used it more. What I started noticing around 2007 was that I seemed to be losing my ability to concentrate. Not just when I was sitting at a computer. Even when the computer was off and I tried to read a book, to sustain a single train of thought, I found it difficult.

What's the scale of the technological and cognitive transformation here? When was the last comparable shift?

I think the last one was probably the introduction of the printed book with Gutenberg's press in 1450. It changed the prevailing mode of thinking in society. For the first time—speaking for society—you had a technology that encouraged people to be attentive, and shielded them from distraction. A mode of thought that was previously restricted to scholars and monks suddenly was encouraged among society at large. The printing press had a very large role in fostering the modes of thought we saw reshaping society in the centuries afterwards.

That was the last time we saw something as dramatic as the introduction of the Internet. What sets the Internet apart from radio and television—earlier mass media—is that the Net doesn't just process sound and video. It processes text. I think it's fair to say that the written word is extremely important to our intellectual lives and our culture. Until recently text was distributed through the printed page, which encouraged immersion in a single narrative or argument. With the Net, text becomes something that can be broadcast electronically the way sound and pictures can be. So you begin to see the same habits of thought: distracted, hurried, and (I would argue) superficial. What we're seeing is a revolution in textual media.

What domains do you think will suffer the most in this transformation? Which will be the biggest beneficiaries?

The biggest beneficiary is online media itself, whether it's services like the Google search engine, Facebook and Twitter, or traditional media served up online. These are both shaping our mental habits and benefiting from it, supplying information in a kind of blur.

And it's no surprise that printed media is a very big victim. We become less and less able to read a printed book or a long essay in a magazine. In addition to the economic upheaval, traditional print media is going to suffer from cognitive changes. As a caveat--this is something that is going to play out for many years.

Has your perspective changed?

My point of view about computers has changed over the last 5 or 10 years. By nature, I'm much more of a technophile than a technophobe. I was even pretty geeky about wanting to have the latest thing. Now, because of my suspicion that my reliance on these things is stealing a literary mode of thinking, I've become increasingly suspicious of my love for gadgets and technology. I had Facebook and Twitter accounts, but I stopped those. I don't have an iPad or an iPhone.

What can we do to counteract these cognitive changes?

I struggle with that question. I think it depends on whether you see this as a social and cultural phenomenon, or from the standpoint of an individual. On the social level, I confess I'm a fatalist. The Internet is being woven so deeply into our daily lives—the way we socialize, work, and get educated. In some ways, I see this change in our thinking toward an ever more distracted and fast-paced mode as perhaps inevitable. I'm not sure we're going to be able turn the clock back as a society.

On the individual level I'm more optimistic. Those of us concerned about what we might be losing can make the choice to reduce—perhaps dramatically—the time we spend on the Net, and the time we spend staring into screens. Instead, we can focus on reading deeply, and exercising our concentration. People who are worried should give thought to how they might be able to back away from the online life.

How do you see these cognitive changes affecting the bigger picture--our politics, our economy, our society?

I don't want to make the Internet too much of a bogeyman. You can certainly make the argument that the political sphere has been influenced very heavily by media—particularly by the compression of thought into soundbites, and from there into more extreme soundbites. That is something that predates the Net and computers and goes back to TV news. But I think the Net amplifies and accelerates that process as well. That's not to say it's all negative. It makes a lot more information and points of view available to people. But I fear its effect will be to further encourage superficial thinking.

Do you see this cognitive shift resulting in tension between generations?

I'm wary of painting this as a generational divide. One thing we've learned about the brain is that it's malleable throughout our lives. I'm 51 years old. Half of my life was spent in the pre-computer era. Nevertheless I'm suffering these same cognitive effects. The mental effects of staring into a screen are the same no matter what your age.

It annoys me a bit to see middle-aged people pretending this is just something that influences the young. It influences everyone. There's no doubt, however, that the consequences would be more severe if you were brought up from a very young age getting your information through computers and smartphones.

The danger for the young is never developing the mental facility for contemplative thought, whether deep reading or being able to follow a single argument over a long stretch. I worry that we're training children to be distracted, to confuse getting access to information with intelligence.There seems to be a redefinition of our idea of intelligence itself that is emerging. The emphasis is on how quickly you can find information, rather than what you do with it, how deeply you think about it, and how you weave it into the knowledge you already have.

How do you think individual development—of minds, of personalities—is affected by the digital age?

It seems pretty clear to me that the richness of our knowledge and our memory hinges on our ability to pay attention. If we're perpetually distracted from a young age—the average American teen already sends or receives about 3,000 text messages a month—we will likely sacrifice some of the depth and distinctiveness of our intellects and our personalities. That's not to say there won't be compensations, and it's not to say that we'll be stupid, but it is to say that we'll be less interesting.

Your vision is noticeably darker than some of the sunnier optimists. How do you respond to the idea that fears of a negative change are exaggerated?

I think it puts me outside of the mainstream. On the other hand, even among the people who continue to be infatuated with technology, I do think that there is a substantial minority that is also beginning to worry about the effects on their intellectual and social lives. We've had about 20 years of general excitement and enthusiasm about the Net. Now, that won't go away, but I think more and more doubts are going to be raised.

It's seemed for a time like a divide between technophile and technophobe. But when people like me have serious doubts as well, that's when the conversation begins to change. It can't be characterized as an anti-technology, pro-technology divide.

Is (or was) your less Webby life happier?

Distinctly so. In addition to feeling calmer and more attentive, I felt less anxious. Some psychologists believe that the faster we take in information, the more stress we feel. I found that to be true in my own experience.

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Benjamin F. Carlson is executive editor of The Atlantic Wire.

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