The point of Nicholas Carr’s fascinating book is simple: the proliferation of digital “answers” to human problems has a huge and – if you care about quality – damaging impact on the way that we live and think. The technologies of hypertext, always-on notifications, and omnipresent “smart” phones are actively rewiring human brains. Although we can’t know the end result of our interaction with the technological plagues that we have unleashed on ourselves, it is now measurable and demonstrable that things are happening to human brains. And no, before you ask, these are not good things.
Carr begins his discussion with a famous fictional computer, the HAL 9000 from Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, before moving on to the invention which allowed Nietzsche to continue to write, but also changed his style (the typewriter). There’s a lot of fascinating background to show how previous media revolutions (if I may use such a revolting term), have improved human life. The defining moment, that being the 15th century invention of the printing press, has held sway for five hundred years.
Not anymore, it would seem. The birth of the computer, from Alan Turing’s first tentative steps toward AI at Bletchley Park through the first developments of the GUI in the 1970s and the personal computer “revolution” of the 1980s, up to the proliferation and transformation of the Internet from geek haven to business essential in the 1990s and 2000s: all of these fall under Carr’s sweeping narrative. In some ways, the parallel journeys of humanity and the computer have been revolutionary. For example, the difference between trying to find a reference in a library when I was an undergraduate over twenty-five years ago and searching now for similar information online is truly staggering. The difference between trying to find a particular piece of media, be it book, music, film, or magazine, then and now is also staggering.
But all of this convenience and accessibility comes at a price. The “distraction technologies”, as Carr calls them, are now everywhere, embedded in every single page of the internet. Studies, which Carr presents damningly, one after another, have shown that hyperlinked reading is more distracted than print reading, that software-aided problem solving ultimately results in fewer correct solutions, and that memory aided by computers is in fact poorer memory. That the ultimate aim of technology companies like Google is to not only have a virtual monopoly on media (their effort to scan every book ever printed, flying in the face of copyright in many cases, seems truly sinister at best), is merely the cherry on top of the cake. There is more: I’ve merely scratched the surface.
Seen in the context of our growing understanding of how the brain works, these findings are made clear. Human brains change and re-wire themselves (so to speak) based on their external stimuli, and that they are able to do so even as we age is a relatively recent discovery. But the most consequential finding for learning, attention-span, comprehension, and deep-thinking follows from learning how memories are formed, over time, in a transition from the short-term to long-term memory. By overloading the short-term memory with useless or inconsequential stimuli (which can only juggle three to seven things at any given moment), internet-enabled distraction technologies ensure a lack of deep comprehension, from which real understanding comes. We’ve all met (or even been) the “Wikipedia expert”, ie; the person with the “smart” phone. How many times does that person actually deeply understand the answer they are giving? And you could spend days, weeks, or months, even, trawling through Twit-Face and Google+ for an informed opinion. Do we really have that kind of time in our short lives?
As schools race to thrust all sorts of techno-gadgets into the hands of children, operating under the unexamined and unsubstantiated premise that kids will “learn more gooder” with an iPad than with a book, we really need to pay attention to books like Carr’s. At my kids’ school, the advent of the iPads was not accompanied by the creation of four hundred well-rounded and intellectually challenging Renaissance Children. It was accompanied by network problems, teachers running interference against kids playing games, arbitrary and random enforcement of various rules, and broken screens every other day. Any parent with a teenager will tell you that their child already spends far too much time with their nose stuck in a mobile or a tablet. The whole notion of the educational value of this technology is a boondoggle (a word I’m quite giddily pleased to use, as it’s staggeringly appropriate here), in which fools with education degrees sell taxpayers on a ridiculous fallacy.
Some critics have taken Carr to task for lumping all of the internet technologies together under one umbrella. I honestly think this is a rubbish, apologist’s view, but if you want, call them “internet-enabled technologies” as I have done, and I think that deals with a lot of the semantic quibbles. Not everything about the internet is bad. It has some tremendous benefits, as both Carr and I will concede. Those benefits, however, must been seen in the context of the concomitant detriments, and weighed accordingly.
One point that Carr misses, to my mind, is the role played in the decay of human brains by television. While internet-enabled devices are more interactive, the “distraction technologies” on which Carr rightly foists blame began in both the cinema and on TV, with the ever-increasing number of commercials, high-speed jump cuts in productions, tedious and needless special effects, chirons and crawls, and all the rest of the crap that comes with making the mistake of turning on the telly. Television is implicitly culpable, however, if you include such internet-enabled abilities as streaming of television, and the phenomenon of “binge-viewing”.
If you’re reading this review, then you are probably already at the point where, although you enjoy cataloguing your books and other seemingly harmless online activities, you are concerned that they may be supplanted, that books might finally, after a century of it being promised, somehow become “obsolete”. And if you’re looking for an optimist to tell you otherwise, I’m not the guy. Neither does Carr give the reader answers or any real hope, however his suggestions as to the kind of future we may face are implicit in what he criticizes. Do what you’d probably do anyway: keep reading print books, avoid e-books unless necessary for some compelling reason, support your local book and record shops (if you still have any), and encourage family and friends to do the same. Do it in person, too: dropping social media like a hot brick is sure to add twenty points back to your IQ almost immediately! Reduce your time online, and who knows, maybe even look up some of Carr’s reference books (real, print books) for follow-up reading.
I think I can fairly say that you’ll be smarter and happier for it. Five of five stars.
Originally reviewed on 24 July 2015.
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