Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Shallow Sentiment: Why Nicholas Carr's Anti-Technology Crusade Misses the Whole Point

There’s an oft-quoted Scottish proverb that there is no great loss without some gain. The flip side of that sentiment, I suppose, would be that there is no great gain without some loss. The latter phrase came to mind as I read Nicholas Carr’s latest book The Shallows, which expands on his popular article which first appeared in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and argues that the Internet is fundamentally altering the very structure of our minds and making us all dumber. But even if we assume that he’s right and the Internet is decreasing attention spans and creating shallower thinking among many of us in the developed world, is that really such a great loss when compared to its potential gains?

I hear variations of this same argument all the time in researching and teaching educational technology and I’ve come to see it as a kind of excuse. We all tend to dismiss what we don’t fully understand as either unimportant or dangerous, and I think that Carr falls into the latter category.

Disappointingly, the book is void of broad generalizations, wild claims, and unwarranted superlatives, which makes it dishearteningly difficult to attack. He works slowly and methodically, in a scholarly-way, providing interesting background on the history of writing, providing evidence and examples for his claims and genuinely acknowledging the other side of most of his arguments. So I must admit that Carr’s point is legitimate as far as it goes. He makes a good case for the fact that the use of the Internet can make it more difficult to engage in focused, undistracted thought—a practice which characterizes many of histories’ greatest thinkers.

But how many people will actually read his carefully qualified and well-nuanced argument? On the other hand how many anti-technology zealots will use it as a bludgeon in the fight to deny schools adequate funding for educational technology? How many will use it as an excuse to ignore the work of programs like One Laptop Per Child? How many misinformed people will see it as a reason to miss out on the infinite information and opportunities the Internet provides?

He’s not helping us by making this argument. This is just one more in a long line of anti-innovation arguments which go back to the time of Socrates and I think there's more going on here than simply an instinctive resistance to change; taken together, these arguments paint a picture of an effort among elite scholars throughout history to maintain exclusive power structures and deny the world’s poor and undereducated entrance to the marketplace of ideas.

Carr argues that the Internet is a “form of human regress” and he supports this claim by bemoaning the loss of what he terms the “linear mind.” The linear mind, he says, began to emerge after Gutenberg invented the printing press and is characterized by “calm, focused, undistracted” thought processes like those facilitated by the careful, focused reading of a printed book. He argues that the linear mind is being replaced by an Internet-fueled need “to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster the better.”

The latter may be true—Carr cites some preliminary evidence that attention spans are shrinking in the age of the Internet—but the “linear mind” which he evokes is merely the latest incarnation of a very tired old argument. There have always been a few thinkers who dig deeper and think harder than the rest of us, in both primitive and advanced societies. But the printing press didn’t create the linear mind, nor will computers destroy it.

For the first 200,000 years of human existence no one knew how to read or write. In the scheme of things writing is still a new-fangled invention, a recent and innovative technology in the development of humanity. Homo Sapiens have been writing for less than 2% of our time on Earth, and the historical evidence indicates that the “linear mind” existed long before writing, let alone the printing press, which has been around for less than .3% of our total time on Earth.

It is, after all, the great philosopher Socrates who argues in The Phaedrus that the latest and greatest technology of his time—writing—“will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” In other words, he believed that the use of writing was creating shallow thinkers—a sentiment that is virtually identical to the argument Carr is making today about the Internet.

Of course, I suppose it never occurred to Socrates that not everyone lives in a center of learning like ancient Athens or can afford to spend his days sitting under a tree conversing with a wise teacher. Despite his reservations about the damage writing could do, the fact remained that in order for his words of wisdom to spread and reach beyond his own time and place, someone (his student Plato, for example) would eventually have to write them down.

Eventually, of course, Plato did write down Socrates words, and as a result, some 2,500 years later we are still able to read them. That is not to say that Socrates didn’t have a point about the loss of mental focus that writing caused, though, as any one who has ever written something down so as not to have to remember it can attest. In Socrates' time a talented and well-trained bard could memorize an entire epic poem after just two or three hearings, a mnemonic skill that quickly vanished once writing took hold.

So yes, Socrates was right about writing (just as Carr is probably right that too much computer use decreases attention spans), but that doesn’t make it right to argue that humans shouldn’t have ever learned to write (or that people shouldn’t use the Internet). The irony is that today so many anti-technologists decry the “death of handwriting” which is the very evil that Socrates feared in his own time—it’s an endless cycle. The old school never welcomes new innovations, but once the revolution prevails the fears it raised always end up seeming quaint and foolish to the next generation.

A similar thing happened with the invention of the printing press. Scholars argued that the ease with which printed materials were being created was destroying the quality of literature and scholarship. They lamented that it was filling student's time with trash reading rather than forcing them to apply undistracted focus in mastering a few key texts (in other words, they believed the “linear mind” was destroyed, not created by Gutenberg’s press).

Perhaps the most intriguing example of the anti-printing argument is found in Johannes Trithemius’ De Laude Scriptorum (In Praise of Scribes), in which he argues that monks should continue to practice copying despite the invention of the printing press. His reasons? It keeps idle hands busy, encourages diligence, devotion, and deep knowledge of scripture. He also writes convincingly about the beauty, integrity and individuality of the copied text compared to the stark and mistake-prone results of the printing press.

Surely there is no one who would argue that a printed book is as beautiful, unique, and artistic as a hand-copied manuscript, or that a monk who has hand-copied the Bible dozens of times doesn’t know it better than one who has merely read a printed copy. But there is one great irony in Trithemius’ story: Within two years he took his laboriously hand-copied manuscript to a movable-type print shop in Mainz, Germany and had it printed for more widespread dissemination. I can only imagine the peculiar feeling that a devoted scribe must have felt reading the printed version of this book articulating the value of copying by hand. It must have been at least a little bit similar to the strange dissonance I often felt as I read Nicholas Carr’s anti-tech book electronically.

I have to admit, Carr is right about one thing. I probably was more distracted reading his book on my computer than I would have been had I been locked away in some room with a hard copy of his work. I often found myself opening up another window to further research some fact or define some word that he had dropped, to see what other writers had said about it, or to expand my understanding of some element of his argument. But is that really more “shallow” than sitting in a room reading his words in stark isolation? I’m still not convinced.

A few notable individual geniuses have always had this focused ability to read and think, but the vast majority of human beings never have. On the other hand the Internet is allowing more people to participate in the process of learning and creating knowledge than has ever been possible before. Is it better to have a small group of isolated scholars thinking deeply, or an entire world engaged in a global conversation? Before the development of writing just a handful of scholars, philosophers, and politicians were educated at all. Before the printing press, far less than one percent of the world's people could read and write. Before computers less than half of the global population could read. But now, according to C.I.A. figures, global illiteracy is at the lowest level in human history at just 18%, and is dropping rapidly.

The Internet is a fundamental new medium and is already proving to be every bit as important and paradigm changing as the invention of writing or the printing press. Are we going to lose some things in the process? The smell of freshly printed paper, the feeling of cracking open a brand new book, the sound of a pen scratching across a page, the security of a signed hard-copy of a legal document, even the very ability to write things out by hand? Eventually, yes, I think we will lose those things. And although it seems like a tremendous loss at times, it will also be a tremendous gain.

Think about it. Carr’s argument is fundamentally based on the same kind of elitism that innovative communication technology has encountered since at least the time of Socrates. Certain privileged thinkers and academics find value in the status quo and don’t want to see it disappear while the rest of humanity starves for access to the knowledge that they covet.

It was easy for the wealthy American Nicholas Carr to isolate himself in an “unplugged” mountain hideaway to write this book, which argues that the Internet is making us all dumber. Perhaps for the few privileged wealthy individuals in this world who have access to a world-class education (Carr got his B.A. at Dartmouth and his M.A. at Harvard), vast public libraries, and well-stocked bookstores, the newly interactive Web 2.0 will have a negative impact. But how many people who were formerly shut out have now found a window to a whole world of information and opportunity? And why, Nicholas Carr, are they “shallow” for finally accessing it?

For a planet filled with individuals hungering to join the global conversation, the Internet is opening up worlds of opportunity in just a few years that old-fashioned paper never could have in a thousand. The free and globally accessible Internet has the potential to improve education, revitalize democracy, undermine dictatorships, circumvent censorship, facilitate global understanding, empower the oppressed, expand opportunity, and perhaps not least importantly, revolutionize the art of writing itself. So who here is really guilty of shallow thinking?


  1. Love reading your thoughts on my hand-held device, Jason! I don't feel shallow or guilty!

  2. Nicholas G. Carr’s viewpoint about his counter intuitive vision for mankind who find themselves at the loosing end as a result of centralization of technology is really interesting.

  3. The whole idea Carr writes about comes out in your position on giving every kid a laptop! lol You've proven your point.

    Kids can't LEARN because they're preoccupied with every other thing going on. They can't remember anything except the latest who's shagging whom, or which song Lady Gaga is up for an award for.