The Web is changing us in more ways than we know
In Reclaiming Conversation, author Sherry Turkle notes that significant changes sometimes come to our daily lives without our noticing, until someone like Rachael Carson publishes an astonishing work like Silent Spring, telling us that our advances in technology have brought a permanent change to our environment.
Now, Nicholas Carr tells us that another “silent spring” is at hand. This time, our technology is a major part of that change. Our phones are ringing less, and we are becoming hesitant to establish direct contact with others. After all, it is easier to text. It is perhaps more superficial, but we are in a hurry.
Nicholas Carr feels that the Internet is changing the way we think. In evidence of that change, he cites personal experience. A decade ago, Carr still enjoyed research and actually looked forward to gradually developing a topic through Google. He compares his former experience to strolling through a scenic environment, and gradually selecting the information that he needs.
However, that has changed. Carr now moves rapidly through his resources with a sense of urgency as he flits like a butterfly in heat from one source to another. Further, he notes that he finds this change in other areas.
“I can no longer read War and Peace,” Bruce Friedman an associate, says, noting that he has become “impatient.” Where he used to admire a beautifully written narrative, he now becomes irritable, eager to move on in his search for “relevant data.” He is constantly thinking, “Yes, yes, please get to the point.”
In essence, this is what we have sacrificed for speed and efficiency. According to Carr, we have lost (or we are losing) the ability to read and think deeply. The Internet encourages the rapid and distracted gathering of small bits of information from many sources. We have developed a new talent: the ability to scan and skim.
What are we losing? Carr says we are sacrificing the capacity for concentration, contemplation and reflection. He builds a good case for this. He also suggests that we are possibly at a crossroads where we must choose to become “new” in the sense that we are evolving into a tool or a vital part of a new technology. He finds it interesting that we have exchanged roles: the Internet is no longer a tool; rather we are becoming a tool for the internet.
How did this happen? Carr says that it is not “new.” He proceeds to trace the development of writing from the Egyptian use of papyrus to “a new writing device,” a wax tablet — a development that changed the way we wrote and thought. He acknowledges that the move from parchment to the Gutenberg press required another “adjustment” in the way we think. Eventually, we come to the Internet and another evolutionary change. Each time, we must cast away methods and techniques that have become obsolete. It is like cutting loose ballast so that we many progress faster and more efficiently. The question posed by this is, what are we losing? Is it possibly our humanity? The very thing that makes us who we are?
Carr is a master storyteller and tells a series of stories about writers and thinkers who react to radical change with awe, fear and even despair. He recounts a marvelous story about Friedrich Nietzsche, who bought a new and revolutionary machine, a typewriter. As he struggled to use it, friends noted that his writing was changing. His prose became tighter and more forceful, causing Nietzsche to conclude that this machine has changed the way that he thought.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, sitting in a quiet clearing in the woods, begins to ponder the world around him in a different way and anticipates a “transcendental moment” when the world becomes “a perfect whole,” but then, his reverie is broken by the whistle of a locomotive ... a harsh shriek of a train whistle that has no place in this moment. The spell is broken by the abrupt entrance of “the real world,” which has objectives of its own, and it is busy and impatient. Is this an appropriate metaphor for the arrival of the Internet?
There is an irony in the reaction that I had to much of the dense and heavily documented chapters of The Shallows. Like the author, I found myself “skipping and scanning,” rushing to the end of chapters in the hope that I would find some brief anecdote that would summarize this book’s purpose, perhaps by proclaiming a resounding “Yes!” After this, Carr would present his carefully reasoned conclusion, which is, “It is for the best.” Or, as the tough-talking protagonists say to a grief-stricken victims in police dramas: “Get used to it.”
In actual fact, in the prologue to this book I did find that brief succinct anecdote that addresses this question: How did the Internet bring about extensive change without our being aware of it. In “The Watchdog and the Thief,” Carr relates the story of a thief who always carried a sirloin steak with him when he went to burglarize. While the watchdog was preoccupied with eating the steak, the thief removed every item of value from the house. So, while I am totally absorbed in “Game of Thrones,” the thief (somebody) is making radical changes in the way we interact with the Internet. Who is “the thief”?