Nicholas Carr: our brains, drowning in the Shallows

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Nicholas Carr. (27 minutes, 13 mb mp3)

Photo: William Taylor for

Nicholas Carr is famous for fretting that Google is making us stupid — that the Internet is driving our brains into The Shallows. But he knows that he’s not the first to worry about the effects of technology and the “outsourcing” of our thinking. Socrates argued that the written word, even the alphabet, was an intrusion on memory and free-flowing speech. Proust’s Marcel, transported by a melody, could imagine a sweeter world where music had evolved as the true and only language of souls — no speech, no texts. T. S. Eliot lamented in 1916 that a machine was now shaping his phrases and ideas. “The typewriter,” he wrote in a letter, “makes for lucidity, but I am not sure it encourages subtlety.”

NC: It’s true that he then went on to write “The Wasteland”, which is, some people think, quite subtle. So yes, I think there is always a worry, and I spent a lot of time in the book going through all these worries that have come along because I find, even when they’re wrong, they tell us something about the course of technology and what the tradeoffs are. And I’m sure there was a tradeoff in going from writing by hand to typewriting. I don’t know if it was good or bad or indifferent, a little of both.

What I see with the net is a technology unlike the typewriter or the calculator, or other things people have worried a lot about, something increasingly that is always with us. There are people today who wake up in the morning, the first thing they do is check their Blackberry or their iPhone, and it goes constantly until they go to bed, when the last thing they do is check their iPhone or Blackberry. So your point about the intrusion of technology into the most personal, most intimate aspects of ourself, it seems that what we’re seeing now with the net is kind of the culmination of that trend.

Reading and listening to Nick Carr I find him too subtle for his own argument, and far short of any brain-science evidence that the neurons that fire together when we’re on Facebook are wiring together against our better selves. We are stuck, Nick Carr and I, with a sentimental argument that Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson would have phrased better on a walk through Sleepy Hollow in Concord, Massachusetts — and doubtless did. A Hawthorne journal entry from 1844 noted the glimmer of sunshine through shadow, “imaging that pleasant mood of mind where gayety and pensiveness intermingle.” Till — horrors! “But hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive, — the long shriek, harsh above all other harshness… since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.”

NC: The passage from Hawthorne’s notebooks is a beautiful expression of what is available to us through solitary, very attentive, very quiet thinking. Leo Marx, in his great 1960s book “The Machine in the Garden”, draws a contrast between what he calls the pastoral form of mind, which is what Hawthorne is expressing there, and the more industrial form of mind, which is also important: it’s the way we solve problems, the way we move progress forward in some way, the utilitarian mode of gathering information and making decisions.

So this is a long term shift that dates at least to industrialization where we see this constant pressure to be more utilitarian in our mental lives, and more problem solvers. What we lose is that pastoral sense. And Hawthorne definitely saw this when he heard the train disrupt his deep thought. So I think the best way to look at the internet is in that long progression, that long shift in emphasis in our thought, in the consonant devaluation of the more pastoral, more contemplative mode of thought. …

I think we’re at risk of losing this deeper, personal, solitary mode of thought without even paying much attention to what we’re losing.

Nicholas Carr in conversation with Christopher Lydon in Boston, June 28, 2010

Thoreau didn’t like that train through Concord either. But the train was Emerson’s way into the “wide world.” And the Internet, I decided long ago, completes his journey. It’s the fulfilment of Emerson’s wildest dream:

CL: “The mind is one,” Emerson wrote in the essay, History:  “There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.”

From: Christopher Lydon Interviews… “A God for Bloggers”

When Emerson speaks of “access to this universal mind,” he could be describing the leveling effect of Google search engines.  He is envisioning what we now call distributed intelligence. He is foreseeing and the expressive democracy we practice every day on our networked computers. I call him the “God for Bloggers,” the true prophet of the blessed Internet.

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  • Mr. Carr makes sense. One thing to consider is that we are forced or guided into adopting the interrupt-driven lifestyle by our jobs (where we are expected to be checking and responding to email and texts) or our friends. We, especially young people, don’t so much choose the interrupt-drive lifestyle as find ourselves in it. So, as is the case with leading an environmentally destructive consumer lifestyle, we naturally end up living a life that is handed to us without much reflection in advance.

    Furthermore, it is clear that we get better at what we practice, and fail to get better at what we neglect. It follows that we, over time, become less able to devote intensive thought to deep things and find ourselves thinking in bite-sized ways. Surely there is some loss here.

    This smells a bit like our “choices” to put lead in our gasoline, or make all of our products out of plastic, or design our houses to be energy inefficient, or have both parents work, etc… I fear that we may look back on this as a mistake that we made, coincidentally enough, because nobody thought deeply enough about the consequences of losing our ability to think deeply.

    Chris: you learned to think deeply by living a life of books during your formative years. This enables you to take on the new technology as an aid to your thinking. I wonder if people raised in the digital world will be able to develop their deep faculties.

  • I was raised in the digital world, and I would not have had nearly as many opportunities to learn as I have had were it not for digital technology. The liberal arts, and art itself, would be completely foreign to me if I did not have access to things like Open Source. I do not believe I would have a place to discuss and develop my ideas where people understood and cared were it not for the internet. In playing games, I developed a lot of problem solving skills and an ability to adapt to different challenges— the very rules of reality, and how one relates to that reality, differ in each game. Playing around with organizing files, search, the idea of “tagging,” has made me think about what category, division, and hierarchy work, in some way it introduced me to ideas in ontology.

    There are websites like TV Tropes where people have taken their interest in (often very shallow) media, and built a database based on the common themes and patterns they find. It’s not a community that knows too much about academic literary criticism or media theory, and in some ways their database is very shallow and associative, but I find it very exciting that people outside of any academic tradition, because of their fondness for a subject, and the technology they have access to, are building knowledge. TV Tropes can bee silly, but reading it can make one a lot more sensitive to the way storytelling and media works, something most contributors wouldn’t be thinking about much at all were it not for the internet. (A few nights ago I was reading an article about “genre blindness,” where characters in a work of fiction make mistakes that the reader or viewer can anticipate because they the character does not recognize the conventions of the genre they live in, where as the reader does. It had not occurred to me before how strange genres are, how little they relate to life as it’s lived.)

    I suspect that the idea that each generation gets progressively dumber is due in large part to a kind of sampling bias. We remember the brilliant people of the past because they were the ones worth remembering, but in some way I think they are taken to be almost typical of their times. People today just seem dumb because we have access to everybody, everyone today can publish— my neighbors regularly spend five Philippine pesos (about ten American cents) to use Facebook for half of an hour at the local netcafe—, and because when we are engaged with the present, we don’t have the filter of time.

    In Japan, one of the high profile concerns about digital technology is the rising “hikikomori” problem: people, mostly young men, who lock themselves away in their rooms or apartments, spending most of their time either watching anime, playing video games, looking at pornography or doing things online. The problem is not limited to Japan, one related term, NEET (Not in Education, Employed, or in Training) was first used in the UK, and I certainly have encountered Americans like this online, and I myself have been accused of being a paradoxical hybrid of a hikikomori and nomad. It is a real problem, but I would put the emphasis on the problem not on the technology but the larger culture. Why is this lifestyle more satisfying for them than “normal” life?

    I think it’s notable that so many NEETs play games and watch TV instead of engaging in other low cost, but enjoyable activities: spending time in public parks, socializing, or hobbies that can save you money like gardening or cooking for yourself (although of course many NEETs do all of these things, and there are hikikomori who cook for themselves instead of microwaving prepared meals). In “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James says “… mankind’s common instinct for reality… has always held the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism,” and I think games and fiction allow for the world to seem more like a theater for heroism than the world their contemporaries live in. Alienation may seem like a cliched theme, but it’s really very relevant. Can one blame them for feeling more satisfied playing a game where they slay a dragon or build a great city than selling real people food that makes their health worse, or counting money for people who make more in a year than they would in their whole life? For actually feeling more -productive- playing the game?

    If we’re going to get people to disconnect for a few hours each day, we need to recognize that there has to be a sense of satisfaction that comes from it. Somehow, I think, there is a way in our economic system has encouraged us to think of ourselves as primarily economic actors, and there are many people feel guilt if they are not working. There too is a social expectation with some that one is always available, and ought to respond nearly instantly to any message sent to them, and anxiety can come from disconnection due to that social pressure. But it’s important too to recognize that most people just don’t understand what knowledge is, and what it’s good for, so they can’t excuse taking time out for thought.

    ALSO: Nielsen ratings may be up this year, but I heard on a recent On The Media that book sales have also increased in the past year.