I am, among other things, a technical writer. In the course of my career writing documentation for industrial machinery and network appliances, a disturbing trend became clear: Nobody reads the manual. What I discovered in working closely with the customer-service departments of several firms – and what the customer-service representatives already knew – was that nobody reads the manual. More to the point, people frequently called customer service rather than checked the documentation to see if the answer was already there. This was not because the answer was hard to find; it was because it was simply easier to call and ask a human being who already knew it.
This is human nature. We, as people, have always tended to want easy answers – fast answers – over laborious personal research. Common sense dictates that there’s little need to spend half an hour digging through source material if the woman sitting next to you or the man on the phone can simply give you the answer and let you get on with your life. To what extent, however, does ready access to fast answers, to a vast and immediately retrievable wealth of data, affect our very brains? How has the breathtaking cultural change that is the Internet affected our culture as dependence on the Web has become integrated into our society?
Is the Internet making us stupid?
A new book by Nick Carr, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” paints a bleak picture of the Web’s effect on humanity. Carr writes, as excerpted and adapted in Wired magazine:
What kind of brain is the Web giving us? … When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain[s]. …
Tom Krazit recently wrote about Carr’s book for CNET. In Krazit’s analysis, “Carr worries that in a world where information is available easily and instantly that we are losing the ability to think for ourselves; to reach a deep understanding of a topic through research, reflection and honest debate. [Carr asserts] that our current multitasking-hyperlink-overloaded brains are returning to a more primitive state that eliminates centuries of cultural and technological progress produced by the ability of books to encourage deep thought.”
More to the point, Carr writes that the “depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory … to long-term memory. … But the passage from working memory to long-term memory also forms a bottleneck in our brain. Whereas long-term memory has an almost unlimited capacity, working memory can hold only a relatively small amount of information at a time. And that short-term storage is fragile: A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind. …”
Carr writes metaphorically and poetically for a man allegedly focused on science and given to sweeping condemnations of technology’s effect on our collective psychological and emotional makeup. He describes the Internet as a series of faucets, all of them blasting us at full power with streams of water. Our puny minds allow us to transfer only a few drops from this deluge – not a “continuous, coherent stream” that represents the deep, contemplative thought and research Carr believes is possible and preferable. He writes:
There’s nothing wrong with absorbing information quickly and in bits and pieces. We’ve always skimmed newspapers more than we’ve read them, and we routinely run our eyes over books and magazines to get the gist of a piece of writing and decide whether it warrants more thorough reading. The ability to scan and browse is as important as the ability to read deeply and think attentively. The problem is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of thought. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for further study, it’s becoming an end in itself – our preferred method of both learning and analysis. Dazzled by the Net’s treasures, we are blind to the damage we may be doing to our intellectual lives and even our culture.
In other words, scanning and skimming are all right as long as one is running his moistened finger through The New York Times, perhaps sipping tea while contemplating the latest editorial cartoons in Harper’s Weekly. One is allowed to take the shallow approach in matters of which Mr. Carr approves, after spending the morning sitting in the garden cross-legged while meditating on the nature of one’s being. Should we at any time be tempted to, say, scan the headlines posted on WorldNetDaily‘s Twitter account or read through Drudge‘s latest headlines, we are shallow thinkers. Should we skim through John Kubicek’s latest analyses or peruse Adam Baldwin‘s political opinions, clicking on only those links we find most interesting, we are part of a societal trend toward stupidity. Contemporary Internet users are, in Carr’s thinking, a bunch of fast-thinking but incapable nitwits who crave morsels of data but think no deeper than the next 140 characters of text.
Carr is no stranger to controversy. Previously, his book “Does IT Matter?” condemned the information technology industry as, in Martin Langham‘s words, fostering a “commoditized” approach that makes it “impossible to build a sustainable advantage.” What that means is that Carr believes IT to be what Langham says it is not: a “spear-carrier in the execution of a business strategy.” Understandably, IT professionals were offended when Carr claimed their industry does not ultimately deliver value to the businesses it serves.
Carr’s hand-wringing about the Web is similarly self-serving. The impulse to proclaim the other fellow stupid is as natural as the desire to seek easy answers. If the other man is a “shallow thinker,” you needn’t understand why he disagrees with you. If your fellow citizen is incapable of what Carr calls “the pastoral ideal of contemplative thought,” why, it must mean that citizen is not a “deep” thinker – and technology is to blame.