You have probably heard about Nicholas Carr, or if you don’t know him by name you may be more familiar with his, much talked about article, Is Google Making us Stupid. Carr, a long time tech writer, knows how to get a rise out of the tech audience, that’s for sure. Carr turned the article into a book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
I instantly wrote Carr off as a complete idiot that had no clue what was going on and was desperately clinging to the past. But the flaw in my emotional response was that Carr’s not an idiot. I usually don’t agree with him, but he’s a smart guy who’s been watching and writing about technology far longer than I have.
Anytime I have a visceral reaction to something, I’ve learned that it’s usually because there’s some truth to the statement that threatens my own closely held beliefs. This kind of fear is rooted one of two concerns: a) The truth is misrepresented and misleading or b) the truth is right and that means that I’m wrong (for the record it’s almost always that they’re wrong).
But I have learned to stop and, as objectively as I can, look for the truths in opposing arguments so that I can learn from them and help both of us come to better conclusions. I read Carr’s article. I purchased and started reading his book. Then bought the audio instead so I could get through it faster. My recommendation to you is save your money and just go read the article. Like most articles turned business books, it’s a lot of filler and self-congratulatory musings with very little additional value beyond some references to overused third party research.
This post isn’t going to be a point by point breakdown of where I thought Carr was wrong or just misguided because, once you take away his intentionally provocative title and approach, for the most part I think he’s right – about the facts at least.
The Internet, like every other technological advancement, is changing the way we think, live and work. But where I disagree with Carr, is that the Internet is not making us stupid. Instead I believe the Internet is making most of us smarter. But there is a consequence to this evolution: Not everyone evolves.
Every advancement in society leaves behind a subset of the population.
Much like this blog isn’t meant to be a critique of Carr’s book it’s also not meant to be a debate about what constitutes evolutionary progress or what’s an advancement for society versus a setback. It is what it is and you can call it what you like but it is happening and your only real choice is how to deal with it.
Madness and Civilization
Unless you majored in French or Philosophy in college you probably don’t know about Michele Foucault. Foucault was a French philosopher, historian and sociologist. His most famous works are:
- Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason
- Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison
If this is your type of thing I would also recommend:
- Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977
- The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language
You’ll probably see a theme just by the titles. But it’s the first one that I want to reference here. Both Madness and Civilization and The Shallows do a really good job of covering the evolution of society and the mind looking at different societal developments during key periods of time like the Middle Ages The Renaissance and compare the prevailing attitudes to our more current thinking. But while Carr is looking at the development of writing and technology, Foucault is looking at the development of insanity and the asylum. It’s interesting that the more advanced our thinking becomes the more mental illness there is.
Most of us don’t think about the mentally ill or the developmentally disabled people in our society. I grew up with an aunt who was a special ed teacher and spent most summers working as a volunteer with the Special Olympics. Our understanding of these illnesses and disabilities has improved a great deal over time and fortunately our treatment has become more humane. But we still have one primary method of dealing with those who aren’t higher functioning: confinement.
Even for higher functioning individuals suffering from developmental issues or mental illness there are only small places for them in our modern society. Back in an agrarian culture, when school was optional and labor was physical, there seemed to be fewer mental illnesses and those with “below normal” IQ’s would still be functioning members of society. Working on a farm didn’t require much mental cognition. A strong back was more desirable than a sharp mind.
But society has evolved, technology has advanced and for the most part, those of us that have made the evolution agree that it’s been (mostly) a good thing. We have more mental illness, a lot of which can be traced to stress, but that doesn’t stop out progress.
The Next Big Socioeconomic Shift
Most technologists, economists and sociologists will agree that we’re on the verge of the biggest socioeconomic shift since the Industrial Revolution. The technologies behind social media combined with globalization and the cultural shifts that accompany it all we are again advancing as a society. And it’s happening at a pace that is very uncomfortable.
In his book, Carr echoes the sentiment we all hear every day. There’s too much information, the Internet is making us all ADD and we can’t possibly keep up this pace. I have an interesting perspective on this; I am ADD. I was told by my Jr. High school councilor that I wouldn’t graduate High School. Fortunately for me spite is a powerful motivator. I struggled through High School, squeaked by as an undergrad and flourished as an upper grad and then post graduate student. Coincidently my highly improved performance came at the same time as computers and then the Internet became standard equipment in universities.
My ADD is an asset on the Internet. I don’t feel like I have a learning disability I feel like I have super powers. I feel sorry for the rest of you who weren’t born with hyperactive, non-linear brains because the pain and stress you feel adjusting to the Internet is exactly how I felt before the Internet.
There used to be a commonly held belief that it was impossible to truly multi-task. But new research is showing that *some* people actually can simultaneously process two cognitive thoughts at the same time. We are evolving.
Much like moving to an industrial urban society has created agoraphobics, some people already have an irrational fear of being active in social media. As everything becomes connected and social, both online and off, how will digital agoraphobics function in this new society?
Do you need more proof that the fact the economy has started to produce more jobs but has failed to decrease unemployment?
The most tempting explanation for the seeming shift in the Beveridge curve relationship (to me, anyway) is a problem with the mismatch between skills required in the jobs that are available and skills possessed by the pool of workers available to take those jobs. The problem with this tempting explanation is that it is not so clear that the usual sort of structural shifts we might point to—for example, only nursing jobs being available to laid-off construction workers—are so obviously an explanation (an issue we explored in a previous macroblog post).
I believe that most of these people will eventually find jobs. But some of them, who were previously employed, will eventually be deemed unemployable. They will share the same fate as those with mental disorders that exclude them from the workforce. In time, many will develop or be diagnosed with legitimate mental problems.
Again, I’m not trying to villainize the technology or the societal changes. I believe we are better off now than we were in th Dark Ages and that the people of the World are better off now than they were 50 years ago. But I have evolutionary bias. I’m here, I’m evolving, it’s easy for me to be happy about it.