The Evolution of Society, Madness and Social Media


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:

If this is your type of thing I would also recommend:

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?

A curious unemployment picture gets more curious.

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.

Photo credit Regonold

About Tac Anderson

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.
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  • http://www.skepticgeek.com Mahendra

    Thought-provoking and an interesting angle to this ongoing debate. Good post, Tac, thank you.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Thank you Mahendra.

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  • http://twitter.com/slainson Suzanne Lainson

    Interesting piece. I haven't read Carr's book, and don't have a strong reaction one way or the other, but I have been interested in how people find and use information online. I'm a writer and researcher and I've never had such easy access to so much information in my life. The Internet is a vast library for me. But I notice that those of us to dig deeply (that it to say, we look way beyond the top 10 links that Google provides on a subject), are relatively few. Most people seem far more interested in real time trending news, which tends not to expose people to a full exploration of a subject. We have moved beyond sound bites to stories no longer than 140 characters. So it's all there online, but most people really don't care. I don't fault the technology really. It's more about what we have been told is important in our lives today. We've been led to believe that speed equals financial reward, but in the greater scheme of things, that may not be true. How many solutions do we overlook?

  • http://twitter.com/slainson Suzanne Lainson

    Interesting piece. I haven't read Carr's book, and don't have a strong reaction one way or the other, but I have been interested in how people find and use information online. I'm a writer and researcher and I've never had such easy access to so much information in my life. The Internet is a vast library for me. But I notice that those of us to dig deeply (that it to say, we look way beyond the top 10 links that Google provides on a subject), are relatively few. Most people seem far more interested in real time trending news, which tends not to expose people to a full exploration of a subject. We have moved beyond sound bites to stories no longer than 140 characters. So it's all there online, but most people really don't care. I don't fault the technology really. It's more about what we have been told is important in our lives today. We've been led to believe that speed equals financial reward, but in the greater scheme of things, that may not be true. How many solutions do we overlook?

  • http://cr8tivejen.com Jen Grant

    Great insight Tac. The message that stands out the most for me is this: Which individuals will shine and will be successful in this new, digital era.

    Being a proud ADD’er myself, here are a few random thoughts and examples of how my personal experience compares:

    Stereotypical thinking – The fact that the terms “mental illness”, “disability” and “high-functioning” are consistently co-mingled into the same sentences, paragraphs and theories by normaloids is extremely frustrating to me. I guess I shouldn’t let it get to me considering how bass-ackwards our society is in the rest of it’s judgmental and compartmentalized thinking. [Do I sound bitter much? ;) ]

    It’s all in the details -Micro differences between people in the same subset or classification of individuals has a major influence on ones success. The determining factor for success is keeping one thing as the highest priority: Build on your strengths and delegate your weaknesses.

    For me personally, the new wealth of information has been a double-edged sword. On one hand its exciting to finally have a professional outlet where my creative, right-brain strengths are able to be utilized at such a high level. The drawback is that my particular weakness is getting my thoughts out in a concise and organized manner.

    When my brain processes this much info so fast, I will find myself having conversations or writing blog posts that are literally missing every third paragraph. Combine that with how busy I am as a mom, wife and career-driven business woman, the time it takes for me to get stuff out of my head is my biggest obstacle. I’ve of course made it a priority to identify tools and processes that work for me so I can get past this, but I’m not gonna lie – it seriously pisses me off! :)

    …and for everyone who’s gonna suggest video blogging as a solution, thank you, but the “concise” piece is vital. As my husband lovingly says: “Get to the freakin point woman!”

  • http://cr8tivejen.com Jen Grant

    Great insight Tac. The message that stands out the most for me is this: Which individuals will shine and will be successful in this new, digital era.

    Being a proud ADD'er myself, here are a few random thoughts and examples of how my personal experience compares:

    Stereotypical thinking – The fact that the terms “mental illness”, “disability” and “high-functioning” are consistently co-mingled into the same sentences, paragraphs and theories by normaloids is extremely frustrating to me. I guess I shouldn't let it get to me considering how bass-ackwards our society is in the rest of it's judgmental and compartmentalized thinking. [Do I sound bitter much? ;) ]

    It's all in the details -Micro differences between people in the same subset or classification of individuals has a major influence on ones success. The determining factor for success is keeping one thing as the highest priority: Build on your strengths and delegate your weaknesses.

    For me personally, the new wealth of information has been a double-edged sword. On one hand its exciting to finally have a professional outlet where my creative, right-brain strengths are able to be utilized at such a high level. The drawback is that my particular weakness is getting my thoughts out in a concise and organized manner.

    When my brain processes this much info so fast, I will find myself having conversations or writing blog posts that are literally missing every third paragraph. Combine that with how busy I am as a mom, wife and career-driven business woman, the time it takes for me to get stuff out of my head is my biggest obstacle. I've of course made it a priority to identify tools and processes that work for me so I can get past this, but I'm not gonna lie – it seriously pisses me off! :)

    …and for everyone who's going to suggest video blogging as a solution, thank you, but the “concise” piece is vital. As my husband lovingly says: “Get to the freakin point woman!”

  • http://seanseo.com Sean SEO Marketer

    Good stuff. I would say it is entirely based on the mindset you have. Whatever you believe will be your deeds and beliefs cannot be all truth because its your own mindset. If your beliefs are truths then you will be accepting things as they come and try to stay cool rather opposing.

  • http://twitter.com/Robert_Rose Robert Rose

    Tac,

    Wonderful post – and a delightful way to be introduced to your blog (I came in through Doc's blog). I'm not completely sure I buy into visceral reactions always being a product of fear of the truth (either rightly or wrongly). For example, I think there's always the option that a visceral reaction can come from the joint discovery that a belief you've both had for a long time is confirmed (or denied). Hence, from two disparate pieces of information – you're both wrong or both right – some new belief (or Truth as you put it) is created.

    That, and the conclusion of your post reminded me of of the discovery – back a few years where scientists working on different species of butterflies – actually created a third from scratch (link to BBC article if you're interested) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/50802

    Thanks for making me think on a Sunday night.

    ~rr

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Great point Robert. This is why I try and avoid the visceral reaction because it prevents these types of opportunities to learn from both sides. Great example.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    The Internet doesn't create behavior but it does lend itself to a certain behavior. I think those that succeed will be those that take a balances approach.

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  • http://spiralout.posterous.com/ GregoryJRader

    Clay Shirky addresses this controversy at the end of a recent talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8wR-GXeOQo) and comes to a similar, though less fully developed, conclusion. His primary criticism is that Carr and other pundits like him never a solution to the problems they dwell on. I am with you: it is what it is. These trends will inevitably continue so long as people find value in the internet and continue to invest in its development. Far better to accept the situation, embrace the positive and work to remedy any negative effects rather than hysterically pronounce doom and gloom…

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    It’s especially important to embrace the changes the Internet brings to our lives and actively manage them. The people who just passively accept them are the most at risk. I’m almost finished w/ Shirky’s book and I find it most interesting that he draws from much of the same work Daniel Pink did in Drive, where he looked at the future of what motivates us.

  • http://spiralout.posterous.com/ GregoryJRader

    It is interesting that you bring up Daniel Pink in light of our other conversation under your article on social/virtual currencies. The idea that we are driven more by intrinsic motivations than monetary rewards has a lot of long run implications for efforts to monetize social platforms and/or establish virtual currencies. If you accept that we ultimately participate in these communities for intrinsic reasons, then any monetization strategy has to avoid devaluing or overriding those intrinsic motivations. I am reminded of Clay Shirky’s story about fining parents who were late picking their kids up from day care. The monetary fine permanently undermined the social norm (intrinsic motivation) against late pick-ups.

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  • Rideyrbike

    “I purchased and started reading his book. Then bought the audio instead so I could get through it faster.”
    What do you suppose does that might mean in context of Carr? Is that a reference to a very busy life (and why hasn’t technology helped to free your time) or is it that audio-visual (essentially digital these days) media has had an impact?

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    I marveled at the irony when I wrote that. For me it was a matter of finding time to read something I knew I wouldn’t get much value out of. I prefer reading books because I don’t retain audio only information as well. Technology has freed up more time for all of us except physics takes over. Nature hates a vacuum and we hate free time. We’ll always fill it with something.

  • http://twitter.com/ike6 Isaac Szymanczyk

    This is an interesting post, and I think about the topic a lot. If you have ADD, it doesn’t show in the writing.

    As more networks and media get invented every day (today I learned about Path.com), I wonder if we’re getting critical enough about where we spend our time. But every time I get the urge to pull off of Facebook and Twitter and the interconnected Web, I think of the people who clung to their horse-drawn carriages even as cars squeezed them off the road. No one really wants to be the late adopter in the evolution game.

    I have also heard about Carr’s “shallowness” theory, and here is my judgment: perhaps Google IS making us dumber with facts, but at the same time, more resourceful and better at finding/searching/sorting info. Einstein advocated not memorizing things that can be looked up. So while some lament our inability to memorize hours of poetry like our ancestors could, others recognize this as an adaptation of the brain — less memorization, but more resourcefulness, versatility and ability to prioritize information.

    Finally, there was a story on NPR recently about instant messaging and “distraction media” lessening our ability to deep-think, which can require more than 45 minutes of uninterrupted cognitive process. I don’t doubt this is true. I see evidence everywhere that our attention spans and appetites for deep thinking are shrinking. HOWEVER – maybe this is the evolution of the human brain in the information age. Maybe we are evolving to sort and filter machined data, and make human decisions from it, rather than try to memorize and calculate all of it ourselves. Perhaps that is the next evolutionary step – moving from knowing the data, to knowing how to process the data, to finally knowing what to DO with the data.

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