Nicholas Carr: The Age of Perpetual Distraction

Nick Carr is an author and blogger who has written three books about the impact of technology on society, culture and business. In this PIL Interview, Nick discusses what the "intellectual ethic" of the screen is, and how much it differs from the intellectual ethic of the book. He also discusses an incipient anti-Net backlash, which is a "tiny eddy in the broader cultural current." (Interview posted: April 4, 2011)

Nicholas Carr In his provocative 2008 Atlantic Magazine essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr wondered about the effect of Internet use on his brain.

His essay expressed the anxiety many of us feel about our lives online when he divulged “over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.”

In 2010, Nick released The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.The book delves into the question of our time: What is the Internet doing to our capacity for deep thinking, attention, and contemplation?

From Plato to McLuhan, Nick presents a thoughtful, well-researched, and highly readable analysis that draws from cultural criticism, intellectual history, and modern neuroscience research studies.

We interviewed Nick in March 2011. We discussed some of Project Information Literacy’s (PIL) latest findings and the future of books and of deep thinking. We began by asking him about what new intellectual ethic the computer screen delivers—and at what cost.

PIL: In a recent keynote, you discussed the importance of technology in relation to its intellectual ethic. Could you tell us a little more about this, Nick? What is the difference between the intellectual ethic of the book and the intellectual ethic of the screen?

Nick: We human beings use all sorts of tools, but the type I’m particularly interested in is what I call “intellectual technologies.” These include all the tools we use to extend or support our mental powers—to find and classify information, to formulate and articulate ideas, to share know-how and knowledge, to take measurements and perform calculations, to expand the capacity of our memory. Although the use of any kind of tool can influence our thoughts and alter our perceptions, it’s our intellectual technologies that have the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think. They’re our most intimate tools, the ones we use for self-expression, for shaping personal and public identity, and for cultivating relations with others.

When an intellectual technology comes into popular use, it often promotes new ways of thinking or extends to the general population established ways of thinking that had been limited to a small, elite group. Every intellectual technology, to put it another way, embodies an “intellectual ethic,” a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work. Ultimately, it’s an invention’s intellectual ethic that has the most profound effect on us. The intellectual ethic is the message that a medium or other tool transmits into the minds and culture of its users.

The printed book and the Internet are both intellectual technologies, but it would be hard to imagine two tools being more different in the kinds of thought they encourage. As a technology, a book focuses our concentration, isolates us from the many distractions that fill our everyday lives. A networked computer does the opposite. As a multimedia, hypermedia, interactive-messaging system, it’s designed to scatter our attention. It doesn’t shield us from environmental distractions; it adds to them. The words on a computer screen exist in a welter of contending stimuli. If the ethic of the book is an ethic of attentiveness, of paying attention to a single flow of thought, the ethic of the Net is one of fast-paced shifts in focus, of skimming and scanning, of taking in as much information as possible as quickly as possible.

PIL: If deep thinking and deep attention are increasingly at risk, how will ideas, let’s say, the really important ones, that require deep thinking be best communicated to and shared with a civilization increasingly wired and constantly distracted?

Nick: The message adapts to the medium. We see this in the way that personal correspondence has become briefer and more businesslike as it has shifted from the handwritten letter to e-mail to the text message and the tweet. We see it, as well, in the way that people use Google to draw short snippets of information from longer works like books or articles, pruning away the context in the process. In this environment, it becomes an ever greater challenge to express long, complicated ideas or narratives. You tend to simplify and compress thoughts to make them palatable to a perpetually distracted audience. You communicate more quickly, with greater efficiency, but what you sacrifice is depth.

PIL: What will the role of libraries become? In The Shallows, you discussed how libraries adapted when civilization shifted from the oral tradition to the written one: Libraries reconfigured their spaces and replaced some of their rooms where public speeches were held into rooms for reading and solitary reflection. What do you see as next for libraries? In some of the interviews we have done at PIL, college students have described books libraries house as “antiquated interfaces” that they rarely use. What will university libraries do with all the books they have lining their shelves, if few students use them?

Nick: I assume they’ll discard them, which is what they’ve been doing for some time as digital copies of books have proliferated. Libraries are shifting from being places designed to give people access to printed works to being places designed to give people access to screens. Go into pretty much any library today – public, school, or commercial – and you’ll almost certainly see more people peering at computers than turning pages. I’m sure printed books will endure for a long time, but they’re no longer at the center of culture. They—and the intellectual ethic they embodied—are at its margins.

PIL: In our 2010 Project Information Survey (PIL) student survey, we asked over 8,000 students on 25 U.S. campuses how they looked for information for personal use in their daily lives. We were not surprised to learn that respondents used search engines and Wikipedia most often. Yet, students we studied also turned to friends and family nearly as much as they did to Wikipedia. Almost two-thirds of the sample also asked them for help with evaluating the quality of what they had found. These findings suggest information seeking may be a highly collaborative process for some individuals who were born digital. Students don’t just use Google and leave it at that—they combine computer- with human-mediated sources in a fairly complex evaluation process. Moreover, few students in our sample appeared to take Web content—or anything else—at face value; they appear to be thinking about and discussing the veracity of what they have found. What does this mean to someone like you?

Nick: I don’t think anyone is “born digital” (at least not yet). We’re all born with human bodies and human minds, and those bodies and minds are influenced in similar ways by the ways we use them and the environment in which we use them. I’ve never subscribed to the fear that people wouldn’t be able to figure out how to navigate online information. People are generally pretty good at learning how to use new media, to separate the wheat from the chaff—and that goes for older people as well as younger ones. I’m 52, and I don’t take anything I find online at face value, either. What concerns me is the mode of thinking that the online world encourages, with its emphasis on speed, multitasking, skimming, and scanning. The web provides little encouragement or opportunity for quieter, more attentive ways of thinking, such as contemplation, reflection, introspection. Those ways of thinking used to be considered the essence of the human intellect. Now they’re seen as dispensable.

PIL: Let’s switch gears. Do you think a backlash might occur, let’s say, against texting or using Google? Just as young people in the 1960s rejected many of the values and technology (e.g., television) with which they had been raised during the 1950s, could there be a digital backlash brewing against today’s digital life, or are we too hooked? What do you think the consequences be of a large part of the population rebelling, unhooking, and choosing to go off the grid? Is a modern day backlash a possibility?

Nick: It’s not just a possibility. It’s happening. As the Internet has come to dominate mainstream culture, a counterculture has begun to emerge that seeks ways to temper the influence of digital media—to celebrate the disconnected life—and I assume that young people will be at the forefront of this counterculture. Countercultural movements are always youth movements. So far, the anti-Net backlash is very small, a tiny eddy in the broader cultural current. I hope it grows into something larger and more visible, but that’s hard to predict with any certainty. I’m not hugely optimistic. What the Net’s made clear is that people crave distractions.

Nicholas Carr is an author and blogger who has written three books about the impact of technology on society, culture and business. He is the former executive editor of Harvard Business Review.

The Shallows: What the Internet Doing to our Brains is a New York Times best seller, which has been called "a measured manifesto" (New York Times Book Review) about the dark side of Internet that is “unceasingly interesting” (Sunday Times).

In his best-selling 2008 book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, Nick examined the rise of cloud computing and its consequences.

Nick created another stir in his 2003 Harvard Business Review essay, "IT Doesn't Matter" and his book, Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business School Press, 2004). He called into question the importance of spending money on information technology in order to increase competitive edge, causing a public outcry from top executives at Microsoft, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard.

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of finding and using information and conducting research in the digital age.

Smart Talks is an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy(PIL). PIL is an ongoing research study, based in the University of Washington’s Information School and supported with contributing funds from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and generous gifts from Cengage Learning and Cable in the Classroom.

Smart Talks are open-access; no permission for its use is required from PIL, though we ask that this source be cited as: Project Information Literacy Smart Talk, no. 6, Nicholas Carr: The Age of Perpetual Distraction.

The Smart Talk interview with Nicholas Carr was conducted over email with Alison Head, Co-Director and Co-Principal Investigator at PIL.