Nicholas Carr opens ILS week considering human consequences of tech

Nicholas Carr

It is rare, in the 21st century, for a book written about technology to be both timely and timeless. But that is what journalist and author Nicholas Carr accomplished with his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and 14 years later is hailed as a modern classic, remaining a touchstone for discussions on how the internet affects people’s thoughts and perfections.

It started with a personal essay — “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” — that Carr eventually expanded into The Shallows. The answer wasn’t “yes,” exactly. But it was close.

“I noticed that I was losing my ability to concentrate, and I particularly noticed it when I’d sit down, for instance, to read a book, something that used to come completely naturally to me. I’d get a couple of paragraphs in or a couple of pages in, and my mind wanted to behave the way it behaves when I’m online jumping from page to page, checking email, clicking on links, doing Googling,” Carr told Jeffrey Brown of the PBS NewsHour when the book was released.

Carr has spent the ensuing years writing about the human consequences of technology, and it’s this work — and the essay and book that started it all — that he’ll bring to open the Interfaith Lecture Series Week Two exploration of  “Religion’s Intersections: Interdisciplinary Imagination with Science, Technology, and AI” with a lecture at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

The answer to Carr’s question in his original essay comes down to what scientists call neuroplasticity, and the discovery that even as adults, our brains are still malleable.

“What we can, I think, theorize is that as we train our brains to take in information very, very quickly in a very interrupted, distracted way, little bits of it come at us all the time,” he told Brown, “(that) strengthens those parts of our brain that are good at multitasking and good at zipping up, shifting our focus very, very quickly. On the other hand we are not exercising those parts of our brain that are involved in deep concentration, deep attentiveness, things like contemplation and reflection.”

That means people lose the ability to pay deep attention, to one thing, for a long period of time — like reading a book without the impulse to check your iPhone or BlackBerry (BlackBerrys still existed, after all, when Carr’s book first came on the scene).

Since The Shallows was first published, Carr has gone on to write 2014’s The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (The New York Review of Books called it “chastening meditation on the human future”) which examined the personal and social consequences of humanity’s growing dependency on computers, robots, and artificial intelligence. That was followed in 2016 by a collection of his personal essays, titled Utopia Is Creepy. He’s also the author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, and his writing has appeared in numerous media outlets and several anthologies including, appropriately, the annual compendiums The Best Spiritual Writing and The Best Technology Writing. His next book, forthcoming in January 2025, is Superbloom: How Technologies of Connection Tear Us Apart. When The Shallows was re-issued with a new chapter in 2020, this subject was coming front-of-mind.

“The fundamental argument of The Shallows was that we were making this tradeoff,” Carr told Ezra Klein, then still at Vox, in 2020. “What I worried about then, and what I still worry about, is whether that tradeoff is worth it — are we losing more than we ultimately gain? What’s happened since then? On one level, I think it’s magnified all of my concerns.”

What had become more and more clear in the 10 years since his book’s publication, Carr said at the time, was the social effect of the internet.

“The way social media distributes information, the way it gives particular value or particular emphasis to very emotional information and simplified, kind of strong messages, I think all of this has made the problems I tried to delineate more intense in kind of (a) deeper set within society,” he said. “… On the one hand, all the distractions that we had 10 years ago have proliferated, but also the way we make sense of things socially has changed dramatically as social media has essentially taken over media.”

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