Saturday, March 01, 2014

Don't be a Slave to Intellectual Technologies

Nicholas Carr created a stir with his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the 2008 July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine. That was almost six years ago, surely equivalent to several decades in the frenzied pace of the Internet era.

The article morphed into a book called “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” It was selected as one of the two books by ‘Silicon Valley Reads 2014’, a community engagement program (from January to March, with over 100+ events) that asks everyone in California’s Santa Clara County to read, think and discuss important cultural shifts occurring in our lives.

Carr’s provocative question is whether searching and surfing the Net is rewiring our neural circuitry to the extent that we no longer know how to read a book deeply as we leapfrog from one hyperlink to another. Do our smartphones, iPads and social media help or hinder our connection to the written word? Is there such a thing as too much information?

As part of the Reads program, Carr spoke on these urgent issues at the Evergreen Public Library in San Jose, California, on March 1, to an engrossed audience. Technologies we use today are not the usual labor-saving devices, said Carr. They are, rather, intellectual technologies we use to think with and express ourselves. They have an effect on shaping our thoughts, much like maps and clocks did centuries ago. Cartography was not merely the use of maps but different ways of thinking of places and events far beyond what our senses told us. The mechanical clock changed our sense of time, from natural, cyclical flows to measurable, discrete units of seconds and minutes. It made possible the scientific method.

As Carr explained, today's digital tools have unleashed a new intellectual ethic not associated with older technologies: They encourage us to think in certain ways but equally tellingly, prevent us from thinking in other, and often more creative, ways. 

We carry our smartphones and tablets with us all day long. They intrude into everything we do. Without our even being aware of it, they condition us to juggle fast-paced information continuously, limiting our attention spans to no more than 10 seconds. We are after the gist and not any type of deep engagement with what we consume on the Net. Add up all the emails and texts and Facebook and Twitter alerts every day and soon we find ourselves in a permanent state of distraction. We don’t need to go after any information because information is constantly streaming into our gadgets. We have become slaves to our gadgets, bending our habits to their dictates, always multitasking just to stay afloat on the ever-changing ocean of information.

This is a problem because, as Carr sees it, it keeps us from thinking that requires attention for an extended period of time. Our working memory gets overloaded while our long-term memory atrophies. They key to knowledge is associations and connections between facts, information and insights. Without sustained attention and concentration, no deep connection and associations can form in our minds. No reflective and contemplative thoughts are possible when we are connected to our ‘always-on’ gadgets more or less 24/7.

Nicholas Carr speaking at the Evergreen Public Library on March 1, 2014,
as part of the Silicon Valley Reads 2014 program.
The danger, Carr warned, is that our malleable brain adjusts to this new reality. It is less able to focus as it awaits the stimulus of new information every few seconds. This troubling shift means that we are less able to distinguish the important from the trivial. Carr quoted from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College: “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

We have allowed technology to control our mind, Carr said, and so we are in danger of not knowing how to think. We indulge in superficial thinking and stay away from deep thinking because that requires effort and demand attention.

Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have financial stakes in keeping us distracted. The more we jump from one unit of information to another every few seconds, the more these companies can target us with advertisements and the more money they end up making. It requires guts to resist their titillation but unless we make a conscious effort to do so, our slavery to our gadgets and to the Net will permanently change our thought processes for the worse.

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