Nicholas Carr is changing how we think about technology

On, “The Shallows,” by Nicholas Carr

I read a condensed version of Nicholas Carr’s take on how technology shapes our brains in his article, Is Google Making us Stoopid published in “The Atlantic” in 2008. In the more than three years since, the conversation has filled out quite a bit. My hope is that his ideas will help me more realistically consider what we will be talking about three years from now and respond accordingly.

Neil Postman’s Trade-Off is part of what has come to light for me since 2008. I’ve come to realize with technology, there’s always a trade-off. That’s Neil Postman’s theory, too (I’d just rather attribute it to Hegel). In Carr’s case, the trade-off is obvious if you stop and think about it. But Carr doesn’t do that a whole lot (or he hasn’t so far). So it’s hard not to ask, why does he have to be such a Negative Nancy?

After reading so many different viewpoints on the effects of incredible and seemingly unstoppable advances in technology, I’ve learned to stop asking that question. Most reasonable people who are doing the level of research and deep thinking of prominent Internet theorists like Carr, or Clay Shirky, or Henry Jenkins are capable of looking at all sides of an issue. But they write very specifically focused books or articles. In some circles, their name alone represents one stance they uphold in their speaking and writing.

So is it that Clay Shirky doesn’t believe vastly increased ease of organization is causing problems? Is it that Carr thinks we should all stop reading on the Internet and instead picking up books? Does Jenkins want us to give up our rights of freedom for the sake of greater security? I have two reasons for saying that is not the case.

One is what I touched on already, they are smart people who obviously think about all sides of an issue, but they are required to focus on a unique thought in order to set themselves apart. Perhaps this is simply from a PR standpoint, in an effort to sell their books.

But beyond that, they do it, I’d like to believe, because they see a problem or an opportunity. And the only way to get others to at least consider it is to demonstrate the way the problem could get most out of control. Or in Shirky’s case, to demonstrate how the benefits could be used for the greatest good. It’s all an exercise in teaching the public to think critically.

I suppose I’ve just done nothing more than summarize what a person learns in Comm 101. But for me this was important to think about when reading Carr’s thoughts on how drastically technology could affect the way we think. Because at times it’s hard not to feel helpless hearing how our brains are shaped in such detail by the decisions others make about which direction progress will go. As Carr put it, it’s incredibly hard to turn around once you’ve wired yourself into vital paths.

Sounds like a metaphor for life.

So, considering it an important idea that will help us think differently and critically about how we make decisions regarding technology (vs. an attempt to tell us all to throw up our hands in despair or never touch a computer again) helps me. It helps me be able to hear Carr out. And hopefully be part of a new wave of thinkers ready to approach Internet use with a better understanding of what might be happening in my brain’s vital paths as I do so.

Hopefully these ideas can help us all understand… and encourage healthier use of technology all around.

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