When the first locomotive trains appeared it was thought that their vast speed would have a deleterious physical effect on passengers by causing some sort of discombobulating of their innards.
This proved ill founded of course, but the popular theory was symptomatic of the sorts of fears that are spread by disruptive, disconcerting inventions. The World Wide Web has had its fair share of these, with observers worried about the spread of pornography, libellous material, theft of intellectual property, quality of comment, serious books and much else.
In his new book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr targets another such fear: the effect on us of constantly sipping at small amounts of information from emails, instant messages, blogs, news sites, social networks and all the other Get Stuff Quick phenomena of an online world operating in real time.
Let me say that I found Carr’s earlier works – Does It Matter? and The Big Switch – rather shrill and one-dimensional, with the author keen to corral any data to feed his highly questionable premise that IT is becoming flatter, commoditised and a general utility in the same way that electricity changed from private to public resource. But Carr is still a whip-smart writer about the way technology is changing and what those changes mean for all of us.
As with Does IT Matter?, this new book stems from an earlier article – Is Google Making Us Stupid?, written for The Atlantic – and is effectively a stretched-out investigation of the same subject but none the worse off for that narrow focus. The style is also familiar with the resourceful author clutching a sack of business stories and cultural notes to colour his well-written story.
But this book is his best yet simply because Carr is sorting through the information we have today on what the age of Google is doing to our brains and concentration spans and, unlike in earlier works, he doesn’t start out with an entrenched position to defend.
Instead he gently mulls and sifts his sources. There are those who paint the present as time of unimagined informational richness and celebrate the internet’s ability to free up access as nothing short of a revolution, like the advent of running water in homes. Then there are those who darkly fear that the internet is a catalyst for dumbing down, dodgy factoids, immorality and banality and hark back to an age when people read long books and studied for years to make great discoveries.
The truth, as ever, is that both polar camps are kidding themselves. The great ages of discovery were also times when large parts of the population were illiterate. Education in modern times has often been in part about finding and memorising facts rather than building cogent arguments. Carr treats some of the more crazy stuff with characteristic dryness and gently takes apart arguments that can’t stand alone.
His great talent is as a populariser and translator of complex research into prose that can be read by the rest of us. In this case he does a superb job decoding the work of academics in neuroscience to conclude that we’re right to worry about what the internet is doing to our ability to think clearly and sensibly, even if things might not be as bad as some would have it.
This is an important book but it’s not yet clear how important. We’re at a very early stage of research and the pattern of web usage is changing all the time. It might be that tablet devices capable of displaying virtual renditions of books leads to a different type of usage with longer attention spans and deeper thought processes required. We also need to see more basic research conducted over longer periods of time. Until we have that, Carr’s book deserves to be read by all of us who sit on the internet about to search for a term or write something to somebody – but we can’t quite remember what.