A study published around the advent of the railroad warned that traveling at speeds exceeding 30 km/h might harm the brain. The internet age is also relatively young – is it a danger to our mode of thinking?
Carr: The fear of physical motion is very different than the internet’s affect on our tools of collecting and analyzing information; we need to look at the internet on its own merits. I think the internet and computers are something very different in the human world: There’s never been a technology people have used so persistently throughout the entire course of the day to aid them in making sense of the world, thinking and in making judgements and decisions. That has become particularly important in the last years with the spread of mobile devices. Even comparing the internet to earlier, broadly used media like radio and television, our relationship with our computers is more intimate, more persistent and therefore more influential over our moment-to-moment thought processes.
Is that because of the technology’s omnipresence or rather the way we engage with it? You have described how the immersion of browsing the web can’t be compared to that of reading a book.
Carr: If you watch a person using the net, you see a kind of immersion: Often they are very oblivious to what is going on around them. But it is a very different kind of attentiveness than reading a book. In the case of a book, the technology of the printed page focuses our attention and encourages a linear type of thinking. In contrast, the internet seizes our attention only to scatter it. We are immersed because there’s a constant barrage of stimuli coming at us and we seem to be very much seduced by that kind of constantly changing patterns of visual and auditorial stimuli. When we become immersed in our gadgets, we are immersed in a series of distractions rather than a sustained, focused type of thinking.
And yet one can fall down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia; spending hours going from one article to the other, clicking each link that seems interesting.
Carr: It is important to realize that it is no longer just hyperlinks: You have to think of all aspects of using the internet. There are messages coming at us through email, instant messenger, SMS, tweets etc. We are distracted by everything on the page, the various windows, the many applications running. You have to see the entire picture of how we are being stimulated. If you compare that to the placidity of a printed page, it doesn’t take long to notice that the experience of taking information from a printed page is not only different but almost the opposite from taking in information from a network-connected screen. With a page, you are shielded from distraction. We underestimate how the page encourages focussed thinking – which I don’t think is normal for human beings – whereas the screen indulges our desire to be constantly distracted.
One can’t talk about stimuli without mentioning the social web: As more and more services become social, there has developed an almost compulsory reflex to share our activities with friends. Are we being conditioned to do so this or is it rooted in the human desire for attention?
Carr: I think it is a combination of different things: We are social creatures that are very concerned about our social position and how we are being perceived. It is only natural that we want to be part of the constant online communication. We feel isolated very quickly if we sense that people we know are sharing information and we aren’t part of the flow. That kind of social anxiety and desire for engagement leads you to want to know everything that is being said and communicated.
There also seem to be fundamental brain processes that encourage us to seek out and gather as much information from our surroundings as possible. Scientists have documented how when we get a new piece of information, our brain releases a small bit of dopamine, conditioning us to repeat the action. Through brain chemicals we are conditioned to want to maximize the amount of information we gather. It is easy to understand: Our early ancestors had better odds of survival, the more they perceived what was going on around them. Even though there is way more information in the age of the internet, we still have this instinct to want to know everything.
How do you weigh the advantages of accumulating information against the distraction we talked about?
Carr: There’s no question that the internet offers all sorts of benefits – that is the reason why we use it so much. It is an incredibly powerful and useful technology that makes all sorts of information immediately available to us. Things that used to be impossible, hard or expensive to find are now right there. And we all know how to improve our ability to make decisions with it. But accompanying that, incredibly, is the fact that we become so intent on gathering information that we never slow down and think deeply about the information we find. We gain the ability to harvest huge amounts of data but we lose the ability to engage in contemplation, reflexion and other modes of thinking that require a large amount of attentiveness and the ability to filter out distractions and disruptions. You can’t separate the good and the bad: We gain something important but we sacrifice something important as well.
Could it become a matter of self-control?
Carr: It would be nice to think so. Like I said, there are social pressures and brain chemicals that encourage us to stay connected: It becomes very difficult to cut ourselves off from the flow of information. As technology becomes ever more deeply woven into our social processes and expectations, it becomes something more than just a matter of personal discipline. In their jobs, many people face the expectation to always monitor messages and emails coming from colleagues or clients. That pressure goes on even when they leave work and go home; they are still constantly checking information. Thanks to Facebook, social networking and other communication tools, there is now a situation where similar pressures are arising in our social lives: People you know are using online tools to plot their social lives and exchange information – it makes you feel compelled to also always be monitoring information. Obviously that doesn’t mean we don’t have free will or the choice to disconnect, we shouldn’t miss the fact that it is – like earlier technology such as the automobile – being woven so deeply into society that it is not just a matter of personal discipline to decide how to use it.
A study has shown that using Facebook causes people to romanticize other peoples’ lives whilst seeing their own in a negative light: It is because people share predominately good news of flattering photos…
Carr: I saw a study that examined how people regard their Facebook friends and when somebody admired the exciting life of a friend, this friend often said exactly the same about them. It shows you how we turn ourselves and each other into media creations through social networks. As with celebrities and other media personalities, the reality can be very different from how we present ourselves online.
One would think that being able to look up every little piece of information would be liberating and give us the freedom to consider the big picture rather than the petty details.
Carr: I think it is pretty clear that in order to engage in conceptual thinking, you have to be attentive: That is the way you move information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. It is only in that process that you weave individual pieces of information into a big picture and conceptual understanding. Unfortunately, when you look at the statistics of how people behave when they are online or using their smartphones, you don’t see that attentiveness, you don’t see withdrawal from distraction. Instead, you see them jumping from page to page, monitoring messages all the time – in light of this actual behavior, it is very hard to see an opportunity to step back from the flow and consolidate it into a more conceptual understanding of the world. In theory: Of course. But in the actual world I don’t see any evidence of it actually happening.
Recently, there’s been a rise in the popularity of software tools which simplify the online experience – such as Instapaper or fullscreen apps – all of which leverage the effect you described by emulating the printed page or the typewriter. They block out distractions and rather let the user stare at the plain text or the blinking cursor.
Carr: I am encouraged by services such as Instapaper, Readability or Freedom – applications that are designed to make us more attentive when using the internet. It is a good sign because it shows that some people are concerned about this and sense that they are no longer in control of their attention. Of course there’s an irony in looking for solutions in the same technology that keeps us distracted. The questions is: How broadly are these applications being used? I don’t yet see them moving into the mainstream of peoples’ online experience. There’s a tension between tools that encourage attentive thought and the reading of longer articles, and the cultural trend that everything becomes a constant stream of little bits of information through which we make sense of the world. So far, the stream metaphor is winning, but I hope that the tools for attentiveness become more broadly used. So far, we don’t really know how many people used them and in which way they do.
Well, seeing that becoming aware of a problem is the first step to doing something about it, how do you believe the adverse effects you talk about can be counteracted? There is, after all, hardly a way to opt out of the modern media economy: I can’t just turn off my computer.
Carr: My hope is that we will have a more balanced experience of the technology and become willing to turn it off for substantial periods in order to engage in more contemplative thinking. My view of recent history suggests that we won’t do that and that we will continue in the path we are on. We like to be distracted and technology keeps expanding its hold over our waking hours – for business, social or shopping reasons. The internet is a culmination of a much longer-term social trend that goes back to the beginning of mass media. People place less and less value on contemplative thinking and more on practical, utilitarian types of thinking, which are all about getting the right bit of information when you need it and about using it to answer very well-defined question. We are in a long-term process of altering our view of what constitutes the ideal intellectual life: Moving away from the ideal of conceptual thinking, reflection and taking the big picture and moving to this very utilitarian mode of constantly collecting little bits of information, not really ever wanting to back away from the flow. Society and individuals can change, but to me the trend is in the direction of interruption, distraction and shallow thinking.
What is your outlook for the future? The web constantly evolves, breaking with existing patterns of usage. Do you think we will see another paradigm-shift soon?
Carr: I think it will be more of the same: More interfaces, more ways to deliver streams of information through ubiquitous screens. More of an emphasis on feed-delivery through a variety of different devices and interfaces. I think we will see an acceleration of existing trends, rather than a shift in a new direction.
This interview first appeared on The European Magazine on January 1st, 2012