nicholas carr’s crusade against technology
Science-fiction writer and witty commentator, Douglas Adams, once said that when it comes to technology, all the gadgets around you when you were born are seen as perfectly normal, anything invented until you turn 35 is neat and terribly exciting, and anything invented after your 35th birthday is against the natural order and quite possibly the beginning of the end for the entire human civilization. Well, until it’s been around for a decade and actually turns out to be quite benign. And this description of how technology is treated in our world seems like a perfect description of Nicholas Carr’s body of work which argues that the web as we use it today is giving you a case of techno-ADHD, and ultimately dumbing you down. (Carr is entering his 50s.) If you’re familiar to any extent with his suspicious and dismissive views of technology in general, you may remember that his big claim to fame was arguing that IT departments really don’t matter and technology is just a commodity that will be ordered from outside providers. His opinion made a short splash, but unlike the cheers on the back cover of his book will tell you, few people ever thought of dismantling their IT departments at his suggestion.
Now, after scoffing at the work of millions of programmers, analysts and engineers, who are still in rather high demand for ever more ambitious projects, Carr’s new obsession is with proving that the web is making you a hyperactive, impulsive and impatient dummy who can’t concentrate on anything in depth. How does he know? Why he noticed his own inability to concentrate on a book after surfing the web! Obviously this must mean that the rest of us must be having the same problems, unable to endure five minutes without checking our e-mail or updating or Facebook status, or sending out something on Twitter. Or as he puts it…
“I would sit down with a book, or a long article,” he tells NPR’s Robert Siegel, “and after a couple of pages my brain wanted to do what it does when I’m online: check e-mail, click on links, do some Googling, hop from page to page.” This chronic state of distraction “follows us” Carr argues, long after we shut down our computers.
Just out of curiosity, I wonder what Carr would make of someone like me who reads long and tedious papers in online formats, doesn’t feel the need to check anything in the middle of a in-depth article, or update Twitter unless it’ll fit into my schedule and I actually have something to share. Then again, I’m one of those useless, irrelevant computer people, so I probably developed an immunity to my own venom, right? Really, so nihilistic is this tech pundit that he describes the internet as “a form of human regress.” That profoundly ignorant quote alone should disqualify pretty much anything he has to say about technology since it ignores DARPA’s leap in creating a global, decentralized communication network and Tim Bernes Lee’s accomplishment in creating a standard way to share information across the world, focusing instead on lolcats and nonsensical debates on the web, framing them as the downfall of humanity. Could someone, anyone within reach of Carr, hand him a clue? But please, be quick about it. He gets distracted very easily and will probably wander off to check his e- mail or look at de-motivational posters if you can’t sum it up in an elevator pitch.
True, there are legitimate concerns about pseudoscience and substandard content with any platform that lets anyone publish anything for the whole world to see. And yes, there’s plenty of misinformation on the web. But there’s also plenty of great content available online, from free physics lectures and full courses in scientific subjects from MIT and Stanford, to skeptical blogs by educated and knowledgeable people passionate about getting good information to their readers, and high quality scientific papers anyone can read. To ignore all this and call the internet a complete and total waste that’s regressing humanity because you can’t pay attention to your book for more than a few minutes, is the action of a snobbish, patronizing, technophobic blowhard with a very tenuous grasp on a topic in which he tries to feign expertise. But at least it could be worse. Carr is simply being a nihilist snob rather than shaking in fear that comic book science will suddenly springing to life, like Bill McKibben. And I’m betting whatever studies Carr wants to cite for his technophobia will be a lot like some writers’ desire to portray Facebook as reducing its users’ IQ based on ridiculous overreaching.