Amusing Ourselves to Death

Earlier this year, in a commencement address at Hampton University in Virginia, President Obama warned that the proliferation of information and social media on the Internet threatens to become “a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment rather than a tool of empowerment.” Those who criticized his sentiments as unprogressive missed the point. The president was not questioning the medium but rather the mind-set it imposes.

Nicholas Carr’s latest book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” (W.W. Norton & Company, June 2010), is an elegant argument for the validity of that concern. Carr contends we have struck a Faustian bargain: in exchange for the Internet’s increased volume, democratized production and easy access to information, we have sacrificed “the acuity of our linear, calm, focused and undistracted thought processes.” He continues: “Those processes are being pushed aside by a new digital mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts — and the faster the better. Never has there been a medium that, like the Net, has been programmed to so widely scatter our attention and to do it so insistently.”

Carr is no Luddite. In fact, he could easily be described as a power user of the Internet, with his Web site, blog, prodigious e-mail habit and admitted fascination with many of the wonders of the cyber-world. Nor is his book a jeremiad: it is expansive, scholarly and scrupulously fair. The reader is continually allowed — almost invited — to disagree. But his argument is nonetheless a persuasive clarion call.

Every one of the technologies that have extended man’s intellect — including the clock, the map and the book — has imposed by its very nature a new intellectual ethic, a habit of mind, upon its users, says Carr. The inventions of the map and the clock each placed a new emphasis on measurement and abstraction, setting the stage for the flourishing of man’s scientific mind. The book disengaged readers from the external flow of passing stimuli and ushered in the ethic of quiet, solitary thought as a means to self-awareness, originality and creativity.

Having subsumed most of our other intellectual technologies with breathtaking rapidity and irresistible force, the Internet has imposed a new and, in Carr’s view, troubling habit of mind: “In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration that the book bestowed upon us. We have cast our lot with the juggler.”

The Internet’s welter of incoming stimuli — e-mail messages, instant messages, text messages, tweets, social network alerts — all demand of the user at least momentary interruption and evaluation. Studies show that every time we “juggle” — shift our attention, no matter how briefly — it is more likely that we will overlook or misinterpret important information, Carr writes. Juggling also severely hampers our ability to transfer information from working memory into long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas, a process that essentially defines our intelligence.

What is more, modern neuroscience tells us that our brains are extremely plastic: our actions, our thoughts, even our imaginings actually impose physical changes on our wiring, and they do so surprisingly quickly. So the more time that we spend scanning Web pages instead of reading deeply, exchanging fragmented messages instead of structuring sentences and paragraphs or hopping from link to link instead of reflecting thoughtfully, the faster our old circuits begin to wither. That is why you may have noticed you are having a harder and harder time concentrating even when not online.

“In the survival of the busiest, the mental functions that are losing the brain cell battle are those we use for traversing lengthy narrative, developing involved arguments or contemplating complex phenomena,” writes Carr. “The winners are those functions that help us speedily locate, categorize and assess — on a relatively superficial level — bits of information in various forms.”

As this has happened, Carr notes, content companies have parsed their products into ever tinier, flashier and less substantive bits to fit the short attention spans of online consumers as well as to raise their companies’ profiles on search engines. Even as books are increasingly being published in digital formats, they are becoming more like the rest of the content on the Internet — “dissected, digestible and integrated with distracting complementary sources of information.”

In Carr’s view, the intellectual ethos of the Internet is exemplified and has been largely created by the search giant Google. In Google’s philosophy, says Carr, information is a commodity to be mined and processed with industrial efficiency; intelligence is just the mechanized aggregate of information, the output of a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured and optimized using a massive number of tiny behavioral inputs — or clicks. That philosophy also happens to serve well a business model in which advertisers pay by the click.

“Google is quite literally in the business of distraction, constantly inundating us with information supposedly ‘of immediate interest to us’ in quantities well beyond what our brains can handle,” writes Carr. “The strip mining of relevant content replaces the slow excavation of meaning.” What is more, since search engine algorithms tend to serve up results that amplify popularity and reinforce consensus, scholarship and intellectual discovery are becoming merely exercises in the purveyance of conventional wisdom. In our omnivorous pursuit of information morsels, we are becoming little more than ants following algorithmic scent trails laid out by others.

Whether we like it or not, this ethic now defines the world, and our adaptations to it are inevitable. Carr acknowledges as much: “The seductions of technology are hard to resist, and in our age of instant information the benefits of speed and efficiency can seem unalloyed.”

Still, in many ways, the siren song of quick, ubiquitous information has begun to sound more like the cheap, incessant hustle of a carnival barker. “The Shallows” is an eminently reasonable and welcome plea to slow down — as individuals and as a society — and take a moment to think about that. “I continue to hold out hope that we won’t go gently into the future our computer engineers and software programmers are scripting for us,” writes Carr. For him, it is not technology but the lack of mindfulness that is the enemy.