Nicholas Carr
Technology Writer

Three Technologies That Changed Our Brains

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The map, the mechanical clock and the printing press are all examples of “intellectual technologies” that have reshaped the way humans think. And the ways of thinking that we learned from these tools can be applied to other areas of our lives.

Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr writes on the social, economic, and business implications of technology. He is the author of the 2008 Wall Street Journal bestseller "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google," which is "widely considered to be the most influential book so far on the cloud computing movement," according the Christian Science Monitor. His earlier book, "Does IT Matter?," published in 2004, "lays out the simple truths of the economics of information technology in a lucid way, with cogent examples and clear analysis," said The New York Times. His new book is "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains." 

Carr has also written for many periodicals, including The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, The Financial Times, Die Zeit, The Futurist, and Advertising Age, and has been a columnist for The Guardian and The Industry Standard. His much-discussed essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," which appeared as the cover story of the Atlantic Monthly's Ideas issue in the summer of 2008, has been collected in three popular anthologies. Carr has written a personal blog, Rough Type, since 2005. He is a member of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's editorial board of advisors and is on the steering board of the World Economic Forum's cloud computing project.

Carr holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College and an M.A., in English and American literature and language, from Harvard University.


Question: What are some technologies, prior to the Internet, that have radically reshaped the way our brains work?

Nicholas Carr: I think that if you look across the entire world of tools and technologies, what you see is that there are different categories. One category is what I call intellectual technologies. And these are the tools we use to think with, to find information, gather information, exchange information and so forth. And I think if you look back through the intellectual history of human beings you can trace the way that these intellectual technologies influence the way we think. And that’s true all the way back to, for instance, the arrival of the map, which actually predates history. We don’t know who invented the map, but somebody at some point had to invent it.

And before the map came along people understood where they were and where they were going purely through their sensory perceptions, through what they saw, also what they hear and so forth. As soon as the map came along, we suddenly had a very different way to think about where we were in space. The pure visual and auditory and sensory perception was supplemented by an abstract picture, which is a radically different way to think about space. And of course, there were all sorts of practical uses of maps—and still are—for charting routes and establishing boundaries, but what happened at a deeper level is that the map kind of trained us to think abstractly, more abstractly in general. So it gave us, or helped give us – give human beings, a more abstract mind. More attuned to the hidden patterns that lay behind what we saw and what we heard and what we felt, and so forth.

And I think you see a similar thing when the mechanical clock comes around. Now this is much later, in the 1300’s or 1400’s or so. Before the mechanical clock came along, people experienced time as a natural flow; to the extent that they measured it by watching the stars or the moon or the sun or so forth, things that emphasized the natural flow of time. As soon as you introduce the mechanical clock, you get a radically different view of time. Suddenly, it’s not a flow; it’s a series of discreet, precisely measurable units, seconds, minutes, hours, and so forth. And again, there’s all sorts of practical uses of the tool for scheduling a person’s time, for coordinating work and other activities among a large number of people. But what we see again, is that this new tool, this new intellectual technology gave us, in general, a different way of thinking. A much more scientific way of thinking that very much focused on measurement and on kind of precise cause and effect across long chains.

So here again, we see an intellectual technology, that beyond its practical uses really changed in a kind of fundamental way, I think, the way people think. And it’s no coincidence, I think, that after the arrival of the mechanical clock we see an explosion in scientific thinking and scientific discovery.

At about the same time, a little after the arrival of the mechanical clock, we saw the introduction of the printing press and hence printed books, which replaced handwritten books. And I think that the book in some ways is the most interesting from our own present standpoint, particularly when we want to think about the way the internet is changing us. It’s interesting to think about how the book changed us.

I think what the book did in addition to its practical uses, is it gave us a more attentive way of thinking. What the book does as a technology is shield us from distraction. The only thing going on is the, you know, the progression of words and sentences across page after page and so suddenly we see this immersive kind of very attentive thinking, whether you are paying attention to a story or to an argument, or whatever. And what we know about the brain is the brain adapts to these types of tools.

And so the ways of thinking that we learned from the tools we can then apply in other areas of our lives. So we become, after the arrival of the printing press in general, more attentive more attuned to contemplative ways of thinking. And that’s a very unnatural way of using our mind. You know, paying attention, filtering out distractions. So the book, I think, like the map before it, like the clock, created or help create a revolution in the human mind in the way our habits of mind and ultimately the way we use our brains.

Recorded November 10, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller