Big Think Interview With Nicholas Carr

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 thinggoing 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.

Question: Neurologically, how does our brain adapt itself to new technologies?

Nicholas Carr: A couple of types of adaptations take place in your brain. One is a strengthening of the synaptical connections between the neurons involved in using that instrument, in using that tool. And basically these are chemical – neural chemical changes. So you know, cells in our brain communicate by transmitting electrical signals between them and those electrical signals are actually activated by the exchange of chemicals, neurotransmitters in our synapses.

And so when you begin to use a tool, for instance, you have much stronger electrochemical signals being processed in those – through those synaptical connections.

And then the second, and even more interesting adaptation is in actual physical changes,anatomical changes. Your neurons, you may grow new neurons that are then recruited into these circuits or your existing neurons may grow new synaptical terminals. And again, that also serves to strengthen the activity in those, in those particular pathways that are being used – new pathways.

On the other hand, you know, the brain likes to be efficient and so even as its strengthening the pathways you’re exercising, it’s pulling – it’s weakening the connections in other ways between the cells that supported old ways of thinking or working or behaving, or whatever that you’re not exercising so much.

So that adaptation – I mean there are a whole lot of reasons to be very happy that our brains are able to adapt and adapt so readily because we do strengthen and become more efficient at things we do a lot of in that changed ways of thinking that we might need. On the other hand, there is a cost. We lose – we begin to lose the facilities that we don’t exercise. So adaptation has both a very, very positive side, but also a potentially negative side because ultimately our brain is qualitatively neutral. It doesn’t pare what it’s strengthening or what it’s weakening, it just responds to the way we’re exercising our mind.

Question: What skills are we losing because of the Internet?

Nicholas Carr: The Internet, like all intellectual technologies has a trade off. As we train our brains to use it, as we adapt to the environment of the internet, which is an environment of kind of constant immersion and information and constant distractions, interruptions, juggling lots of messages, lots of bits of information. As we adapt to that information environment, so to speak, we gain certain skills, but we lose other ones. And if you look at the scientific evidence, it’s pretty clear particularly from studies of like video games, that use of online media enhances our – some of our visual cognitive ability. So our ability to spot patterns in arrays of visual information to keep track of lots of things going on at once on a screen but along with that, what we lose is the ability to pay deep attention to one thing for a sustained period of time, to filter out distractions.

And the ability to pay attention not only underpins kind of ways of thinking that are pretty obvious, contemplativeness, reflection, introspection, all of those kind of solitary ways of thinking, but what we know from brain studies is that the ability to pay attention also is very important for our ability to build memories, to transfer information from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. And only when we do that do we weave new information into everything else we have stored in our brains. All the other facts we’ve learned, all the other experiences we’ve had, emotions we’ve felt. And that’s how you build, I think, a rich intellect and a rich intellectual life.

Question: Is losing the capacity for solitary thought necessarily a bad thing?

Nicholas Carr: I think there is a reason that, you know, 100 years ago when Rodin sculpted his great figure of The Thinker, The Thinker was, you know, in a contemplative pose and was concentrating deeply, and wasn’t you know, multi-tasking. And because that is something that, until recently anyway, people always thought was the deepest and most distinctly human way of thinking. And that doesn’t meant that I believe that all of us should sit in you know, darkened rooms and think big thoughts without any stimuli coming at us all day. I think it’s important to have a balance of those ways of thinking.

But what the web seems to be doing, and a lot of the proponents of the web seem to be completely comfortable with, its pushing us all in the direction of skimming and scanning and multi-tasking and it’s not encouraging us or even giving us an opportunity to engage in more attentive ways of thinking. And so, to me, I think losing those abilities may – we may end up finding that those are actually the most valuable ways of thinking that are available to us as human beings.

Question: How can we resist the Internet’s effect on our brains?

Nicholas Carr: I think the solution, so to speak, to this problem is pretty simple to state. I mean, if you want to change your brain, you change your habits. You change your habits of thinking. And that means, you know, setting aside time to engage in more contemplative, more reflective ways of thinking and that means, you know, setting aside time to engage in more contemplative, more reflective ways of thinking, to be – to screen out distractions. And that means retreating from digital media and from the web and from Smart Phones and texting and Facebook and Tweeting and everything else.

And so that’s a pretty obvious solution. What’s hard is actually doing it. Because it’s no longer just a matter of personal choice, of personal discipline, though obviously those things are always important, but what we’re seeing and we see this over and over again in the history of technology, is that the technology – the technology of the web, the technology of digital media, gets entwined very, very deeply into social processes, into expectations. So more and more, for instance in our work lives. You know, if our boss and all our colleagues are constantly exchanging messages, constantly checking email on their Blackberry or iPhone or their Droid or whatever, then it becomes very difficult to say, I’m not going to be as connected because you feel like you’re career is going to take a hit.  And that same expectation is now moving over into our social lives, particularly for young people.

If all your friends are planning their social lives through texts and Facebook and Twitter and so forth, then to back away from that means to feel socially isolated. And of course for all people, particularly for young people, there’s kind of nothing worse than feeling socially isolated, that your friends are you know, having these conversations and you’re not involved. So it’s easy to say the solution, which is to, you know, becomes a little bit more disconnected. What’s hard it actually doing that. And I think that all of us, including myself who try, find that it’s really a struggle because were so kind of – we’re so used to craving constant streams of new information that it’s kind of bewildering to be alone with our thoughts these days. 

Question: How has the technology of reading evolved from papyrus to the iPad?

Nicholas Carr: One of the most important things to realize about reading is that it is a fairly new invention in human history—a couple of millennia old, only after the invention of the alphabet. And for a long time, reading was really only just a kind of adjunct to oral communication because you know, most of human history you just conversed and exchanged information through speech.

And so one of the fascinating things about early writing on slates, on papyrus, even on early handwritten books, is for instance, there were no space between the words. People just wrote in continuous script. And that’s because that’s the way we hear speech. You now, when somebody’s talking to us, they’re not putting pauses – carefully putting pauses between words. It all flows together. The problem with that though, it’s very hard to read. A lot of your mental energy goes to figuring out where does one word end and the next begin. And as a result, all reading was done in the early years out loud, there was no such thing as silent reading because you had to read out loud in order to figure out you know, where was a word ending and where is the word beginning.

And it was only in around the year 800 or 900 that we saw the introduction of word spaces. And suddenly reading became, in a sense, easier and suddenly you had to arrival of silent reading, which changed the act of reading from just transcription of speech to something that every individual did on their own. And suddenly you had this whole deal of the silent solitary reader who was improving their mind, expanding their horizons, and so forth. And when Guttenberg invented the printing press around 1450, what that served to do was take this new very attentive, very deep form of reading, which had been limited to just, you know, monasteries and universities, and by making books much cheaper and much more available, spread that way of reading out to a much larger mass of audience. And so we saw, for the last 500 years or so, one of the central facts of culture was deep solitary reading. The immersion of ourselves in books, in long articles, and so forth.

With the arrival – with the transfer now of text more and more onto screens, we see, I think, a new and in some ways more primitive way of reading. In order to take in information off a screen, when you are also being bombarded with all sort of other information and when there links in the text where you have to think even for just a fraction of a second, you know, do I click on this link or not. Suddenly reading again becomes a more cognitively intensive act, the way it was back when there were no spaces between words. And as a result, I think we begin to lose the ability to read in the deepest, most interpretive ways because were not kind of calming our mind and just focusing on the argument or the story.

Recorded November 10, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

A conversation with the technology writer.

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