I Want a Carr
I take great pride in having just read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The book looks at a range of disciplines and their influence towards our understanding of the Internet and its impact on the human mind. Being a subject of controversy, one would be quick to presume Carr would dispel all conspiracy theories attacking the Net and preach how the Internet is the guiding light for humanity into the next decade. He doesn’t. What we do get is, by my call, a balanced discussion of the pros and cons of the Net and what we, as mankind, may encounter.
Before addressing the core matter of this post, I find it necessary to sketch how it came about that I decided to read this particular book, its impact on me, and the way forward having gone through a book (more like a thesis, actually,) of its nature.
Ever so many months ago I borrowed my uncle a book I’d recently bought, The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. I never got about to finishing the book, but was roughly half way through it. As my uncle has a Masters in politics, I felt it would be an appealing book for his leisurely read. Personally, I hate politics as a field, this isn’t necessarily a damning thing, but the moment of this awareness did set the course for me reading Carr.
My dad has a Masters – in politics. Only naturally he has endless books in the field touching on different topics such as the EEC, politics in Cuba, globalization, and so on. With his book collection one would easily be able to write a thesis; there are that many books! I read quite a lot of them; I would say I have read about a quarter of his collection. Though his books did not spark my confidence to read, they opened my mind to the complexity of the external world. I realized I am but a drop in the ocean. I realized my opinion may not count. But, the biggest gift, I realized I am stupid. Not stupid in the sense that I am a few sesamie seeds short of a Big Mac, but stupid in the sense that I have a channelled understanding of reality. I should be quick to think, but slow to speak. This awareness has helped set my life philosophy: the mouth that is quick to open is most likely that of a fool. I started going to book stores to purchase books of different genres to see if there was anything that appealed directly to me and, yes, there was! My subject field seemed to be philosophy and information technology!
Now, back to the Shock Doctrine. The book generally went something like this: “[horrible atrocious historical event, genocide, fear] – and that was a shock doctrine.” It isn’t a bad book, it is designed for people who can digest how sick the world of politics can become and its aftermath. If you are a politics lover, read it, you’ll enjoy it. Me, I’m a softer character, I would rather live in the fantasy of playing Mortal Kombat than the reality of seeing people dying of cancer before me. The line between reality and fantasy is well defined and I would like to keep it that way. Do not get me wrong, I love my violence, I drool at horror movies, I will watch the X-files on a rainy night, but only in the comfort that no real people are hurt!
Neo, Take The Red Pill
Moving forward, and yet a month prior to this post, I had a book in either hand. I was contemplating which to read. The two books were Carr’s The Shallows and another book, which I cannot recall. The determining factor in my eventually coming to hold the two books and contemplating which I would read: they were red! As in the colour red. There was some unbeknownst appeal drawing me due to colour. I read the introduction of each book the evening I held them and was hypnotically drawn to Carr thanks to his subject choice. We all too casually overlook: what is the Internet doing to our brains?
Quoting from the blurb, John Harris, of The Guardian, says, “an elegantly written cry of anguish… Hair-raising.” The Economist says, “The most readable overview of the science and history of human cognition to date.” The range of views surrounding the book, only naturally, are a spectrum. Looking for tweets about the book I came across some that said the book was an exaggeration and some which were snippets of the book – this implied people were enjoying it.
My view: I like the author’s style of writing, and this goes beyond his formality in sentence structure, but to also include the amorphous presence he exhibits through the chapters of the book. In the first four chapters he behaves passive, chronologically placing the facts of his research before the reader. From chapter 5 onward he explicitly says he has been objective and feels it right that he expresses his personal stance about what he has laid beforehand. It is easy to see why, from this, some felt there was an exaggeration to the book, as, clearly, it feels more like an epic adventure through time than a boring formal publication.
Is the Internet Good or Bad?
This is a very touchy subject, but an amazing roller-coaster to analyse. There are many aspects to contemplate that provide no comprehensive answer. Firstly, I know being on the Internet is doing something to my brain. Before reading Carr’s book I would have steadfastly have said the Net is something bad. I felt dumbed down using it, I could feel myself becoming dumb. There would be days which, at best, I could parallel the sensation to my brain dripping out of every facial orifice as this monitor would leech me of my conscience. For what purpose? I could not tell.
Not all is doom and gloom, we have definitely been liberated by a lot of the attributes of the Internet. We have blogs, vlogs, websites, and many other technologies available at our disposal thanks to the Internet. It goes without saying that many media forms have been liberated, and the classic tale of mainstream media having the forefront can be dispelled. As a reader, you are at the liberty of continuing to read further or to move over to another website of your choice, at your own discretion.
I do wonder if the ARPANET team had any idea that their creation would reach such breadths. The democratization of many media forms has made things instantly available, but also too easily available. Music piracy is not a shock to anyone, but I stand as an advocate for it. Since the medium is the message, it must be taken in its entirety. CD sales have gone down, there is no way around it, but this is inversely proportional to our need to consume media. The stance I take when saying this is, if we do want an Internet, we need to see its impact beyond being a commercial product, and into what it has the potential to be. In this simple example I think one of the beauties of the Net is shown; it has no limit and, equally, the catch-22 is too much of this good thing can be bad.
One of the biggest issues I have had with the Internet is the corruption of English and grammar. The influx of slang, 140 character paragraphs, and the play with roots and stems of words: unfriending people. The popular communication platforms seem to have the final say in the direction language should go and it just feels all rushed and silly on the surface. Behind the scenes programmers are coding what looks like gibberish to make these platforms available. I do wonder if the general public is aware of this, or if they take for granted that everyone is part of this language pillage with no cutting-edge intellectuals behind the scenes.
In neuroscience the term neuroplasticity refers to the way neurons group themselves together to achieve a common task. This common task could be anything, such as reading a book. This explains why those who have recently moved to using word processors, as oppose to pen and paper, for editing feel out of place – their neurons are still grouped to accommodate pen and paper editing. The repetition of tasks, such as editing online gradually creates new neuron groups, and that is why the practice gradually becomes almost second nature.
In Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL has his internals removed towards the end. In an almost infant naivety HAL says,
“I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going.
I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is
no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can
feel it. I’m a… fraid (http://www.imdb.com, 2013).”
Parallel HAL’s essentially human behaviour against the systematic one of all the characters on the ship and we have an analogy of where the Internet is taking us. We are in a place where our lives are becoming more digitized while we are in pursuit of making modern computers more humane; they call it artificial intelligence, I call it stupid.
Carr, N. 2011. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.
IMDb. 2013. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Quotes. [O].
Accessed: 24 July 2013.
Know Your Meme. 2013. Puking Rainbows. [O].
Accessed: 24 July 2013.