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Nicholas Carr Asks “Is This Article Making You Stupid?”

Since you’re reading it on the Internet—in a blog, no less—it just might be. This week Big Think sits down with journalist Nicholas Carr, author of the infamous 2008 Atlantic article (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?“) that spurred widespread debate over technology’s impact on cognition and attention capacity. Of course, it’s not the content of any one blog post or Wikipedia entry that Carr fears may be hurting us; it’s the distraction-addled style of reading—and thinking in general—that the Web promotes.

In his Big Think interview, Carr discusses his new book, “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” which expands on the earlier piece to present a fresh wave of concerns about our Googleized future. Citing previous technologies that have altered human thought—the map, the clock, and the book among them—Carr points out that the kind of deep focus that the book cultivates is itself “a very unnatural way of using our mind.” We can’t glibly assume that developing technologies will privilege it in the same way, or supply it to the same extent. And in fact, as our “visual cognitive ability” and multitasking skills improve with Internet use, Carr believes “we lose…the ability to pay deep attention to one thing for a sustained period of time, to filter out distractions.”

It’s not an entirely new problem: reviewing the history of writing technology from the papyrus to the iPad, Carr detects in our current technology a reversion to “a more primitive way of reading.” Back when reading was “just a kind of adjunct to oral communication,” the written word mimicked sustained, unedited speech—much as blogs and tweets often do now. What’s lost in the process is the slow, solitary, attentive reading characteristic of the Gutenberg era.

Is unplugging the solution? Partly, says Carr, but good luck doing that for long in the modern age. On the one hand, “if you want to change your brain, you change your habits”—and that means “retreating from digital media and from the Web” whenever you want to engage in genuine contemplation. On the other hand, Carr acknowledges that this is easier said than done, as digital technology becomes “entwined very, very deeply into social processes” such as work and communication. “It’s really a struggle” for all of us, he says, “including myself.”

(For those who want to focus on something thought-provoking for half an hour without actually leaving the computer, Carr’s full interview can be found here.)


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