Maybe Nicholas Carr is part of the problem

On September 25, 2008, Nicholas Carr appeared on the Colbert Report to promote his new book.  In the interview, he speaks of an evolution of the Internet into a “worldwide computer,” and talks about the increase of people using the Internet as an online storage space instead of their individual computer.  Carr says that the Internet and Google are useful, but he also sees a problem due to how much the Internet is used.  Carr’s concern is that people are starting to think like the Internet. That we are ‘starting to act like the tools we use,’ and “think like a computer,” “jumping from piece of information to piece of information.”

Carr thinks that we are losing the ability to think deeply because of the Internet.  I find this laughable.

Carr believes that the Internet has caused people to lose the ability to stay focused on one thing, that we are losing our ability to concentrate, reflect, and contemplate.  He is concerned we are losing our ability to “slow down and think.” Carr suggests that “we’ve become so connected to everything, that we are actually disconnected from any one thing.”  He says he has noticed that when he reads a paper book, “something that used to come naturally,” he finds that his mind ‘starts to wander’ and wants to do what it does when he is online.

The Internet does allow us to quickly jump quickly between sources of information.  But this is not the same thing as the “superficial relationship with information” that Carr is afraid of.  The Internet permits the exact opposite of a “superficial relationship,” because it allows an individual to look beyond any one source of information, and produce their own connections between the material they find.  The investigation of related information is a form of deeper thinking.  It can be the contemplation of one subject, at a far deeper level.

To hear Carr cry wolf over the issue, one would think that an Internet user is always bouncing from subject to subject in a frenetic and incoherent fashion – from politics to the weather to movie reviews to whatever else captures their attention.  But that is just Internet surfing.  It is just one way to use the Internet.

Carr talks about how people are increasingly starting to store information in online environments instead of only on their individual computers.  He seems to skip right over the magnitude of this creative output by individual users, and how all of this individual contemplation of information disrupts the foundation of his thesis.  It is hard for me to accept the idea that the Internet is robbing people of the ability to contemplate information, because I have set this blog up as a way to think more deeply about several inter-related subjects.

What I find fascinating is how Carr noticed that his mind wants to do what it does when it is online.  I have had a similar reaction to paper-based information, most recently to a syllabus for one of my classes this quarter.

I was reading through my nine-page syllabus recently and wishing that it was a web page.  I wanted multiple ways to link to parts of the syllabus – where the text referenced the class schedule, and where the class schedule referenced the text, I wanted links between them.  I wanted a page that allowed me to choose the way I saw the information, depending on what I was looking for at the time.  I wanted a comments area at various parts of the syllabus, so I could ask specific questions and see if the professor had already addressed the issue.  I can think of several ways to design an online syllabus that would make it more accessible as a source of information, and promote an organized class dialogue about the syllabus.

I do believe that the Internet is a new way of thinking.  I can see how it makes traditional paper feel too slow, too frustrating and too limited as a source of information.  I don’t see that as a failure of contemplation, I see it as a rejection of barriers to contemplation.

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