Nicholas Carr on the evolution of communication technology and our compulsive consumption of information
“The term “information age” gets across our sense that we’re engulfed in information in a way that is very different from anything that’s come before. (…)
I think it’s pretty clear that humans have a natural inclination, even compulsion, to seek out information. We want not only to be entertained but to know everything that is going on around us. And so as these different mass media have proliferated, we’ve gone along with the technology and consumed – to put an ugly term on it – more information. (…)
“In “The Shallows” I argue that the Internet fundamentally encourages very rapid gathering of small bits of information – the skimming and scanning of information to quickly get the basic gist of it. What it discourages are therefore the ways of thinking that require greater attentiveness and concentration, everything from contemplation to reflection to deep reading.
The Internet is a hypertext system, which means that it puts lots of links in a text. These links are valuable to us because they allow us to go very quickly between one bit of information and another. But there are studies that compare what happens when a person reads a printed page of text versus when you put links into that text. Even though we may not be conscious of it, a link represents a little distraction, a little division of attention. You can see in the evidence that reading comprehension goes down with hypertext versus plaintext. (…)
The reason why I start with Tom Standage’s book is because we tend to think of the information age as something entirely new. In fact, people have been wrestling with information for many centuries. If I was going to say when the information age started, I would probably say the 15th century with the invention of the mechanical clock, which turned time into a measurable flow, and the printing press, which expanded our ability to tap into other kinds of thinking. The information age has been building ever since then.
Standage covers one very important milestone in that story, which is the building of the telegraph system in the 19th century. The telegraph was the first really efficient system for long-distance, almost instantaneous communication. It’s a short book, a very lively read, and it shows how this ability to throw one’s thoughts across the world changed all aspects of society. It certainly changed the business world. Suddenly you could coordinate a business not just in a local area, but across the country or across oceans. It had a lot of social implications too, as people didn’t have to wait for letters to come over the course of days. And as Standage points out, it inspired a lot of the same hopes and concerns that we have today with the Internet. (…)
If “The Information” is a sprawling, sweeping story of how information has changed over time, one thing it doesn’t get into is the commercial nature of information as a good that is bought and sold. That’s the story Tim Wu tells in ”The Master Switch.” His basic argument is that whenever a new communication medium arises, a similar pattern occurs. The technology starts off as a hobbyist’s passion, democratic and open. Then over time, as it becomes more popular, it starts to be dominated by corporate interests and becomes much more formalised, before eventually being displaced by a new technology.
You see this with radio, for instance. In the beginning, radio was very much a hobbyist’s technology. When people bought a radio back then it wasn’t just a receiver, it was a transmitter. People would both receive and transmit information through their radio – it was an early version of the blogosphere in some ways. Then dominant radio corporations come in, and suddenly radio isn’t a democratic tool for transmitting and receiving information, it’s purely for receiving. Tim Wu tells a series of stories like this, and television. All of that history is really a backdrop for a discussion of the Internet, which Wu suggests will likely follow the same cycle.
So far, I think we’ve seen that. When the World Wide Web appeared 20 years ago, there was all kinds of utopian, democratic rhetoric about how it was breaking the hold of big corporations over media and communications. You saw a huge explosion of personal websites. But over time you saw corporate interests begin to dominate the web – Google, Facebook and so on. If you look at how much time a user devotes to Facebook, it shows a consolidation and centralisation of web activity onto these large corporate sites. (…)
Matthew Crawford argues that we’re losing our sense of importance of actual physical interaction with the natural world. He says that the richest kind of thinking that’s open to human beings is not thinking that takes place in the mind but thinking that involves both the mind and the body interacting with the world. Whereas when we’re sitting at our computer or looking at our smartphone, we’re in a world of symbols. It seems to me that one of the dangers of the Internet, and the way that the screen mediates all work and other kinds of processing, is that not only are we distancing ourselves from interaction with the world, but we’re beginning to lose sight of the fact that that’s even important. (…)
As more and more of the physical world is operated by software and computers, we shut off interacting with the world. Crawford, in addition to being a political philosopher, is also a motorcycle mechanic. And a lot of the book is simply stories of being a mechanic. One of the points he makes is that people used to know how their cars worked. They could open the hood, see all of the parts of their engine, change their own oil. Now when you open your hood you can’t touch anything and you don’t know how the thing works. We’ve allowed ourselves to be removed from the physical world. We’re told just to look at our GPS screen and forget how the engine works.
Q: A key point about the information age we should mention is that societies have moved from an industrial economy to a service economy, with more people in white-collar jobs and increasing income disparity as a result.
That’s absolutely true. More and more of our basic jobs, due to broad shifts in the economy, involve manipulating symbols, whether it’s words, numbers or images. That too serves to distance ourselves from manual manipulation of the world. We have offloaded all of those jobs to specialists in order to spend more time working with symbols.
Q: Tell us why you’re closing with Gary Shteyngart’s novel “Super Sad True Love Story.”
I think that novelists, and other artists, are only beginning to grapple with the implications of the Internet, smartphones and all of that. Literature provides a different and very valuable way of perceiving those implications, so I decided to end with a novel. This book is both funny and extremely horrifying. It’s set in a future that is very close in some ways to the present. Shteyngart takes phenomena and trends that are around us but we don’t even notice, pushes them a little more extreme, and suddenly it gives you a new way to think about not only where we’re heading but where we already are. (…)
As is true with most dystopian science fiction, I don’t think it’s an attempt to portray what’s going to happen. It’s more an insight into how much we and our societies have changed in a very short time, without really being aware of it. If somebody from even 10 years ago suddenly dropped into the world and saw us all walking down the street staring at these little screens, hitting them with our thumbs, it would seem very strange.
It is becoming more and more normal to monitor your smartphone even while having a conversation with a friend, spouse or child. A couple will go out to a restaurant and the first thing they will each do is stick their iPhone or Android on the table in front of them, basically announcing that they’re not going to give their full attention to the other person. So technology seems to be changing even our relationships and social expectations. (…)
Q: In a hundred years’ time, what do you think the legacy of the early Internet will be?
I think the legacy will both be of enormous benefits – particularly those that can be measured in terms of efficiency and productivity, but also the ability for people to communicate with others – and also of more troubling consequences. We are witnessing an erosion not only of privacy but of the sense that privacy of the individual is important. And we are seeing the commercialisation of processes of communication, affiliation and friendship that used to be considered intimate.
You’re probably right to talk about a hundred years to sort this all out. There’s a whole lot of threads to the story that being in the midst of it are hard to see properly, and it’s difficult to figure out what the balance of good, bad and indifferent is.
Q: What’s next in the immediate five or 10 years for the information age?
More of the same. Overall I think the general trend, as exemplified by social networks and the evolution of Google, is towards ever smaller bits of information delivered ever more quickly to people who are increasingly compulsive consumers of media and communication products. So I would say more screens, smaller screens, more streams of information coming at us from more directions, and more of us adapting to that way of living and thinking, for better or worse.
Q: So we’re not at the apex of the information age? That peak is yet to come?
All indications are that we’re going to see more rather than less.”