Author Nicholas Carr

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Best-selling author of The Big Switch talks about his latest—The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Nicholas Carr has been called one of the leading thinkers on information technology. He writes for many periodicals, is a member of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's editorial board of advisors and sits on the World Economic Forum's cloud computing project steering board. A best-selling author, his book Does IT Matter? began a worldwide debate about the role of computers in business, and his new one, The Shallows, looks at technology's effect on the mind. Carr previously held top editorial positions with the Harvard Business Review.


Tavis: Nicholas Carr is a best-selling author whose previous books include “The Big Switch.” His latest text is called “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.” He joins us tonight from New York. Nicholas, good to have you on the program.
Nicholas Carr: Thanks very much, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start by asking the obvious – so what is the Internet doing to our brains?
Carr: Well, I think it’s shifting the emphasis of our thought away from deep, attentive thought, contemplative thought, reflective thought and more and more toward a skimming and scanning type of behavior. So our minds are constantly bombarded by information and there’s a lot of good things about that, but we’re losing the ability to slow down and think really deeply about one thing for a long period of time.
Tavis: Does that equate to a dumbing-down of society, or is that an over-read on my part?
Carr: I think of it more as a shift, and I think what we do lose is some of our richest thinking and some of the richest parts of our intellectual lives. On the other hand, we gain access to huge amounts of information and it makes it much easier to communicate and send messages, but I do think in the end what we stand to lose intellectually may be even greater than what we’re gaining.
Tavis: Tell me more about the research, about the data that allows you to make the point you’ve just made now.
Carr: Well, there have been a lot of studies of how different aspects of our online life and of the Internet as a technology influence our thinking. Studies of hyperlinks, for instance, studies of multimedia presentations of information, studies of interruptions – we know that the Web is great at interrupting us – and studies of multitasking, also something we do all the time online.
The preponderance of evidence across all of those different things shows that our comprehension of information, our understanding and our learning, even, weaken when we’re juggling lots of tasks, when we’re clicking on links, as opposed to if we just focused on one thing for an extended period.
Tavis: How is this research being done? Everybody is – not everybody, but too many of us are caught up in this. How is the research actually being done on our brains?
Carr: Well, there’s a number of ways. One way is for instance to do biological scans of brain activity. Another way is to do traditional types of psychological tests. So for instance there was a very interesting study of university students, where a class was split into two groups.
One set was allowed to keep their laptops open during a lecture, the other half had to keep them closed, and then right afterwards they took a test on how well they remembered and how well they had assimilated the information from the lecture.
The kids with their laptops open did significantly worse than the people who actually paid attention. So there’s all sorts of different kinds of studies, and all of them provide us with hints. I don’t think there’s one kind of killer study that explains everything. You have to look across a whole lot of research.
Tavis: It almost seems, though, given the direction that we’re headed in, that it’s pretty impossible to arrest this development.
Carr: One of the big challenges is that it’s no longer just a matter of personal choice. It’s no longer just a matter of should I close my laptop or turn off my cell phone. The expectation that we’re going to be always connected, always processing messages, is kind of being built into our employment lives; it’s certainly being built into our social lives.
If all your friends are arranging their social activities through Twitter or through texting it becomes a big challenge to back away. So we’d really have to see some basic changes in our assumptions and in our expectations about technology and about the way we think, I think, to stop this trend.
Tavis: Why can’t it be about personal choice? Put another way, why can’t those of us who are aware of what the data says decide to do something differently, to not – that is to say, to not spend as much time on the Internet, to not spend as much time on our BlackBerrys, to not spend as much time in front of the television, to demand in our families that we have some appreciation and embrace of quiet space and quiet time? Why can’t it be a personal choice? We don’t have to go along, do we?
Carr: No, you’re absolutely right, and I agree with you that even though there are a lot of social and economic pressures for us to stay connected and to stay in the flow of information, in the end we can – we do control our own behavior.
It might involve some sacrifices. It might mean staying out of touch with some people, even important people, for a little while, staying out of the flow of information. But I think you’re right – if we value the more attentive, reflective ways of thinking then we really have to make time for those in our lives and make sure our kids have time for those in their lives as well.
Tavis: I’m curious as to what you think this does to us as humans long-term, and let me color it a little bit more. To your point of a moment ago, it’s that quiet time, those reflective spaces. Even a great researcher knows that once you do the research you have to sit and wrestle with it, you have to sit and marinate on it.
If we’re not sitting, if we’re not wrestling with data or with information, then long-term, how do we benefit from it?
Carr: Well, that’s a very good question. I think as a society we seem to be moving from a definition of intelligence that once looked at both the gathering stage, where we find lots of information, but also put a lot of stress on thinking deeply about the information we found.
We’re moving to something that puts all the stress on just finding information and gathering it and making sure we’re bombarded by information all the time, and we’re losing that focus on deep thinking, deep, steady thinking about one thing.
Unfortunately, I think the ability to tune out distractions and focus on one thing really underpins the richness of not only our intellectual lives but the richness and distinctiveness of ourselves. I think we become less interesting as people, as individuals, if all we’re doing is gathering information and quickly moving around the Web, and I think you could also argue that our entire culture has been built on the work of people, whether in science, the arts, or whatever, who had the ability to pay attention, who could back away from the flow and think about one thing. So I worry even that we’re kind of beginning to erode the foundations of culture.
Tavis: Worrying about it, to use your word, is one thing. Should we be fretting about it? Should we be scared about it? Should we be on edge about it?
Carr: I think so, and I think one of the – one of my hopes with the book is to raise awareness that what we stand to lose here could be some very important things. Because I think for most of society, at least I read it, this isn’t even seen as a problem.
We’re still so bedazzled by our new gadgets, our new ways of communicating, and certainly they’re powerful and very useful. But we’re so bedazzled and so seduced by them that we aren’t even taking a hard look at the different kinds of thinking that might be lost in this process.
Tavis: If your point is correct, and I assume that it is, that multitasking hampers our ability, Nicholas, to think deeply, take me inside of corporate America and help me understand how long it’s going to be for them to figure this out. If we’re trying to regain our place – America, that is – as the world’s leading manufacturer, if we want to regain our number one position in so many areas of interest that we have lost that distinction in, we live in a culture where the marketplace now, corporate America, so values multitasking.
So again, if multitasking hampers our ability to think deeply, and without thinking deeply we ain’t gonna get back in the game, where is this going to end up?
Carr: Well, unfortunately I think you’ll see a long-term erosion in the really brilliant ideas. I think there’s a lot to be said for multitasking in some cases, for being in constant connection, contact with your colleagues, and it can increase your productivity, to an extent.
But I think if we’re thinking about the really dramatic innovations that can build new industries and can open up whole new ranges of work, big sources of jobs, you have to be concerned if corporate America is putting all the stress on being connected all the time, on multitasking, and not realizing that workers really need to be given some time to think and sometimes not be connected to everyone else.
Tavis: Let me flip it here as we wrap the conversation up, and that is by asking whether or not beyond the fact that we get exposed to more information, what’s the good about what the Internet is doing to our brains?
Carr: Well, there are certainly studies that show that some things, some mental aspects, are getting strengthened. For instance, our ability to shift our focus among different stimuli, different bits of information. There’s indications that our ability to spot patterns in arrays of data gets better as we spend more time online.
So there certainly are benefits, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we disconnect, somebody unplug the Internet or that we lose our ability to access this vast database. It’s really a matter of balance and trying to get the best from the new technology but also realizing that there are older, more traditional ways of thinking and ways of interacting that are also very, very important.
Tavis: I’m just laughing at your last point, Nicholas. If we truly unplugged the Internet, this conversation wouldn’t have been possible tonight. (Laughter)
Carr: Well, I’m glad we didn’t.
Tavis: Yeah. I’m glad we didn’t either, so we could get this good information. The new book from Nicholas Carr is called “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.” Nicholas, thanks for the text.
Carr: Thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm