The Shallows, The Information, and “We”

Published within a year of each other, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood read almost as a master class in the development of information technology, and its effects on how we interact with the world around us. Despite the smart, clear prose of both texts, both of which make the case that information (and the technologies we use to engage with it, in all its forms), have always been with us, I struggled throughout to see myself in the royal “we” presumed by the authors. [1]

I am, admittedly, not as young as I once was; I was especially drawn to the words in Chapter One of The Shallows: “Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone or something has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.”[2] He was speaking my truth: over the last few months, I found myself using my electronic devices almost incessantly, whether to read or listen to books (via Aubible and Kindle), or discuss current events with friends and colleagues (via Facebook and Twitter). When I read online, my reading threshold felt as if it were shrinking. Needless to say, I really wanted to know what the Internet was doing to my brain.

Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media grounds The Shallows; it provides a framework for understanding the societal shifts precipitated by the introduction (and perhaps infiltration) of new media. Taking readers on an interdisciplinary journey from neuroscience to psychology, from mapping to the history of the book, from the history of technology and back again, Carr points out how what we feel, see, hear, move, think, or remember is always “subject to change.”[3] The plasticity of our brains is “extensive” and “perpetual.”[4] Since Carr doesn’t fully discuss the impact of internet use on the brain until later in the book, my brain took many twists and turns along the way.

As someone who has lived a life of “Analogue Youth” and now “Digital Adulthood”, it’s easy to see the evidence of many of Carr’s ideas in online spaces today.[5] When he writes of how “a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it,” I think of Twitter’s “call-out culture,” and “doing it for the ‘gram.”[6] When he notes that reading might becoming “something of a team sport,” I think about sites like Medium, where one can read a piece, and see the most popular highlighted section of the article almost immediately.[7] In his retelling of popular reception to Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA program and “how quickly and how deeply people became emotionally involved with the computer,” I think about how many of us take stock in the results of online quizzes such as “What Coffee Shop Are You?” (I’m Tim Horton’s, apparently. Who knew?)[8] When he writes that “the price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation,” I think of those horrible memes on Facebook that redefine friendship, posted by users as an attempt to excuse their lack of actual contact.[9]

Carr makes mention of the pronoun we throughout the text:

“It’s how we use it, we tell ourselves.”[10]

We become, neurologically, what we think.”[11]

“It just means we have different brains.”[12]

Who is we? How does one gain membership into we? Carr uses Socrates’s suspicion of the written word, his fear that “a dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind, and not for the better” to frame his suspicion of the technology of the internet .[13] I would posit that the internet has in fact, expanded the criteria of who gets to participate in public conversations. Carr complains that “Our indulgence in the pleasure of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.”[14] I would respond with  the question, “by whose standard?” While Gleick doesn’t make claims as to the existence of this we in the exact same way Carr does, I had a similar reaction to his statement regarding language: “Everyone’s language is different. We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.”[15]

Who is we?

 

[1] James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 12.

[2] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 5.

[3] Carr, 26.

[4] Carr, 31.

[5] Carr, 11.

[6] Carr, 3.

[7] Carr, 106.

[8] Carr, 204-205.

[9] Carr, 211.

[10] Carr, 3. Italics mine.

[11] Carr, 33. Italics mine.

[12] Carr, 148. Italics mine.

[13] Carr, 55.

[14] Carr, 108.

[15] Gleick, 419.

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