Monday, May 23, 2011

The Shallow

Isolator is a small menu bar application that helps you concentrate. When you're working on a document, and don't want to be distracted, turn on Isolator. It will cover up your desktop and all the icons on it, as well as the windows of all your other applications, so you can concentrate on the task in hand.

I like very much the idea of a piece of software that puts everything out of focus except for the document that you’re working on. Equipped also with a pair noise-cancelling headphones, one could really get some work done. Except I think that very soon I would start obsessing about those blurry symbols, those muffled sounds. I’d want to know what goes on in the space at the edge of my attention, precisely because it has been artificially suppressed. I’d want to know what it is that I’m concealing from myself.

But then Nicholas Carr thinks that I have a problem. The internet is impairing my ability to concentrate and therefore to think in linear, analytical fashion. Always craving the stimulation of a thousand information sources, I’m no longer able to read a single text for long, uninterrupted periods of time, and engage deeply with its subject matter. He has a name for the place I inhabit: the shallows.

It is not an altogether new idea. Besides Carr’s own intensely debated 2008 article for The Atlantic entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid?, one could cite Maryanne Wolf’s research on the reading brain in Proust and the Squid, as well as Mark Fisher’s observations in Capitalist Realism on the difficulties of some of his students to cope with substantive written texts, later expanded to include some symptoms of his own:
I know that I would be more productive (and less twitchily dissatisfied) if I could partially withdraw from cyberspace, where much of my activity - or rather interpassivity - involves opening up multiple windows and pathetically cycling through twitter and email for updates, like a lab rat waiting for another hit.

This chimes very precisely with some of Stephen Judd’s recent self-observations, which also employ the image of the lab rat (as indeed does Carr on page 117 of The Shallows). Perhaps most troubling of all is Fisher’s reporting in the blog post cited above of the case of the father of one of his students, who told him in despair ‘that he had to turn off the electricity at night in order to get her to go to sleep.’ Here the search for a non-metaphorical isolation results in a highly symbolic gesture designed to make the information age and modernity itself go away, if only for the space of one night.

There are many more examples one could bring up, but I think that these are enough to suggest that the stuff is real. We may not all quite feel the way as Carr, Fisher or Judd, but self-reported experience isn’t without merit or value, and besides I would suggest that all of us may at least have an inkling of what they are talking about. I know for instance that I have been quite deliberate in never fully embracing Twitter, precisely in that I am wary of the consequences of opening yet another channel. For much the same reason, you won’t see me carry a smartphone any time soon. And my writing in this space too is regulated by a discipline that seeks to counter some of the pressures of the medium, especially the one to speak often. I feel the need not only to switch off, but also to be less intensely connected generally; and even if this reticence applied to a tiny minority of internet users, it wouldn’t make it any less real or meaningful or worthy of comment and analysis.

For these reasons, as in the case of Jaron Lanier’s You Are not a Gadget, I was initially well disposed towards Carr’s book; and yet in this instance too I was ultimately frustrated by it.

I happen to think that the manner in which we articulate our critiques of digital ideology is going to be crucial not only for how we grow cyberspace and resist its corporatisation, but also for our politics. That’s why we need analyses that enrich our understanding of its fluid and tangled phenomena, as opposed to reducing historical, technological and social change to a set of comforting and mutually exclusive binaries.

In Carr’s case, it’s the deep vs. shallow dichotomy. The literacy promoted by print culture, following Maryanne Wolf, is where one finds depth, that is to say, the means for long-time learning and reasoned, linear argumentation. Therefore the internet must be the place that leads to forgetfulness, shallow thinking and muddled logic due to the fragmented, constantly updating, forcefully distracting nature of its un-literacy.

The two prongs of the argument are Marshall McLuhan and neuroscience, and operate in seamless unison. So whereas McLuhan understood the transforming power of media to operate primarily at the level of epistemology, not neural circuitry, Carr claims that the taking old of the ‘new intellectual ethics’ of the Internet is synonymous with the rerouting of the pathways in our brains (pages 3 and 77). Indeed in a couple of key passages I half expected Mr McLuhan to walk into the shot and exclaim ‘You know nothing of my work!’ Not because those neurobiological implications are wholly absent in Understanding Media – whose original subtitle after all was ‘The Extensions of Man’ – but because they are secondary to the notion of media as metaphors that organise thought.

Having framed as ‘the crucial question’ what science can ‘tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work’ (115), Carr finds that yes, of course, science confirms the hunch: experiments have shown heavy internet use to shift the areas of activity in the brain, and reinforce certain processing functions at the expense of others. While the breadth of experimental evidence is impressive, Carr never interrogates the nature of the data, nor question the researchers’ assumptions as to what constitutes comprehension or learning. “Studies show…” is his default, un-nuanced position. This is also true of the experiments that may give us a little pause, such as the one that has suggested that spending time immersed in nature can sharpen our powers of concentration but that the same benefit can also be gained by staring at pictures of nature from the comfort of one’s own home. (With the possible, unstated implication that so long as you download some sort of bucolic screensaver, you’re good to go.)

When Carr turns his attention to the epistemological question, that is to say how media – new and old – are implicated in how a society constructs and expresses its ideas about truth, the conclusions are less clear-cut and the exposition a little, well, shallow, leaving one to wonder whether the author came to Cartesian dualism by way of Wikipedia, or the extent of the deep thinking that underlies some of his central claims. Thus for instance the proposition that
[w]hen people start debating (as they always do) whether the medium's effects are good or bad, it's the content they wrestle over (2)
would appear to be contradicted by Carr's requisite, diligent and extensive treatment of Plato’s argument against writing in the Phaedrus – the granddaddy of all debates on the effect of media – which is in fact preoccupied exclusively with form. Similarly, the claim that ‘[t]he intellectual ethic of a technology is rarely recognized by its inventors’ (45) is pointedly belied as far as the internet is concerned by the towering figure of Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, as well as Tim Berners-Lee’s.

Other pronouncements are little more than irritating, unargued clichés. Thus we are informed that ‘[a]s social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style […], and thus ‘[w]riting will become a means for recording chatter’ (107), or that ‘[o]ur indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence’ (108), something that no doubt will come as a surprise to your friends who are honing their aphoristic skills on Twitter, or their broader array of rhetorical skills on blogs and discussion forums.

This last point in fact is a key to understanding the limits of the book’s perspective, for Carr almost always takes the media consumer to be a reader – as is the case with the near totality of people in the medium of print – as opposed to a writer; whereas in fact one of the most notable features of cyberspace is that it makes writers of many if not most of its users. And so in order to make any sort of informed, useful statement on the relative depth or shallowness of the new medium, one would have to evaluate their literacy not just in terms of reading, but of writing as well, and seriously examine the kinds of knowledge produced across all media over the last two decades, a task in which science is unlikely to be able to supply the necessary value judgments.

What’s required is cultural work of the most serious and pressing kind, and whose outcome is difficult to predict. We might find that our twitchy interpassivity has insinuated itself into the deep language structures of the web, curtailing our capacity for expression; or that new forms of rhetoric have begun to emerge to match the repackaging of the world’s pre-digital knowledge into a single, infinitely searchable platform. In the meantime, it pays to heed the symptoms reported by Carr and the others, while we still can, before they become an invisible part of the experience of being awake in a world that is digital, and not dismiss their subjective experience, that feeling of vertigo: it may yet hold a key to understanding and designing out some of the most insidious aspects of the new medium, and therefore of our new selves.

Nicholas Carr. The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. London: Atlantic, 2010.