A superb must read interview of Nicholas Carr.
Is the Internet dividing our attention? Are we so buried in technology that we ignore one another? The technology writer discusses the history and implications of the information age, from the mechanical clock to the iPhone.
First what does info age mean?
Let me begin by asking about this term “the information age”, which is bandied about as the successor, I suppose, to the industrial age. What precisely does it mean?
I’m not sure it means anything precisely. It’s a term we use in a vague fashion to get across that information has become in many ways the most important commodity in society. Many people’s work today consists of manipulating or otherwise processing information. Our media are constantly bombarding us with information, in the form of entertainment and news of various sorts. 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.
Why internet is leading to attention deficit:
You discuss other ramifications – ill effects, even – of the information age and the net specifically in your book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to OurBrains.
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 Internet also is the most powerful multimedia technology ever invented. We get information not in one form but in many forms at once – text, sound, animation, images, moving pictures – whereas in the past you had to use different tools to get information in different forms. And it’s an interactive technology, incredibly good at sending messages and alerts. So as we read or take in information in other forms, we also tend to be bombarded by messages that are of interest to us – emails, texts, tweets, Facebookupdates and so forth.
So you believe the “link economy” and suchlike leads to attention deficit?
I think that all of those qualities of the net encourage the division of attention, and an almost compulsive gathering of information very quickly. We’ve always skimmed and scanned in some areas of our intellectual lives, and that’s an important capability. But as we begin to carry the Internet with us every day – with the proliferation of first laptops and now smartphones and tablets – I think it is influencing the very way in which we think.
We are losing the balance of our thinking in this constant bombardment of information – those times when we can screen out distractions and spend time concentrating on one thing, or engaging in open-ended contemplation, reflection or introspection. Those qualities of thought, up until recently, were considered the highest and most characteristically human forms of thought. But we seem to be quite happy to throw them overboard in return for the many benefits of our online lives.
Barring this some fab book picks as well. Victorian internet shows how telegraph was kind of an internet system but very expensive and short way of communication.
As per Carr clock was the beginning of the info age:
You mentioned mechanical clocks as the beginning of the information revolution – before we move on I know you also want to recommend Revolutionin Time by David Landes.
This out-of-print book, about the introduction of the mechanical clock, is a fascinating story of the enormous effects that a new technology can have on society and the way that we think. It’s amazing just to think how recent in human history that breaking down of time into measurable units is. Landes dates the initial invention back to the 15th century. It emerged from monks, who needed to coordinate their schedule during the day because they wanted to have a rigorous timetable of prayer. They developed the mechanical clock so that they could break the day up to schedule precisely their devotions.
This was a time in history when people were moving from a purely agricultural economy to an urban, more industrial economy. And when people congregate in mills and factories, suddenly they have to coordinate their activities in a way they never had to before. So this technology quickly spread across cities. Pretty soon every town had a clocktower, or a church or town hall with a clock, and people would synchronise their activities in all sorts of ways, both for work and leisure. In a way that is similar to computers today, the clock shrank to being a personal device – in your home, in your palm, on your wrist. And suddenly it began to regiment our lives in a way that was very different to when we measured time in a more natural, cyclical manner.
What about the future? More to come…
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.
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.
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.
A great read… Nest time you send a SMS or check FB on your phone do think about what Carr says..