I was reading yet another positive review of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and wondering if anyone was ever going to point out the fucking obvious. So thank you, Evgeny Morozov:
Had Carr looked beyond the neuroscience, he may have found that many of the problems that he blames on the Internet — constant busyness, shrinking attention spans, less and less time for concentration and contemplation — are rooted in the nature of working and living under modern capitalism rather than in information technology or gadgetry per se. In fact, as Pinker correctly points outs, Carr’s are very old complaints.
Exhibit A: back in 1881 the prominent New York City physician George Beard published “American Nervousness”, a book about the sudden epidemic of “nervousness” sweeping America, which he blamed, in part on the telegraph and the daily newspaper (the book later proved a great influence on Freud).
Exhibit B: in 1891, almost 120 years before The Atlantic published Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, the same magazine ran “Journalism and Literature”, an essay by the polymath William Stillman, where he attacked the cultural change enabled by the telegraph-enabled journalism much in the same vein that Carr attacks the Internet. Stillman complained that “we develop hurry into a deliberate system, skimming of surfaces into a science, the pursuit of novelties and sensations into the normal business of our lives”.
The Internet may be amplifying each of these problems, but it surely did not cause them. When the famed sociologist Manuel Castells speaks of the “black holes of information capitalism”, there is as much emphasis on “capitalism” as there is on “information”.
If anyone ever listened to me, I’d have probably bored them to death by now as often as I go on about this, but all of our techno-gadgetry fetishes are merely a symptom of a restless mentality that sacralizes work and accomplishment. We’ve been hearing for a couple centuries that new inventions would relieve us of most of the drudge work that made our lives so punishing…and they did! The problem was, and still is, that we just invent new things to do with all the time we saved, and we expect our gadgets to let us do them all at once. No one knows how to stop and say enough is enough, and quite possibly, they instinctively fear discovering how empty they are even if they did.
The part I found most amusing in the review is that she had to download a ten-dollar program that turns your computer off for you for however long you specify. The idea being, restarting it is such a huge chore that you’ll be less likely to just aimlessly drift back online out of habit. I can’t help but think that if you’re so undisciplined that you can’t turn the computer off yourself and walk away to do other things, maybe you should take that ten bucks and go pay someone to teach you how to sit zazen. That’s been shown to rearrange neural pathways as well!