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Wading in 'The Shallows' with Nick CarrAuthor Nick Carr is never one to shy away from provoking debate, and in this interview he discusses his new book "The Shallows" and whether the Internet is making us trite.
[ Music ] ^M00:00:04 >> Tom: Hi, I'm Tom Krazit with CNET and I'm here with Nick Carr, author of the new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. As in the past with the publication of his books, Does IT Matter and The Big Switch, Nick's new book is provoking thought and debate over how technology is changing the way we think, learn and communicate. He's agreed to spend a few minutes with us today talking about the ideas presented in the book and how the Internet is having an impact on the learning and understanding process. Thanks again for your time, Nick. >> Nick: Thanks, Tom. >> Tom: And so I wanted to start off by asking you quickly to review some of the history you present in the book about the impact of new media on the human experience dating back to the invention of paper and rolling all the way through to the television and Internet era. How did these new technologies change the way that people thought? >> Nick: I think you can -- I think technology has had a big affect on intellectual history throughout human history. And, you know, I go all the way back to the map which is one of the really earliest ways we stored and transmitted information. And I think the map and the mechanical clock, for instance, gave us a much more abstract way of thinking. Suddenly we weren't dependent on our senses to get around or to follow time, and that gave us a more abstract mind. I think print had a really big affect in that it was one of the first technologies that allowed us to filter out distractions and like pay close attention not only to the text on the page but then gave us, trained us in the ability to pay attention to one thing, which is very unusual in human history. And then I bring it forward to the Internet which seems to, as a technology, have kind of the opposite affect. It inundates us with information, with stimuli, with messages and so instead of shielding us from a distraction it keeps us almost perpetually distracted. >> Tom: So is it bringing us back to a place that we once were then, in a way? >> Nick: Kind of a high tech version of our more primitive mind where, you know, in the beginning of human history you couldn't pay attention to one thing. If you did you probably got eaten by a predator or clubbed over the head or something. So our natural tendency is to shift our focus, juggle lots of things at once, keep our brain moving and pay attention to a lot of things. And you could argue and this is the point I make that the net does kind of bring us back to that more primitive style of thinking. It's no longer the natural environment that is bombarding us with different stimuli we have to pay attention to they're all coming from the screen, but it encourages that very rapid fire shifts in attention that, I think, is very natural to us. >> Tom: So what, then, did this era of print allow us to do as humans? >> Nick: Well I think it gave us the ability or -- I mean this was around before that but it gave more and more people the ability not only to read deeply and immerse themselves in a particular narrative or particular argument but I think it helped give us a more attentive mind and it encouraged the more contemplative, introspective, reflective kinds of thinking that require a high degree of concentration and focus. And that expanded, I think, you can see the affects in not only individuals intellectualized but in culture as well. All the great things that come that arrive when people actually pay attention to something. >> Tom: And so what is unique about the Internet and how it's changing from this era that you just described to one that we're sort of just at the beginning at, I guess? >> Nick: Well, I think there's 2 big characteristics of the net that are -- that make it extremely important in intellectual history in our own mental lives. One is that the net is absorbing all forms of information and is a very efficient transmitter of, you know, not only visuals, not only moving pictures and images and sounds but also text itself. So more and more of the information we seek out is moving on to the web and that's becoming kind of our universal tool for finding information. The second thing that's unique about the net is that increasingly it's always with us. Now that, you know, we've gone from laptops to NetBooks to iPhones and Blackberry's, all very powerful computers, we're kind of immersed in this flow of information from the, you know, the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, which is very unusual for one particular media technology to be kind of -- to be engaging us constantly throughout the whole day. >> Tom: And so I wondered, you know, as you were talking about this in the book and, obviously, through the title as well that you suggest the shallows is one end and then there's the deep part which is the other end. So what do you consider deep thinking or deep reading or, you know, that level of understanding? >> Nick: I think it's the type of thinking we do when we pay attention to one thing. And it can, you know, it can be a matter of reading a long book or long article. I can be a matter of simply sitting and following a single train of thought without being distracted. I can express itself in art or literature. I can also express itself in scientific thinking, conceptual thinking, and that is by no means the only important way to think. I mean skimming and scanning and finding lots of information, browsing, surfing, communicating, those are also very, very important. What I worry about is that we're only doing, we're being encouraged by the technology to only do the skimming and scanning type of thinking and the time and the encouragement and the opportunity to do more attentive contemplative kinds of thought are being eroded. >> Tom: What do you think of the benefits of this switch? I mean you obviously chose, you know, through the title of your book and through the ending as well to highlight the more negative aspects of it, you know, the shallows implying that this era of deep thought is coming to an end, so what benefits is this change bringing? >> Nick: Well, the good thing about being in the shallows is you can get around very quickly [laughing]. And so, you know, there, you know, I've benefited enormously from the fact that it's so easy and so convenient to find information that used to be hard or expensive to find. It certainly helped me in doing research as a writer, it helped me do research for the book, so, you know, one benefit is clearly just we have access to so much more stuff than we used to. And then at a more cognitive or more at the level of the brain it seems that the more time we spend on screen the better -- we strengthen certain cognitive skills. You know, the ability to pay attention to a lot of visual stimuli going on at once, probably the ability to spot patterns in arrays of data quickly, so there are definitely certain modes of thinking that are probably strengthened by the web and other digital media even as there are some that are probably weakened. >> Tom: But you obviously chose a provocative way to present this argument. And one of the criticisms that you've received in presenting this argument is that you're overlooking some of those benefits in the way that you choose to highlight these aspects. So I was wondering just a little bit more if you could say whether or not we are left with a net negative as a result of this switch toward the Internet as a medium or is it just different? >> Nick: I think, to me, I think it ultimately is a negative because I place a high degree of value on the more contemplative, the more solitary, the more attentive modes of thinking and I think they've under -- I think they're not only crucial to having the richest possible personal intellectual life I think it's one of the underpinnings of culture and particularly, you know, culture over the last 500 or so years. Much of it comes out of people whether they're scientists or artists or whatever who are able to pay attention and who aren't in a constant flow of information. So while, you know, I'm happy to celebrate the good things the net gives us I think what we're losing more and more and what's being pushed to the side of society is extremely important and will be a great loss for us individually and as a society. >> Tom: I'm not sure if you've seen it but the film maker Errol Morris is writing a series this week in the New York Times' Opinion section about a condition I had not heard of until Monday called Anosognosia, which is apparently the inability for some people to confront and acknowledge the fact that they have a medical condition. The theme of the first article in that series was about whether or not that condition can extend to people who are unable to realize that they're bad at doing something, you know, a task or a process or a career or something like that, and, therefore, ever being able to learn how to do it properly because they don't recognize that they're doing it poorly. I couldn't help but think of your book as I was reading this and I was wondering about your thoughts on whether or not a reliance on the immediate information gratification that the Internet provides prevents people from truly knowing what they don't understand or, you know, as our good friend Donald Rumsfeld used to say, ever realizing that there are unknown unknowns because such breathe of information exists. >> Nick: I think it probably does. I mean I think that there's something very compelling about being in the flow of information and we know that very deep -- a very deep part of our psyche wants and craves new information and so this is very natural to -- and it doesn't matter, by the way, if the information is trivial, important, we'll set aside a very important thing if we realize there's some new information coming through. And I think what happens is that we tend to convince ourselves that thinking is all about having access to new information and that, gee, if I'm exposed to all this stuff I somehow must be getting smarter. And there's another aspect to it and this is pretty well demonstrated in the science and that is people who do a lot of media multitasking think they're really, really good at media multitasking where as the evidence suggests that actually they're worse, they get worse at it because they're less able to distinguish important information from trivia and less efficient at switching between tasks. So I do think there's probably some of that going on where we simply convince ourselves that because so much is happening all the time we must be quicker and smarter and wiser. >> Tom: There was one other thing that I don't think you really specifically addressed in your book but that is a big topic among our readers and among the Internet users in general today and that's privacy. And I was wondering how you would think about this concept right now and how, you know, perhaps our expectations of privacy have changed with the rise and our use of the Internet? >> Nick: There does seem to be at at least a superficial level a change in our feelings about privacy in a sense that, you know, that what we used to want to keep to ourselves now can be kind of broadcast to everyone. Whether that, you know, reflects -- and I think that's because we're willing to make a tradeoff. >> Tom: I was just going to say you put that information out on to the Internet, right, so --? >> Nick: Right, right, and you, you know, there are things you gain as a result of that. On the other hand, I think ultimately if important information that we think, you know, that is embarrassing or compromising or stuff gets out there we're every bit as nervous and panicked as we used to be. So it's kind of easy to make a tradeoff of your privacy in order to get free stuff and convenient stuff and more tools for communicating, but people have to remember that, you know, if you go too far it's going to blow up in your face. >> Tom: Thanks, Nick. Thanks again to Nick Carr. That's about the time we have. Nick's the author of a book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and you can find that both in old-school paper form and in electronic form. And thanks again for watching CNET. ^E00:12:21