Circling the wagons against Nick Carr

Author's provocative <i>Atlantic</i> essay asks whether the Net is turning us into multitasking scatterbrains. It's not so far-fetched a question to pose.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

What is it about Nick Carr, a very bright guy, that inspires the not-so-bright guys to bring out the knives? Criticism of his recent Atlantic piece has ranged from the predictably ungenerous to the downright bitchy.

Nick Carr Nick Carr

So it goes. The chattering class always gets irritated when convention gets challenged. After Carr published his thoughtful Harvard Business Review article in 2003, "Why IT Doesn't Matter," many technology leaders and trade press opinion makers reacted harshly.

They so caricatured Carr's nuanced thesis that they entirely missed his bigger point about IT's declining importance as a competitive asset. In the end, of course, it turned out Carr was quite right.

Now history is repeating. Part of the problem, I suppose, is Carr's headline. "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Catchy? I'll say! That headline rates right up there with the New York Post's 1982 gem, "Headless Body in Topless Bar."

But that's just a tease to draw in readers. Carr's real concern is less with Google as the new bogeyman than on how our reliance on the Web might be turning us into multitasking scatterbrains.

He may be onto something, though all we can do at this point is share anecdotes. Apropos, I came across a doozy that speaks to Carr's point.

Former chess champion Josh Waitzkin returned to Columbia University, where he sat in on a class taught by a former professor. The class was taught by Dennis Dalton, who Waitzkin described as "the most important college professor of my life." Here's what followed:

Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief). From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban Outfitters.com. She had finally found her shoes!
When the class was over I rode the train home heartbroken, composing a letter to the students, which Dalton distributed the next day. Then I started investigating. Unfortunately, what I observed was not an isolated incident. Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus. Teachers are bereft. This is the year that Facebook has taken residence in the national classroom. Students defend this trend by citing their generation's enhanced ability to multi-task. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot, in fact, multi-task without drastically reducing the quality of our processing.

How much blame does the Internet deserve here? What about the effects of too much television, or poor parenting? Maybe all of the above. In his essay, Carr observes that the Internet is projecting its influence in other parts of the culture. For example, the old-media world, anxious not to wind up in history's dustbin, is adopting some of the popular conventions of the Internet. He notes:

As people's minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience's new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. When, in March of this year, The New York Times decided to devote the second and third pages of every edition to article abstracts, its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the "shortcuts" would give harried readers a quick "taste" of the day's news, sparing them the "less efficient" method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles. Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.

It's a provocative idea, though even Carr is not entirely certain how far to push it. He acknowledges that any final determination of how Internet use impacts cognition must await extensive neurological and psychological testing. That's as it should be.

Until then, Carr may remain a voice in a snarky wilderness, but at least credit him with initiating a important conversation.