Minds at stake in debate over power of Internet
We've lived through culture wars before. But the accelerated pace of technological development and its growing availability have pushed us to the brink of a battle that may prove to be more protracted and more consequential than any we've seen before.
Both Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky recognize the gravity of the moment; however, their views couldn't be more divergent. Mr. Carr is less optimistic about the changes and cautious about the consequences; Mr. Shirky is thrilled by them.
Even their styles tell the story of their disagreement, with Mr. Carr's highly documented book reading like an extended meditation and Mr. Shirky's lightly seasoned work sounding like a marketing presentation. Let's start with the former.
In well-researched sections on neuroplasticity (our brain's tendency to constantly change and grow) as well as discussions of the relationship between technology and cultural change, the reading experience, and the influence of Google, Mr. Carr assembles a strong and serious case for looking before we leap.
Conceding that recent software developments improve our efficiency exponentially, the author devotes most of his book to explaining how these gains come at a huge cost to sustained thinking and creativity. Our ability to scan and assess data may have accelerated, but only by compromising the focused, "deep" mental work that builds meaning. Or in his own trenchant phrase, "The smarter the software, the dimmer the user."
Mr. Carr has done his homework and he shows how the various technologies we invent to change the world also change us.
Rallying data from neuroscience, psychology, media and literacy studies and more, he lays out a wide-ranging and disturbing case for the deleterious effect of what he calls "intellectual technology" -- computers, the Internet, social media and the like -- on our ability to think, concentrate, remember, and contemplate. Ultimately, the author worries, this technology is compromising our very ability to be fully realized human beings.
Whereas he understands culture as a question of how individual brains change in accordance with the technology available to them, Mr. Shirky takes a sociopolitical approach, looking at culture through a broad lens of power, authority, production and consumption.
Writing from a techno-populist, anti-intellectual stance, he condemns expertise and authority and affirms the practical creative acts of "everyone," no matter how banal or strange or sinister.
We must embrace "as much chaos as we can stand," he insists, in order to see what the brave new world will look like.
Mr. Shirky is best at recounting specific Internet success stories that reveal the generosity of spirit he asserts underlies human nature, such as the creation of open source software (Linux) and various movements focused on social concern (Grobanites for Charity) or community action (PickupPal).
When attempting larger cultural commentary, however, his enthusiasm tends to push his argument toward grand generalizations and sweeping assumptions.
Even the prose at times strains the limits of reason (can there be a "persistent surprise"?).
To be sure, Mr. Shirky's argument about the possibilities of scale is intriguing and his celebration of freedom from entrenched authority is certain to inspire some people, but by basing his optimism on "aggregates" of action, he ends up sounding troublingly neo-utilitarian.
Like Jeremy Bentham, he declares that aggregates of effort will result in enhanced "value" for everyone and that the potential abuses and excesses of user-generated creativity will be somehow modulated by the collective will.
Yet his case would have been stronger if he had offered better supported considerations of these suppositions because aggregates, as critics of Mr. Bentham argued, and as Mr. Carr so adeptly shows, are composed of individuals.
If you or your family are the ones unemployed, starving or dying, an aggregate benefit to society offers little consolation.
The Carr-Shirky conflict may sound like a reprise of an earlier opposition between Sven Birkerts ("The Gutenberg Elegies," 1994) and Nicholas Negroponte ("Being Digital," 1995), but don't be fooled. It's considerably more important.
As both authors recognize, the unprecedented scale and scope of our e-world has wrought more profound changes than anyone could have imagined in the 1990s. While Mr. Carr shares Birkerts' attempt to raise the level of the debate, Mr. Shirky, like Mr. Negroponte, is more interested in raising the roof. Each approach has its appeal.
But choose carefully. The decision you make may define the world you will live in.
First Published August 8, 2010 12:00 am