Wilson Parker, President of the Dialectic Society
Primary Negative, The Shallows Debate
As prepared for delivery
“You will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will … not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
With that grim assessment, we are left with a simple conclusion: the Internet is ruining our brains.
But wait. That wasn’t Nicolas Carr. It was Socrates. And, as you have probably surmised, he wasn’t talking about the internet. He was talking about books, the very things Nicolas Carr is so desperate to defend.
Now, Carr is an insightful writer, and he mentions Socrates’ criticism of books as he introduces the central thesis of his work: his belief that books have altered our brains in a way that promotes serious concentration and deeper thinking, and that the gradual replacement of books by computers as our primary source of information will have a deleterious effect on our ability to think deeply.
What he doesn’t seem to understand is that he is making exactly the same mistake as Socrates. Socrates thought that if people wrote down facts instead of committing them to memory, they would fall victim to intellectual laziness. Carr feels the same way, but about search engines. Socrates thought that books would overwhelm people with information and rob them of deeper understanding. Carr thinks the same thing, but about the internet. Their impulse is a natural response to new technology, but is misguided.
Ultimately, information technology – from the alphabets and books of our ancestors to the websites and zip drives of today – is the process of finding better ways to give more people more access to more information with greater convenience. And advances in this field have profoundly changed our society for the better. Thousands of years ago, the invention of the written word enabled the creation of legal codes and accumulation of wisdom that lasted longer than the life of individual men. The printing press democratized access to information in a profound way and underpinned the advances of the enlightenment era. And now, the internet has gone even further to make information readily accessible to everyone. These inventions have strengthened society and empowered the individuals who use them
We know that increasingly convenient access to increasingly large amounts of information has dramatically improved the human condition for thousands of years. The proposition that the internet is a step backward rather than a step forward is absurd on its face. To believe that, we would have to acknowledge that greater dissemination of information and greater access to it has been a force for good for all of human history, except somehow the past twenty years. That argument is self-evidently absurd.
But wait, a defender of Carr’s might say. Even though his idea seems ridiculous, isn’t it backed up by science?
No. The answer is an emphatic no. For example, a 2009 study by UCLA neurologists found that performing Google searches was associated with more activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex than reading a book. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for analysis and attention, and it is also one of the areas of the brain that Carr believes will be damaged by the internet.
Now I won’t lecture you on recent findings in neurology, but these UCLA researchers are by no means unique in having found benefits from increased use of computers and the internet. The New York Times reported that a 2009 comprehensive review of studies found that computer use – including video game use – is associated with “significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks.”
Ladies and gentleman, I’ve amply demonstrated that the arguments against the internet and against the mental benefits that users derive from it are flawed and unsubstantiated by the evidence. But that’s not all. The fundamental assumption that Carr makes – that new ways of accessing information are displacing old ways of accessing information – is also wrong. According to a fascinating report recently published by the McKinsey Global Institute, the amount of time the average American spends reading print sources has not massively decreased. And even that reduction is largely explained by a transition from print newspapers to other sources of news, rather than an abandonment of books. The report also found that in the past 100 years, the amount of time the average American spends hearing or reading messages of any kind and for any reason has nearly doubled. This expansion is a testament to steps forward in information technology.
In closing, I do not fault Nicolas Carr for the manifest errors in his reasoning. Socrates – one of the wisest men to ever walk the earth – made a similar error in judgment. Discomfort is a natural human response to new technology. But as a society, we cannot allow these fears to prevent us from coming with newer and better ways to broaden, democratize, and improve access to information. That is what the printing press did, that is what the internet does, and that is what the next great human breakthrough will do.