The Shallows of a Cognitive Surplus
June 25, 2010
I think most reviewers will find that Nicholas Carr's The Shallows and Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus hold very different, and possibly opposing, views of the Internet. But I found them to be perfect compliments to one other. Taken together, and read simultaneously, I think they provide a more nuanced and intriguing perspective of the potential effects of the Internet on our intelligence than when read alone (though they both undoubtedly stand tall in their regard).
It's 1968. I'm nine years old, a run-of-the-mill suburban kid playing in a patch of woods near my family's home. Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer are on prime-time TV, debating the intellectual and moral implications of what Mailer describes as "man's acceleration into a super-technological world." 2001 is having its first theatrical run, leaving moviegoers befuddled, bemused, or just plain annoyed. And in a quiet laboratory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Michael Merzenich is cutting a hole in a monkey's skull. The Shallows, page 24And Clay Shirky:
The sitcom has been our gin, an infinitely expandable response to the crisis of social transformation, and as with drinking gin, it isn't hard to explain why people watch individual programs—some of them are quite good. What's hard to explain is how, in the space of a generation, watching television became a part-time job for every citizen on the developed world. Cognitive Surplus, page 5For further illumination, here are two (more sensible) paragraphs on the effects of the invention of the printing press.
If you had seen Gutenberg's shop in the 1450s, when its output was indulgences and Bibles, you might have thought the printing press was custom-made for strengthening the economic and political position of the church. And then a funny thing happened: just the opposite. Cognitive Surplus, page 188And Carr:
After Gutenberg's invention, the bounds of language expanded rapidly as writers, competing for the eyes of ever more sophisticated and demanding readers, strived to express ideas and emotions with superior clarity, elegance, and originality. The vocabulary of the English language, once limited to just a few thousand words, expanded to upwards of a million words as books proliferated. The Shallows, page 77And, finally, on the uncertainty of what revolutionary new technology will bring, here is Shirky:
The early print revolution also reminds us that at the beginning of the spread of a new tool, it is too early to know how (and where and how much) society will change because of its use. Big changes can stall. After the initial spread of indulgences, the increased volume of their production dramatically decreased their value. Small changes can spread. The Ninety-five Theses, nailed to a single door, were reprinted and translated and reprinted again, spreading far and wide. What seems to threaten uniformity actually creates diversity. Cognitive Surplus, page 189And Carr:
Like our forebears during the late Middle Ages, we find ourselves today between two technological worlds.The point of this exercise was not to infuriate Nicholas Carr by fragmenting his work and mashing it up into a blog post, but to show that, when read in their entirety, you'll see that these books' arguments and conclusions are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they share similar thoughts. Neither man is an ideologue or absolutist. Neither man claims to have all the answers. Both are big thinkers and wonderful writers. And, lucky for us, they are adding their voices and intellectual weight to an important conversation at the same time.
But the world of the screen, as we're already coming to understand, is a very different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways of our brain are once again being rerouted. The Shallows, page 77