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Rushes Sequences - Nicholas Carr interview - USA (Video)

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Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 17:32 UK time, Thursday, 26 November 2009

(Nicholas Carr is author of several acclaimed books on technology, writes for numerous publications (including the article Is Google making us Stupid?) and blogs. The programme four team met with Nick to expand upon the concerns he voiced in his post on this very blog: the loss of the contemplative mind to the new 'skittering' mental processes encouraged by the web's way of thinking. 

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(Please note that this transcript is the 'raw data' text we receive from a transcription company. It is a tool commonly used in production to facilitate editing and review the content. We publish it for users in that same spirit, rather than it standing as a 'perfect' representation of the content.)

Nick      I think the price we pay for having easy access to so much information usually quick access to so much information is is we sacrifice some of the depth of our of our engagement with that information.  So the kind of jumping hopping from bit to bit to bit clicking on links takes the place of what used to be a more er contemplative I I think approach to thinking about one thing.  Er whether its one piece of information or the argument or the narrative of a book erm it becomes much harder I think when you're bombarded by information and other stimuli as you are all the time on the web to sit down and really focus on one particular thing.  Erm an' so we g' we gain kind of a breadth of engagement with information but the cost is I think a certain superficiality in our relationship to that information. 


Nick     Yeah erm I - you know throughout my life I've - books have played an important role in them and I've always found it easy to immerse myself in a book and get engaged in an argument or a narrative but a few years ago as my use of the web kind of picked up I found it much much harder to sit down and engage with a book.  After a page or two my mind would start wandering - I'd er kind of loose the focus - have to go back a coup' - er go back a page to to to reconnect with the argument and at  first you know I thought ok may be this is just general you know age or something that that's causing this.  But what I noticed is that the sensation I had when I tried to read or really concentrate on anything was that my brain my mind wanted to behave the way it behaves when I'm at my computer or online.  It wanted to check email it wanted to click on links and jump from page to page er  so it really - I began to make the connection that you know in in in really in a unmistakable way my use of the net was changing the way I think er in changing my ability to do things like concentrate or or or contemplate one particular er piece of information or or read through 100 pages of a book.  An' I I began talking to the other people an' many of them - not all of them but many of them had a very very similar - were suffering from a similar type of affliction.  They they felt that they were - had increasingly scatterbrained an' an' they wanted to be online and they wanted to get information very very quickly and they didn't want to sit still an' an' concentrate on anything.

Intv            You mentioned that if you were to design the perfect vehicle for brain distraction it would be the internet - it would be the web - can you illuminate that - tell me that and why that might be?

Nick    The human brain like any animal brain is attuned to distraction.  In a sense it wants to be distracted - it wants to see what's going on in its surroundings so you know its not - it doesn't miss some source of food or isn't attacked by you know a tiger or something.  Erm and if you look at the way the internet bombards us with stimuli not only hyperlinks and different pages of information but alerts you know from face book updates to twitter alerts to er you know incoming email and even our phones going off all the time - it creates in in a sense an environment of information that plays to our desire to or our need to be distracted.  And so it becomes very difficult to keep a focus on anything when you know five different things are happening at once on your screen or or you know between your screen and your smart phone and so forth an' and its just its just all sorts of environmental stimuli that come through you know this this information medium an' keep us pretty much permanently distracted when we're online.


Intv    What's the argument - what is this link between possibly you and some of the other people think that - deep reading and deep thinking - what's the link between those two things and what is a good quality of deep reading and deep thinking?

Nick     What reading did for us in particular book reading is it slowed us down - it it took us away from our natural distractedness and forced us to focus on one thing - on a book on a line of argument on a line of text literally often from hundreds of pages in in hours on end and that's a very different er type of thinking that w' than we're kind of naturally used to.  So so the book promoted a kind of in depth engagement with ideas - a kind of  very deep thinking concentrated thinking contemplative introspective thinking which er in many ways is kind of a unique aspect of that particular medium - the the print on page medium that we that we'd never saw before at least not broadly until the book became popular 500 600 years ago.

Intv    Tell me why people think it's a good thing to think and to think big - why is that a good useful tool for humans to engage?

Nick    I think I think the great value of thinking deeply an' reading deeply an' concentrating in general is that we begin to develop a unique personality a unique intellect that's ours and ours alone and that requires I think deep thought an' an' in the ability to make our own associations and our own connections about things we understand deeply inside our own minds rather than  relying on you know the the the associations and connections that might be out in the world and that we might access through hyperlinks for instance.  So er I I I really think that the the human self and the human personality becomes much richer when we can slow down and when we can think deeply an' and engage with information in more than just kind of a cursory manner.


Intv            What are the worries is the first generation have may be grown up online have only used the web - what are our big worries as they enter the workplace - do we think we're going to see these traits?

Nick     Well I'm I'm a little nervous about drawing a sharp distinction between what we call you know generation web or digital natives in older people adults because what - I think that's too too - that that lets adults off the hook an' they can say oh you know as they always say oh this younger generation they're you know going to hell or whatever.  An' an' really the effects of the internet I  think are the same on adults as on younger kids an' an' younger adults an' if you look at the statistics its people in the twen' later 20s 30s 40s 50s who are online much more er of the time than say teenagers.  Erm so so I would hate to to have the focus on generation web you know make it seem as though though older people aren't affected by the internet because I think they are.  And I think what we see in young people - the the distractedness the inability to you know read more than 2 pages at a time is probably coming to to characterise older people in in every generation as well.  Having said that you know I think obviously the - the brain is is - the human brain is malleable throughout the  course of anybody's life but it's particularly mal' malleable of course when you're young.  So if if a person is brought up looking at screens an' an' an' using the web and being bombarded by information then then the question is will the brain circuits circuitry necessary to do things like deep reading deep thinking - will those circuits ever  even come into being - will they be wired for that kind of thinking or will they be wired completely for internet type of thinking for for er taking in lots of information very very quickly.  Erm an' I think that's the big fear is that w' we'll end up er with with a generation of people who are very good at using the net and very good at finding information and and processing information very quickly but don't really have any capacity for  contemplativeness or for concentration er for deep engagement with information. 

Intv            Is there this big distinction or should we be making a big distinction about information and knowledge what the web provides is information for what we're using is our ability to know what to process that information in a knowledgeable way.

Nick    Well people always get into semantic discussions about what's information what's knowledge what's wisdom and I think those are important discussions but I think what the what the web does - what the net does goes much deeper than that.  It's not just the form of the information we're taking in it's our ability to make sense of that information to process that information.  So it's it's - I think it's at a very deep level in our brain that an' the more we use the web the more we train ourselves to skip very very quickly among many pieces of information er an' we lose the ability to stop an' concentrate and so you could say that the the the outcome of that will be - will have you know access an' an ability to process huge amounts of little snippets of information but we'll we'll kind of begin to sacrifice the ability to er create the associations ourselves among those bits of information that I think lead to er true knowledge an' an' ultimately wisdom


  • Comment number 1.

    I see Mr.Carr's point but I think that he is looking at the problem from a somehow inadequate perspective. First of all if there really is a trade off between engaging with content/being contemplative/introspective and having quick access to a wilderness of 'information snippets' - it is not obvious in any way that this trade off is a bad one.

    Let me begin by saying that I love contemplation. I am introspective and contemplative by nature. But being contemplative and introspective is not an external influence, depending on the media of information around you but an internal one. You either have the character disposition to be introspective and deep thinking or you're not.

    I suspect that what Mr. Carr is talking about is having the faculty of a calm & centered awareness instead of a fidgety and bullet-train mind. let me say that people are naturally born with a fidgety mind (Buddhist call it the 'monkey mind') and centuries of reading paper-based material didn't change that. I never saw any studies indicating the contrary. Sitting by the fire and spending an hour sinking in a book doesn't necessarily train your mind to be more focused and attentive. I seriously doubt that. It only shows that if you did sit for an hour to read, then you already had the patience and natural inclination to do so.

    If there is a trade-off at all, I think that the positive outweighs the negative by far. Let's be practical. Say I am writing a paper and I need to research a topic. In order to get to an ideal depth and breadth on the topic, I need to read 170+ sources (books, papers & articles) in total. Being realistic, in the absence of the web, there is no way you are going to sit on your butt and read the full length of each & every book unless you're a 16th century friar with tonnes of time on your hand.

    It's another story with the web. The way information is being structured and hyperlinked means that I can avoid irrelevant chunks of information and manage and extract the essential information I need in exponentially less time.

    The result? In the first scenario, I would have probably stopped to a small pile of books. In the second one I would have crossed over much larger territory of information ultimately giving my research more depth and breadth.


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