My Monster, My Self: On Nicholas Carr and William Powers
Carr is polemical too, but his animus is largely directed toward the “Church of Google,” not only for the way it forces us to join the congregation but for how it calls us to worship at the altar of efficiency. In a clever and apt historical reference, he reminds us of Frederick Taylor, whose time-motion studies helped industrialists squeeze the last drop of productivity out of their assembly-line workers. “What Taylor did for the work of the hand,” Carr writes, “Google is doing for the work of the mind”—using its knowledge of our habits of mind to make us ever more efficient grazers of information.
But Ford’s workers flourished, at least for much of the twentieth century, and Model Ts helped to bring about the mobility society. The mere fact that Google wants, in its CEO’s words, to “systematize everything” is not in itself grounds for an indictment of the company or a reason to reject its methods. With all that information out there, after all, perhaps we are better off being systematized, and besides, didn’t Google promise not to be evil? Wouldn’t it be more useful to evaluate Google’s aptitude for systematization and search? Do other search engines have better algorithms?
As the subtitle of his book makes clear, Carr has a rejoinder to these objections. Believe in the jouissance of the shallows or the wisdom of crowds or the glories of the hive mind or the benevolence of Google all you want, he says; you’re still playing with fire when you’re on the Internet all the time. That’s not a matter of opinion but of fact, and it concerns not something so elusive as your soul but something as real and crucial as your brain, which is altered at a molecular level by your experiences, no less than Dorian Gray’s portrait was changed by his. When it comes to the Internet, Carr argues, this malleability presents a deep danger.
If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and as thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.
Carr offers a quick tour of the labs where MRI-aided scientists have been peering into human brains to observe this rewiring, and the news is not good. A UCLA professor claims that daily use of digital devices “stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release.” Another UCLA scientist reports that our “working memory” isn’t designed to multitask, and that as a result “learning facts and concepts will be worse if you learn them while you’re distracted.” A Swedish neuroscientist has found that when our brain is overtaxed by all that information, we find “distractions more distracting,” and a team at the University of Southern California warns, in Carr’s words, that “the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience empathy, compassion, and other emotions.” A University of Wisconsin neuroscientist, one of the first to discover the plasticity of the adult brain, looks at the big picture and acknowledges that online tools may be indispensable but concludes, in the same capital letters the surgeon general requires on cigarette pack health warnings, that “their heavy use has neurological consequences.” The problem with the Internet is not philosophical but scientific, says Carr, which means it’s not only a matter of our intellectual lives, of the significance of depth or the necessity of self-exploration, or anything else debatable, but of our physical health. It’s a medical, not a moral, concern.
Carr’s prescription is not to shove a sandal into the servers that are eroding our brains. Instead, he wants us to take a page from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notebooks—the one in which Hawthorne wrote about the way a morning reverie in a spot in Concord known to locals as Sleepy Hollow was shattered when the “startling shriek” of a locomotive brought “the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.” The shrieking railroad has given way to the constant hum and buzz of the information highway, ubiquitous to the point of invisibility. If we want to preserve the health of our brains, we will carve out a “peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic”:
There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden. We need to work in Google’s “world of numbers,” but we also need to be able to retreat to Sleepy Hollow.
The medium may be the message, Carr suggests, but only so long as the medium stays hidden. Reveal its inner workings—and the groupthink or brain damage it can cause—and we will see the necessity of resisting. We will be empowered to turn Google to our purposes rather than being turned to Google’s. The Internet in hand, we will be able to be the selves that modernity wants us to be, only more so. And then we can get back to reading and thinking deeply.
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Internet Sabbaths, Sleepy Hollows: these common-sense, moderation-above-all solutions are anticlimactic only if a reader expects (or wants) these authors to follow their arguments to their ends, to place their rhetoric at the service of a large-scale critique of the way we live now or the conditions that allow the medium to send the message it sends. But these books are not intended to rouse the rabble. They aren’t what they claim to be—quasi-anthropological, semi-Tocquevillian explorations of the new digital world and the habits of heart it inculcates. They don’t provide penetrating histories of recent events, although Carr does offer an incisive and sometimes brilliant riff on Google’s ascendance and occasionally draws lucid sketches of how readers from earlier times coped with the condition of being information-logged. For instance, he notes that since the early modern era, readers and writers have used commonplace books to store and arrange quotes and fragments mined from a seemingly limitless stock of print knowledge. The world has always been flooded with signs, and one way to avoid drowning in them is by distilling the signs you take for wonders into a handy print (or, more recently, digital) collection of excerpts. Carr concludes that while commonplace books are aids to memory, supplying “matter to invention,” as Francis Bacon wrote, Google has replaced memory, so digital snippets lack integration.
Whatever their intentions, Carr’s and Powers’s books belong to the mightiest genre in American literature, and one of its few native forms: self-help. Neither is as explicit on this point as, say, Kevin Roberts’s Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap, which adds “cyber addiction” to the long list of habit-forming enticements to which we can fall prey and from which we must recover by working the twelve steps. But Powers’s subtitle clearly suggests his intention to console and aid troubled selves, and both books minister to people unsettled by their immersion in the digital age, offering solace (the author has had this trouble himself), understanding (he has studied the issue thoroughly enough to have special insight into your worries) and inspiration (he has figured out some solutions that work for him and will work for you).
As Norman Vincent Peale demonstrated when he cast the American businessman’s insecurity as a failure to think positively, self-help books succeed to the extent that they can shape their readers’ disquiet into a form that is amenable to the solutions they offer. Once you understand that the reason you’ve been made uneasy by the Internet is that it is destroying your brain’s ability to contemplate or, unbeknownst to you, turning you into a face in the crowd, you can’t help but think you ought to sit idly in the garden or unplug on weekends. In this way, self-help books are a form of suasion not unlike advertising: they identify suffering, describe it as a crucial inadequacy within us and suggest the one true remedy.
One of the first writers to cast discontent about modernity into the self-help mold was George Beard, who in 1881 offered American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences to a public that, in his view, was unduly burdened by the explosion of technologies—newspapers, telegraphs, intercity railroads—that had accelerated the pace of modern life. The unprecedented demand on the nervous system was like a new set of lamps interposed in an electrical circuit, Beard said. “Sooner or later the amount of force is insufficient to keep all the lamps actively burning; those that are weakest go out entirely, or, as more frequently happens, burn faint and feebly.” Much of the danger, according to Beard, could be attributed to one man, Thomas Edison, whose “experiments, inventions and discoveries” are “making constant and exhausting draughts on the nervous forces of America.” The result of Edison’s mischief was nervous exhaustion, or, as Beard and other doctors of the time called it, neurasthenia.
Not everyone had to worry about this disease. Only a “few millions have reached that elevation where they are likely to be nervous.” They were the “brain-workers” who had to contend with the onslaught of information delivered by the new technologies, and thus needed to be wary of the neurological consequences of modernity. Fortunately for these “very highest classes,” relief was available in the countryside at the nearest spa, where one could take the rest cure and emerge restored and ready to face the demanding modern world.
With this remedy, Beard fulfilled another requirement of self-help literature (and advertising): he provided reassurance about a central anxiety of his age. Even if what he offered was a full-scale critique of modernity—and one that had likely occurred in some inchoate form to the average brain-worker—its bounty would not have to be sacrificed. Neurasthenia could be cured, or even avoided, without dismantling the networks, disrupting the social order or dismembering Edison. Trains could still shriek and telegraphs clatter; so long as people stewarded their energy and unplugged themselves when necessary, the globe could keep spinning at its dizzying new pace. So too for Powers and Carr. Replace your handheld gadget with a Moleskine notebook, create a modem-free zone in your house, decouple in some way, any way, from the Internet, and you’ll recoup something even more vital than your ability to think deep thoughts or maintain your brain’s electrochemical balance: the reassurance that no matter how annoying or demanding or distracting or downright frightening all that connectedness is, no matter how anxious you are about the pace of change, the digital world can still be a benevolent place, if only you take the time, with the help of these books, to get your house in order.