My Monster, My Self: On Nicholas Carr and William Powers
About three years ago, a family trooped into my therapy office for the first time. The father was a chubby man with curly hair and a hangdog look; the mother, who had engineered the visit, was perfectly coiffed and made up. Their daughter, the subject of their distress, was a slim, pretty girl of about 15, sullen and slouching, as if she were walking into a gale.
I shook their hands as they entered. The daughter, let’s call her Kate, offered me her left hand. I responded in kind and glanced at her other hand, expecting to see a cast or a splint. Instead, I saw a spangly purple cellphone, the kind, new at the time, with a keyboard that slides out like a trundle bed. For the entire fifty minutes of the visit I saw little of Kate but the top of her head, as she stared at the screen and thumbed at the keyboard without any attempt at concealment. Her grip on the phone, and the phone’s on her, never loosened, not even when she was answering, sometimes vociferously, her parents’ complaints about her. For their part, her parents never, not once, commented on Kate’s preoccupation.
During the visit I didn’t mention either Kate’s phone or her parents’ apparent obliviousness to their daughter’s behavior. A therapist learns early on not to question a family’s norms too quickly, lest their sudden awareness of how strange their domestic arrangements appear from the outside lead them to slam shut the door they’ve cracked open. But at the next visit, before she could sit down, I asked Kate to hand me her phone. Her parents, already seated, froze as she swung her head around and trained her eyes on me. It was, I realized, the first time we’d made eye contact, and what I saw was a mixture of fear and anger not unlike that of a raccoon cornered in a vegetable patch by an irate gardener wielding a shovel.
“Why?” she demanded.
“Because I have a really hard time concentrating when you’re distracted,” I said. “I keep wondering what’s going on on your phone, and I figure that whatever it is must be more interesting than what’s going on in here.”
“Well, that’s for sure.”
“I’m certain that’s true,” I said. “Nothing here can compete with what’s on your phone. But sometimes we have to pay attention to less interesting things.” I reached out my hand, and she put the phone in it. It was warm and moist. I thought I could feel the indentation of her fingers on its rounded edges. “It seems almost like this phone is part of you,” I said as I put it on my desk. “Like another limb or something.”
“No duh,” she said. “It is.” She held my eyes. There was no shame or defensiveness in them now, let alone fear. Just contempt. It wasn’t the first time a kid had made me out to be a fossil: I’m 53 years old, I wear Tevas and wool socks and have a ponytail that falls to the middle of my back, so I’m fair game. Other hints of my obsolescence usually take the form of the books and movies I mention, the celebrities whose names I don’t recognize or my shaggy beliefs about how there might be more to life than making money. But the gap between Kate and me wasn’t cultural or political in origin. It had to do with different ideas about what kind of creatures we are. My comment, which I’d made for no particular reason, hadn’t told her anything she didn’t already know—that she was in some fundamental way different from me, and from the rest of the grown-ups with whom she had to share the planet. We had only four limbs. She had five, and with that extra appendage she could reach out of her tiny, bounded self and into the whole wide world—or at least the world that could blink to life on her screen.
* * *
Selves change. Not just in the course of our little lives, in ways that we therapists try to effect, but in the course of human history. The idea of what it means to be a human being, of what we should expect of ourselves, of what constitutes the good life and why it is good and how we ought to achieve it—this is transformed by time and circumstance, in a way that can be seen only in retrospect, and even then through a glass darkened by the prejudices of whatever kind of self is looking back. Hard as it is to spot our origins by peering into our collective past, it is even harder to glimpse ourselves as we live through epochal change, as our very understanding of who we are is transformed before our eyes. Hardest of all is to know what, if anything, to do about it.
Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows, and William Powers, with Hamlet’s BlackBerry, have undertaken to tell us exactly that: who we are becoming now that we swim in an endless stream of digital data, what ails this new self and how its pathologies should be treated. Their books are in part confessional accounts of their discovery that something has gone wrong in their lives. For Powers, revelation comes when he leans too far over the transom of his motorboat and falls into the waters off Cape Cod. Clambering back aboard, he realizes that his cellphone went into the drink with him and is ruined. He’s immediately aware of the hassle and headache he’s in for—replacing the phone, restoring his contacts, being out of touch, mourning the loss of his photos. But then, on his way back to his mooring,
I notice something funny. It’s not anything I can see or hear. It’s an inner sensation, a subtle awareness. I’m completely unreachable…. Nobody anywhere on the planet can reach me right now, nor can I reach them…. Just minutes ago, I was embarrassed and angry at myself for drowning my phone. Now that it’s gone and connecting is no longer an option, I like what’s happening.
Carr’s epiphany is less dramatic than Powers’s, although still indebted, at least metaphorically, to water. He reports that he’s recently been unable to sustain his concentration while reading “long stretches of prose.” After just a page or two, he complains, “I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.” The explanation, he slowly realizes, is that the decade he has spent “foraging in the Web’s data thickets” has taken its toll:
Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
The Internet has changed these men and, they suspect, the rest of us as well—and not necessarily for the better. Even if digital technology offers “spectacular benefits” (Powers) that are “new and liberating” (Carr), we are at risk of being turned into a nearly unrecognizable vestige of ourselves.
* * *
Powers and Carr are both white, middle-aged writers who thrived as contributors to glossy magazines, left big Eastern cities for more bucolic, family-friendly surroundings and now depend on the Internet to ply their trade. Their books tell substantially the same story. Once upon a time, men like Socrates and Augustine taught us the joys of cultivating inwardness. Gutenberg gave those inward-looking selves a constant companion in books they could read to themselves, writers like Shakespeare gave us characters like Hamlet who were trying to cogitate their way out of doubt, and Reformation theologians and Enlightenment philosophers and scientists encouraged us to think of ourselves as the source of meaning; and so the modern self, the one that measures success by the achievements of its quest for inner fulfillment, was born.
Reading was central to this new self and the institutions it created. “The values of freedom and equality that we cherish today,” Powers writes, “took root through the spread of reading and the power it conferred on individuals to think for themselves.” But now reading has been supplanted, as Carr puts it, by “the speedy, superficial skimming of information” culled from the links generated by a Google search, which discourages “any deep, prolonged engagement with a single argument, idea, or narrative.” Whereas once we nurtured our private selves by communing with literature, now we have only a “library of snippets,” Carr says, in which “the strip-mining of ‘relevant content’ replaces the slow excavation of meaning.” This is no accidental outcome. As Marshall McLuhan, whom both writers draw upon heavily, famously said, “The medium is the message.” This medium’s message is, as Powers puts it, “to avoid deep immersion.” The space for contemplation disappears in the digital frenzy, and with it the necessity, and the possibility, of reflection.
Powers and Carr offer divergent accounts of why this loss matters, of what is at stake as we replace reading with Google-guided grazing. The Internet, Powers thinks, embodies a “very particular philosophy of technology. It can be summarized in a sentence: It’s good to be connected, and it’s bad to be disconnected.” When E.M. Forster urged us to “only connect,” he didn’t have in mind the kind of boundless promiscuity the Internet forces upon us, in which connection is mediated not by flesh but by screens. Constantly in the digital crowd, we are deprived of depth and substance, even when we don’t know it. You may be sipping a Starbucks latte in your chinos, but clicking on those top links, your sense of what is important conforms to collective norms as surely as if you were wearing a gray flannel suit to your corporate office. Indeed, you might be better off at the mercy of IBM or General Motors, because at least then you could see the disturbing truth lurking under the “idealization of maximum connectedness”: that with every Google search or friend request or tweet or stolen look at your BlackBerry, you are that much more firmly plugged into the collective and that much less in touch with yourself.
Powers seems to think it is self-evident why we should not become Organization Man 2.0. But digital natives, as well as digital resident aliens, might well agree with his analysis—after all, isn’t there wisdom in crowds?—yet still ask, So what? What’s so bad about staying on the surface, about trading depth for breadth? It doesn’t help his case when Powers cites Hamlet as a paragon of inwardness, seeming to forget that things didn’t work out so well for the introspective prince. (What Powers calls “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” turns out to be the “table of my memory” that Hamlet promises to wipe clean for his father, which, Powers tells us, refers to an Elizabethan wax notepad.) Powers’s objections to perpetual connectedness, as his book’s subtitle implies, are philosophical, and his proposed therapies—weekly Internet Sabbaths, using “old tools” like notebooks whenever possible, creating Internet-free zones in the house—appeal only to the reader who already agrees with his philosophy. Like most polemics, Hamlet’s BlackBerry (which is a genial example of the genre) is preaching to the converted.