My Monster, My Self: On Nicholas Carr and William Powers

My Monster, My Self: On Nicholas Carr and William Powers

My Monster, My Self: On Nicholas Carr and William Powers

With our tiny screens and cellphones, we have become prosthetic gods, the whole world in our handhelds. Are we not also monsters?


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.

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.

* * *

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.

“Man has become a kind of prosthetic God,” Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, which appeared in 1930. He continued: “When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times…. Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.”

Freud was circling around one of his favorite subjects—our sometimes tragic, sometimes farcical, always inescapable ambivalence about our selves and our works—but his metaphor is instructive. With technology, he suggested, we have become not only magnificent but monstrous. Kate with her cellphone, pedestrians on city streets staring at tiny screens broadcasting images or words from another place, kids and grown-ups friending and tweeting—are they not prosthetic gods, the whole world in their handhelds? Are they not also monsters?

There is truly something magnificent about the Internet. While writing this essay, I have used it countless times: to find quotes in Google Books, to look up definitions of words, to find out if there was a connection between Hawthorne’s Sleepy Hollow and Washington Irving’s (evidently not), or between Moleskine and moleskin (ditto, but did you know that Bruce Chatwin coined the name?), or to ask William Powers his age. These aren’t only matters of convenience: I’m smarter now than I was, or at least I know more than I did before. Even if much of my memory has been outsourced to the Cloud, I still can’t imagine myself without the Internet. The desktop that links me to the web is my prosthesis, no less than Kate’s phone is hers.

This auxiliary organ is only imperfectly stitched onto me, and it gives me much trouble at times. I was watching a movie featuring Jeanne Moreau the other day, and I wondered how old she was when she made it. Before the question had fully taken shape, I was Googling the answer—but my computer was nowhere near. I had reached for it in the same horrifying way that an amputee reaches for a cigarette with his lost hand. I don’t know which was worse—the presence-in-absence of my phantom appendage, or the fact that I missed it so much. Especially at the times when the seams are showing, I see what Powers and Carr regret so deeply, and what has moved them to write their books: we have become unrecognizable to ourselves; we have become monsters.

That movie, by the way, was Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World. Released in 1991, the film anticipates a world connected by an information network and our ambivalence about it. In the movie, a scientist has invented a device that can record what a person sees, convert it into digital information and play it back directly into the visual cortex of a blind person. It turns out that the device can also record dreams, and people are soon hopelessly addicted to watching them, walking around glued to their screens like proto-Brooklynites with their iPhones. The story’s hero is rescued from her addiction—spoiler alert!—by a novel, through which she rediscovers the value of reading, which is probably why the video stores classify the film as science fiction.

It’s hard to hold such nostalgia against Powers and Carr. After all, they’re pulling on a central thread of modernity, and both are smart enough to know that if you keep pulling, the whole tapestry will unravel. Besides, it may be impossible to deliver a thoroughgoing critique of technology without becoming a little reactionary, or to slay the digital monster without resorting to pitchforks and torches. Hard as it is to find our origins, it is even harder to imagine who else we might become. Like Powers and Carr, I have profited in every way—personally, intellectually, professionally—from reading, writing and thinking deeply. I regret the losses lamented in these books at least as much as their authors do, and I long for the kind of reassurance they are reaching toward. I also recoil from the tyranny of Google and the iPhone zombies, and I feel a creeping revulsion and fury whenever my son disappears into his iPad.

But disgust is the wellspring of bigotry, and it often brands as evil what is new and different, leading us to overlook the sublime hidden in the monstrous. Disgust is a way of keeping faith with one’s origins or avoiding an unbearable conflict, even if only in an imaginary sense. This is especially so for those of us, like Powers and Carr (and me), who have had the Internet grafted onto our analog skin. In his reply to my e-mail asking his age, Powers assured me that plenty of young people have responded favorably to his message, and I have no doubt this is true. But I meet kids all the time who listen to Grateful Dead tapes and wear tie-dyes and drop acid; refreshing as I might find this, it doesn’t mean that psychedelic consciousness is the mindset of the future, or that it ought to be. Our future selves may have Bluetooth implants and pointed thumbs and, who knows, eyes on the tops of their heads. What are prostheses for us will have grown seamlessly onto them, but they will have new seams to contend with. Self-help may no longer come in the form of books, but it will be necessary all the same, for those future selves will have their own discontents, their own monsters, their own lost pasts to mourn.

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