Against The Shallows

A piece exploring my objections to Nicholas Carr’s (rather good) book The Shallows, first published on First Drafts, August 2010.

Nicholas Carr’s book on “how the internet is changing us,” The Shallows, has recently begun making waves in the UK ahead of its publication here in September. Back in June, when it first came out in America, Evgeny Morosov wrote about it at some length in Prospect—and Carr’s original essay in The Atlantic is well worth a read. Having finally got around to reading the book myself, what really interests me is something Carr sums up in his prologue with reference to Marshall McLuhan‘s 1964 book Understanding Media. The book was, he writes, “at heart a prophecy, and what it prophesied was the dissolution of the linear mind.” I share his concerns over the “dissolution” of certain ways of thinking and reading. Yet there seems to me to be something wrong with the words Carr himself is using here.

Carr’s argument is that the “linear minds” we used to have—thanks to an intellectual diet primarily composed of text—are being replaced by “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster the better.” There’s a provocative dose of truth in this description. Consuming old media certainly looks like a linear experience, and one that new technology is irrevocably interrupting: beginning, middle and end are turning into link, point and click. I’d argue, though, that the actual reasons behind this consumption—the human needs served by all media, old and new—point towards something rather different.

Life itself is linearity: the implacable rate at which time and the universe unwind, ourselves included. All media have always represented some kind of escape from this: a human refuge from the fact that everything can happen only once, Kundera’s “lightness of being.” In visual art and sculpture, a scene is frozen, fit for inspection at the speed of the mind rather than time. In music, dance and drama, long before recording technologies of any kind existed, compositions and styles of improvisation were geared towards repetition and tradition: continuity and concentration create meaning where otherwise there would only be ephemerality.

Most of all, in words—spoken or written—the stuff of thought supplants the stuff of life. Words can effortlessly transport an audience in time and place, multiply perspectives, convey information and argument, defy earthly limits at will. What goes on in our minds when we read is far removed from the linear business of living. Life is linear; the mental lives of animals are inexorably linear. To be human is to fight against this. In this sense, the internet is not so much a reversal of the last few millennia of civilisation’s good work as the latest battlefront.

Carr doesn’t exactly interpret linearity in this sense, of course. His beef is with distraction, diffusion, multiplication and speed. To me, this means that what’s really being talked about is agency and scale: an audience’s capacity to chose, and the range of choices they face. And although new media represents an incredible intensification of both the quantities and opportunities here it does not, fundamentally, change either why or how people use media. To be human is to resist linearity at all costs: to speak and share and consume and create. Now we all get to start doing this, all the time, through media that throughout human history have been the province of the few. It’s no wonder we’re having trouble concentrating.