You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Nicholas Carr’ tag.

Technological innovation leads to greater efficiency: a simple maxim that seems to carry the force of law. But you don’t have to scratch deep to find other effects of innovation.

Hoping to stave off riots, Pennsylvania officials separated the red and white wines.

You can read books to discern those effects, including Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch or David Noble’s Forces of Production.

No time to read? Stroll into a Pennsylvania supermarket and gawk at a wine kiosk (left), a frightening cross between a vending machine, an ATM and a prison, brought to us by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Anyone care to argue that this technology is the most efficient way to sell wine? The machine obviously serves other purposes, mostly having to do with control–and they haven’ t even been very good at that.

In this case, technology’s other purposes are obvious. Other cases are less obvious, which allows me to circle back to highways, my original inspiration for blogging this year. Highways are synonymous with freedom. But why?

 

Advertisements

To continue the Google is making us stupid thread (see below)…perhaps the Internet is doing to information what the assembly line did to cars and toys and air conditioners and televisions. It made them into endlessly proliferating commodities outsourced to the lowest bidder. Writers who want to make more than a pittance will have to unionize, become celebrities or rebrand their output as a luxury product worth a steep premium.

So I was thinking more about this Google makes us stupid article, and I realized the author was too quick to blame technology for shortening attention spans. What if the main culprit was the relentless push for higher productivity?

Interestingly enough, the author (Nicholas Carr) mentions Frederick Taylor, who used a stop-watch to boost productivity among factory workers starting in the early 20th century. And he goes on to talk about how productivity is now more easily measured among “knowledge workers” (you can see the impact in attempts to measure journalistic output and “rightsize” newsrooms) But I don’t think Carr went far enough in analyzing economic forces. He was content to look mostly at the tools.

You could blame the assembly line for killing craftsmanship and ramping up productivity, just as you can blame the hammer for making us weaker — our ancestors drove nails with their teeth. But people had to invent the assembly line and convince and/or force other people to use it, regardless of its long-term impact on their lives. The same could be said about the Internet.

Warning: any further reading online could make you stoopid.

That’s the gist of an argument in this month’s Atlantic Monthly about Google, the Internet and its effect on our brains. It’s an interesting read, but a bit light on context. The “us” the author discusses is a relatively small cohort of self-described “knowledge workers” — writers, researchers, professors, artists, critics, who now sit in front of computers for a living. They fear they’re losing their attention spans and depth of thought as they skip from one hyperlink to another, surrounded by blinking ads, scrolling text and a thousand other distractions.

I suppose it’s possible, and likely. But it makes you wonder how powerfully they were able to concentrate in the first place and how deep their thoughts really were if their hard-won discipline is so easily undermined. Few people in history ever have had the patience to read thousands of pages per week. (Reading itself can be a bit of a pathology — substitute the act of reading for watching TV when you skim this particular diatribe about the boob tube. Somewhere on a shelf in a Virginia sits a copy of this book, my feverish notes covering many of its pages.)

The author of the Atlantic article, Nicholas Carr, offers a perceptive quote from Socrates, who was concerned about the invention of writing — there’s always someone to lament the advent of new technology. Socrates’ gripe was that writing offered a shortcut to knowledge. People would gain the conceit of wisdom without achieving true wisdom. However, Carr argues, Socrates failed to foresee the great improvements in the human condition that would come about because of writing.

Socrates’ greater point about wisdom still holds up. I doubt technology has ever been an impediment — or a facilitator — on the road to wisdom. People get it or they don’t, no matter how many speeches they hear, books they read or web sites they visit. Technology just makes it easier to seem less dumb.