Author Nicholas Carr Discusses the Benefits, Liabilities of the Internet

First-Year Students get dose of Digital Age’s Effects on their Brains

HARTFORD, CT, August 31, 2012 – At one point in his presentation Friday, author Nicholas Carr paused to show a power-point photo of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” the famous sculpture featuring a seated man, bent over with his chin planted firmly on his right hand, clearly lost in thought.

“I can’t say what he’s thinking,” Carr told the first-year students who had come to hear his lecture in the Koeppel Community Sports Center, “but it’s pretty clear that he’s not composing a text message.”

It was one of the lighter moments during Carr’s hour-long talk, but the point of showing the sculpture wasn’t lost on the students – it was meant to dramatize Carr’s proposition that people who are hooked on today’s digital technology have lost the ability to concentrate and to contemplate and even in some extreme cases, read a book.

Cell phones, the Internet, Facebook, tweeting and all of the various forms of instantaneous messaging and communication “have discouraged sustained attentiveness, whether in reading printed materials or in conversation,” said Carr, whose 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, was required reading for Trinity’s first-year students and the subject of his lecture.

The book, which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction and has been translated into 23 languages, grew out of a series of provocative articles he has written, particularly a 2008 Atlantic Monthly cover story, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr was introduced Friday by William Church, associate professor of chemistry and neuroscience.

William Church and Nicholas Carr
Left to right, William Church, associate professor of chemistry
 and neuroscience, and author Nicholas Carr

Carr opened his remarks by telling the students, most of whom haven’t experienced life without the full array of digital gadgets, that they are on the cusp of “a terribly exciting era of change,” one that is going to intensify both the benefits and the pitfalls of the Internet. Many of the changes wrought by today’s digital environment have yet to be fully explored and investigated, he said.

There are both positive and negative consequences of the digital world, Carr said, many of which have created tension and conflict. He didn’t dwell only on the negative, however. Carr told the students that the image he showed at the outset of his power-point presentation was sent to him by a man in Hawaii, something that wouldn’t have been possible before the Internet was invented and popularized.

Carr said he first became interested in the subject of technology and its effect on the brain and on human behavior when he realized that he’d become a “big user of technology,” and a “servant” to the digital tools that he was using and that he had lost the ability to concentrate and read a full-length book.

Out of that came Carr’s desire to investigate how modern technology has affected peoples’ brains and cognition.  And what he and others have discovered is that “the brain continues to adapt and change throughout our entire lives and allows us to respond to changes in the environment.”

Although other forms of technology have radically altered our lives – television, for example -- it’s the connectivity, the velocity and the interactivity that makes digital age devices different. As evidence of the rapid pace that dominates the new technology, Carr said research has shown that the average page view is 21 seconds; most pages are viewed for less than 10 seconds; and people tend to glance at their computer’s in-boxes 30 to 40 times an hour. On average, teenagers receive and send about 3,300 text messages a month, or about one every six minutes that they’re awake.

“With all of the interruptions to our thinking,” he said, “we never have the opportunity to focus.”

Why is this a problem? he asked rhetorically. One reason is that peoples’ memories may be overloaded, “shoving information out of our minds very quickly.” It may also affect people intellectually, “sacrificing some of the greatest capabilities of the human mind.”

In sum, Carr noted that the beneficial qualities of the digital age shouldn’t be overlooked and can be enormous, providing users with access to more information and much more quickly. On the other hand, he said, these digital distractions are reducing the productivity of workers and eroding creativity and cognition.

He cautioned the students that the greatest threat to them is that technology could take control of their lives if they allow it, and they could lose an important source of intellectual richness. “You’re losing opportunities for contemplation and reflection,” he said. “You’re never alone with your thoughts. You’re always looking at your phone.”

In addition to The Shallows, Carr’s others books include The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, and Does IT Matter? He’s been a columnist for The Guardian in London and has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Republic, The Financial Times, Die Zeit and other periodicals. His article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” has been included in several anthologies.

Carr is on the steering board of the World Economic Forum’s cloud computing project, and writes the popular blog, Rough Type. He’s been a writer-in-residence at the University of California, Berkeley, and earlier in his career he was executive editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has a B.A. from Dartmouth College and an M.A. from Harvard University.