In 1964, the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote his opus Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In it, he writes, “In the long run, a medium's content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act." Or, put more simply: "Media work their magic, or their mischief, on the nervous system itself."
This idea — that the media technologies we rely on reshape us on a fundamental, cognitive level — sits at the center of Nicholas Carr's 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. A world defined by oral traditions is more social, unstructured, and multi-sensory; a world defined by the written written word is more individualistic, disciplined, and hyper-visual. A world defined by texting, scrolling and social feedback is addicted to stimulus, constantly forming and affirming expressions of identity, accustomed to waves of information.
Back in 2010, Carr argued that the internet was changing how we thought, and not necessarily for the better. “"My brain, I realized, wasn't just drifting,” he wrote. “It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the same way the net fed it — and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became.” His book was a finalist for the Pulitzer that year, but dismissed by many, including me. Ten years on, I regret that dismissal. Reading it now, it is outrageously prescient, offering a framework and language for ideas and experiences I’ve been struggling to define for a decade.
Carr saw where we were going, and now I wanted to ask him where we are. In this conversation, Carr and I discuss how speaking, reading, and now the Internet have each changed our brains in different ways, why "paying attention" doesn't come naturally to us, why we’re still reading Marshall McLuhan, how human memory actually works, why having your phone in sight makes you less creative, what separates "deep reading” from simply reading, why deep reading is getting harder, why building connections is more important than absorbing information, the benefits to collapsing the world into a connected digital community, and much more.
The point of this conversation is not that the internet is bad, nor that it is good. It’s that it is changing us, just as every medium before it has. We need to see those changes clearly in order to take control of them ourselves.
The Control Revolution by James R. Beniger
The Four-Dimensional Human by Laurence Scott
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
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