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An Interview with Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, speaks about the brain

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What should we be concerned about?
   Driving and everyday functions. The big shift underway is that we’re training our brains to take in lots of information quickly but losing our ability to pay attention and the ability to filter out nonessential or trivial information. We’re training ourselves to pay attention to everything even when we’re not online, but doing normal everyday things.
  In general I’m fearful we’re expanding our social relations so we can be in touch, so frequently I fear we will sacrifice some depth. All of us have had the experience of talking to someone while they are texting or searching for something online. You have the feeling of superficial conversation. We can no longer give our attention to another person. The Shallows applies to the way we think but I fear it could apply to social relationships.

How does this affect knowledge?
  One of the things we risk is losing a broader perspective on knowledge or knowing what you don’t know. Jumping around and finding bits and pieces of information works against the ability to stand back and fit that information into a broader picture. When we go online we don’t see the forest or even trees. We see twigs and leaves and risk seeing how they fit into something bigger.

How is the Web different from the printed page?
  The printed page encourages concentrated thought, thinking deeply and richly with interpretation. The Web as a medium floods us with distractions. It’s different and less satisfying. The original Kindle didn’t have a lot of multi-functionality going on. They keep adding more functions and buttons so it’s becoming more like a computer. I don’t see those as returning us to the deep concentration of reading a book.

How does technology affect us on a macro level?
  Systems can disintegrate very quickly. For example, stock market trading. As these systems become more complex and more based on software, it encourages people with a lot of technical skill to game the system. There’s also a tension in the Internet between using it for openness for the free exchange of information or manipulating it centrally for propaganda purposes. It’s a constant cat and mouse game and there continues to be a theme of both liberating and controlling forces.

Can the brain come back?
  You can reverse the process. The best exercise is to sit quietly and think about one thing. Meditation can be part of it. It’s not just about freeing your mind of distractions but being able to focus on one line of thought, to be able to think in a linear way without losing your train of thought.

Nicholas Carr, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, is a best selling author and regular contributor to The Atlantic, The New York Times, Wired and the Guardian.

Published: August 08, 2010
Issue: Fall 2010 Issue