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Online, We Follow Scripts Written By Others — Nicholas Carr

In his Pulitzer Prize nominated The Shallows — What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that “The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and the capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation… The problem today is that were losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind.”  We spend too much time “stripmining” for relevant content and too little on the “slow excavation of meaning.”  Information overload is a permanent state. Our abilities to cure it, only make it worse.

In this process, the Internet becomes a replacement for, rather than a supplement to, personal memory. We come to believe that because we know how to locate to information, it is part of our biological memory. New York Times columnist, David Brooks, commented, “I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less.” Because of the quantities of information  that we are now able to store, we need only remember what we stored and where it is, not the content itself. Memorization, according to Carr, has become a “waste of time.” We have begum to “outsource” our memories.

But, there is a critical difference between access to and memory of information. Carr observes, “While an artificial brain absorbs information and immediately saves it to memory, the human brain continues to process information long after it is received, and the quality of memories depends on how the information is processed.” What gives human memory its richness and character is its contingency. It exists in time and changes over time. Neuroscientist, Joseph LeDoux,  maintains that,”The brain that does the remembering is not the brain that formed the initial memory.” That is, biological memory is transitory and always in renewal. As we build our personal store of memories, our minds sharpen. The act of remembering, according to Carr, “appears to modify the brain in such a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future.” We don’t limit our mental powers as we create long-term memories. We strengthen them and build our intelligence.

Carr argues that Internet usage places strains on working memory, diverting resources from higher reasoning faculties and obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories. A fundamental for memory consolidation is attentiveness. Sharper attention creates sharper memory. If we are constantly distracted, how can we choose what to pay attention to, what it means, and how it fits into our broader experience? Carr warns, “When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.”

Raising this dilemma to the next level, Carr observes that personal memories shape and sustain a culture’s collective memory. The offloading of memory to external databanks, according to Carr threatens the transmission, the depth, and the distinctiveness of the culture that we share… “Outsource memory, and culture withers.”

Carr reminds us, occasionally through his work, that the Internet is not without its significant benefits. It is, after all, a powerful tool, with enormous potential and capacity. But, tools work both ways. As they become extensions of us, we become extensions of them. Every tool opens possibilities, yet imposes limitations. The more we use a tool, the more we shape ourselves into its form and function. “The price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation. The toll can be particularly high with our intellectual technologies. The tools of the mind amplify and, in turn, numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities —  those for reason, perception, memory, emotion.”

Carr finally cautions that, when we are online, we are following scripts written by others, which tend to mechanize the messy process of exploration and, even, social engagement.  We must be wary that, in our increasing distractibility, we don’t lose our capacity for empathy and compassion, which are the product of focused time and deep reflection.

Next, some critiques and observations.




Tim Tosta
Life Coach


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