Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows

For our academic practice reading group we had a chapter from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. As you can tell from the title, this is a very pertinent topic.

When I started reading the chapter I thought that Carr’s approach was ‘the usual’ reactionary response to change, change seen as the impending doom. However, Carr’s main argument is that when we delegate/branch out some of our functions to technological tools, we lose some skills and capabilities-often forever.

Carr, through the eyes (or words) of Weizenbaum, gives a stark warning: “[t]he great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers-as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens-is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines” (p. 207).

At times Carr’s work reads like an apocalyptic scenario, where many of our functions, physical and mental, are done by machines, leaving us with what exactly? However, one point I take away is that, ok, we shouldn’t immediately dive into using technology in a blind manner, for the sake of novelty-it has to serve an actual purpose. I used the reference to Marshall McLuhan‘s work which offers a more balanced view in saying that “an honest appraisal of any new technology, or of progress in general, requires a sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained. We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self” (p. 212).

I was left with mixed feelings. Technology does penetrate the deepest recesses of our being, physical and mental. That’s where the anecdotes of blokes in pub toilets checking their smartphones came in. Technology enables us to multitask, be more ‘productive’, respond to queries immediately, deal with things on the spot and on the go. That’s how marketing and business push it.

We’ve all done it-owning a smartphone or a tablet means that we are always plugged in. This is great, but we always need to remember the element of choice. Because, when your smartphone beeps when you receive an email at 11pm, it’s asking you to have a look. If you do have a look, it means that the technology is controlling you. If you carry on doing what you were doing, it means that you make the choice and not the technology. In fact, turn notifications off when it’s out of work hours, just because you’re not paid enough to worry about work 24 hours a day.

Technology can be both liberating and enslaving. As someone mentioned yesterday, it’s a great tool for implementing a neo-liberal agenda which blurs the boundaries between work and life, which expects us to be always plugged in, but when we burn out we are dealt with indivudually, as broken cogs. The choice is ours, for the time being.

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