The European: Mr Carr, when was the last time you read a book?
Carr: I just finished reading Douglas Coupland’s new biography of Marshall McLuhan.
The European: You state that the internet undermines our ability to understand complex information because our brain is flooded with too much information at once. If true, what would that do to our understanding of culture and society in the long term?
Carr: I think it’s part of a shift away from reflective thinking and toward short-term utilitarian thinking. Because the source of much of what we value most about culture, whether in art, literature, science, or even politics, is reflective and deeply attentive thinking, I think in the long run we’re likely to see a more superficial, less interesting culture. Some would say there’s evidence of that already.
The European: What kind of human being would be the product of the development you described, if it is not regulated?
Carr: I think it would be a human being with a more industrialized mind — engaged in perpetual problem-solving and data processing, always seeking efficiency, avoiding more open-ended thought. This human being will distrust contemplation and solitude, seeing them as states of low productivity.
The European: One benefit of the internet compared to a plain text (e.g. book), is the contextual linking of information (through hyperlinks). Doesn’t that give the reader a deeper understanding of complex relationships?
Carr: It can, though it can also promote more cursory reading and more distracted thinking. Studies on hypertext suggest that links actually impede comprehension by interrupting the reader’s concentration. It’s important to remember that there have always been “links” in writing and thinking, though they used to take the form of allusions and citations.
The European: Could it be that a second or third generation of humans through some evolutionary modulation would perhaps be able to handle both – deep reading and efficient usage of the internet?
Carr: Surely not simultaneously. Genetic evolution plays out over very long time scales, and is difficult to predict. What we’re more likely to see over the next few generations is the adaptation of our brains to be more adept at processing simultaneous and rapidly changing visual cues and less adept at the kind of prolonged attention required for deep reading.
The European: In your book, you come to the conclusion that “as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence” and that by “outsourcing memory, culture withers”. What do you mean by that?
Carr: Those are two different points. I think there’s evidence that, as we come to automate intimate thought processes and social processes with software, we lose some of the personal depth and distinctiveness that has long characterized a vibrant intellectual life. Following algorithms tends to flatten our thoughts and emotions, making us, in a way, more machine-like. As to memory, there seems to be a growing belief that, thanks to the web, we no longer have to memorize much information. We just need to Google it. The problem there is that our most creative and conceptual thinking often emerges from the complexity of the connections among the memories stored in our minds. Biological memory is the seat of the unique self as well as the foundation of a rich culture. If we outsource our memory to external databases, we begin to destroy that foundation.
The European: On the other hand, isn`t it be possible, that culture gets more complex via the internet by sharing ideas and visions instantly?
Carr: I suppose it’s possible, though I don’t see much evidence of it. There seems to be a tension between the instantaneous and the deep.
The European: When talking about risks and benefits of the internet, several experts see a threat through monopolized knowledge: Google could become a tyrant whose power is based on information mining. Do you agree?
Carr: I think there is certainly a risk there. The question is, will we embrace the tyrant or fight it? So far, we seem to be more inclined to embrace it.
The European: You confess, that you couldn`t stay abstinent from the internet, or even use it way more sensically. If even you couldn’t do so, how should your readers be able to?
Carr: Maybe they will be stronger and more courageous than I am.