Q & A with author Nicholas Carr

Q & A with author Nicholas Carr

Pulitzer Prize finalist Nicholas Carr says today’s constant bombardment of information both helps and hurts the human mind. The Internet especially builds new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence, but it weakens people’s ability for mindful knowledge acquisition, critical thinking and imagination. Carr’s book The Shallows was selected as the Common Reading text this fall, and the author talked with freshmen at Chancellor’s Assembly and as the keynote speaker at the Frost Foundation Lecture in August.

How did it feel to be writing a book about how people no longer want to read books? I felt like I had to write it fast in order to have many people want to read it. It’s a good question because we are in this moment of transition. Fortunately, we are still in a time when people read books, including young people. What I wanted to say was best told in the form of a book. When I wrote it, I consciously did it so that it would be difficult to skim and scan. I took it as a challenge that the reader would be inattentive. But I thought it was the best way to express what I wanted to communicate.

Are changes related to the advent of the Internet greater than earlier changes like radio or the printing press? In one sense, history is repeating itself. We always have these new technologies come along, but this is the first one that we really interact with all the time. In many ways, it’s up there with the really big ones like the alphabet and the number system. It strikes me that those are the most influential because we use those tools to read and write or make sense of the world. I think the Internet is up there. It’s more comprehensive in its effects than TV and radio. It’s certainly up there with the printing press.

Is there a difference between the learning process for young people who have grown up with technology their whole lives and people who have come to it later in life? We tend to draw too great a distinction. When you look at how people behave online, you don’t really see much difference between younger people and older people. The Internet seems to have the same effect. In fact, until very recently, the people who spent the most time online were people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, not teens and pre-teens. One of the reasons is adults are at work in front of a computer all day and had access. It’s only the arrival of the smart phone that the younger set has caught up with their parents and are as distracted as they are. It’s a recent phenomenon.

What about grade-school kids? The other major aspects of the smart-phone era is the touch screen. Suddenly, you give a 1- or 2-year-old a computer before they can even talk. You give them a touch screen and they know how to use it immediately. It’s a very native kind of interface to them. Because we assume more technology is better, we give it to them younger and younger. I think that’s very dangerous and short-sighted, and the reason is even though our brains are malleable and always adapting, it’s no doubt that in our youngest years that process is happening more rapidly and is laying the foundation for the way a person is going to think their whole life. What’s very important for children is to have many experiences and use their brains in many different ways. If we push them toward manipulating screens, we steal from them those diverse experiences that are important to creating a flexible, broad mind.

Does the Internet help the elderly brain? There is some evidence that navigating information online can help keep an older person’s brain limber. One study found that it keeps the mind engaged, and keeping track of things has similar effects as doing crossword puzzles. So I think there are benefits there, but again, if it is done in moderation.

Read more about Nicholas Carr’s visit to TCU and the Frost Foundation Lecture at magazine/