Planet of the Apps, Part II

In the afterword to the paperback edition of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr reflects on responses to the hardback edition, published in 2010.

A backlash against the Net, it seems, is under way, and it is by no means limited to the scribblings of disillusioned middle-age authors. Software programmers have begun writing applications intended to shield us from the Net's distractions. Programs like Freedom and Anti-Social automatically switch off your Internet connection or restrict your access to social networks for hours at a time, allowing you to complete a job or follow a train of thought without interruption.…There's something funny, and a little sad, about looking to software to curb our technological appetites—to give us a virtual backbone—and it remains to be seen how broadly these apps will come to be used. Nevertheless, their existence testifies to a growing sense of unease about the Net's effects. People seem to be looking for ways to loosen technology's grip on their lives and thoughts.
I saw signs of this blacklash in the correspondence I received from readers of The Shallows. (Most of the notes arrived via e-mail, though I do have a sizable stack of typed and handwritten letters on my desk.) Dozens of people wrote to share their own stories of how the Web has scattered their attention, parched their memory, or turned them into compulsive nibblers of info-snacks. I was particularly struck by the large number of notes that came from young people—high-schoolers, college kids, twentysomethings. They fear that constant connectivity may be constricting rather than expanding their horizons. Some of their stories are poignant. One college senior sent me a long email describing how he has struggled with "a moderate to major form of Internet addiction" since the third grade. "I am unable to focus on anything in a deep or detailed manner," he wrote. "The only thing my mind can do, indeed the only thing it wants to do, is plug back into that distracted frenzied blitz of online information." He is drawn back into the Web even though he knows that "the happiest and most fulfilled times of my life have all involved a prolonged separation from the Internet."…
As computers shrank, they became a lot less threatening. Eager for their assistance, we welcomed them into our homes and then into our pockets. But the young are still the enemies of uniformity, and the Internet, as it extends its reach into all the nooks and crannies of our days, is looking more and more like an enormous conduit of conventionality. What are Facebook and Google but giant institutions, arms of the new Establishment? What are smartphones if not high-tech leashes?…
Of course, in conjuring up a big anti-Net backlash, I may be indulging in a fantasy of my own. After all, the Internet tide continues to swell. In the months since I completed The Shallows, Facebook membership has doubled from 300 million to 600 million; the number of text messages processed every month by the typical American teen has jumped from 2,300 to 3,300; sales of e-readers, tablets, and smartphones have skyrocketed; app stores have proliferated; elementary schools have rushed to put iPads in their students' hands; and the time we spend in front of screens has continued its seemingly inexorable rise. We may be wary of what our devices are doing to us, but we're using them more than ever. And yet, history tells us, it's only against such powerful cultural currents that countercultural movements take shape.

Thinking about my life and how I use what Carr calls "the networked computer," I realize that I use it differently from most of my friends. Here are my thoughts on this:

  1. I set up and maintain sites and blogs pretty regularly. Most recently, I've been working on a writing-editing-publishing site that is part of a network established by a writers' group I belong to. I also help a couple of friends with their sites (one of which I set up) and another friend with the blogs he's created for his English classes.
  2. I do editing, production, and design work as well, helping authors and publishers to make books and nonprofit organizations to make promotional materials. I use the Internet to communicate with my clients, to download files they send me, and to send them drafts; otherwise, the work doesn't require me to be connected.
  3. It could be that this kind of work makes it unnecessary for me to have a smartphone. I am connected through my computer—or don't need to be—so a smartphone offers me nothing I don't have. I can tend to my personal relationships, do my job, and run my small business without it.
  4. Does that mean I never use a smartphone? No. Once a week, I use my boyfriend's iPhone to communicate with a family member who prefers to be texted instead of emailed or called. And when we're on the road, I occasionally use his phone to check a movie time or store location. (See "On Smartphones and Deep Thinking," posted June 12, for other thoughts on smartphones.)

The cover spread of a book I produced for El León Literary Arts, of Berkeley, California.

A few days ago, I read an Ello interview with designer and photographer Ben Tremper; near the end is this exchange:

Is there anything special that helps you stay focused?
Music mostly and this thing @amy and I came up with called “Power Hour” where we turn off all notifications, phones, distractions and just go into full concentration mode. It’s amazing how distracting things like email notifications and Slack notifications can be. Turning it all off for one or multiple Power Hours helps you get a lot done.

For me, being unplugged is a relief after spending hours at the computer. Like a phantom limb, though, the computer sometimes tugs at my neural system to respond.

The Shallows interests me greatly not only for its analysis of and commentary on technology but also for its review of some of the events in our development as creative, intelligent, and self-reflective beings. Arriving at the present, Carr sees computer technology as being substantively different, in part because it is so prevalent and invasive. In the prologue, "The Watchdog and the Thief," he says,

As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it—and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society. "The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts," wrote [Marshall] McLuhan. Rather, they alter "patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance."…
Our focus on a medium's content can blind us to these deep effects. We're too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what's going on inside our heads. In the end, we come to pretend that the technology itself doesn't matter. It's how we use it that matters, we tell ourselves. The implication, comforting in its hubris, is that we're in control. The technology is just a tool, inert until we pick it up and inert again once we set it aside.

From what I can see, the setting aside seems to be happening less and less. And as this happens, we become more dependent on our devices to remember, solve, search, and find for us. It's as if the Internet is becoming an all-knowing, all-powerful creature that not only feeds our appetites but also finds new ways to increase our dependency on it.

It seems to me that smartphones are popular in part because most people are using them—a self-perpetuating cycle. Not only is our copycat impulse a fundamental element of our sociality, but in many situations, smartphones are a staple of social interaction. And if we manage to acquire the latest, greatest (for the moment) smartphone, we have an important key to unlocking the admiration and envy of others. If life is a game, the latest smartphone is one of its prizes.

Two discussions seem to be missing from The Shallows, though it might be more accurate to say that Carr chose not to include them. The first is an exploration of how the Internet is causing us to see ourselves differently and, in response, to either modify ourselves or create alternate, more desirable selves. The second is a consideration of the ways in which materialism and consumerism drive the growth of the Internet—and vice versa—for example, in the production of more devices and apps that both simplify and intensify the experience of connecting. These things are intertwined, of course. What kinds of selves are our electronic devices helping us to create? What kinds of selves are we serving up to the forces of marketing and consumerism?

Ironically, increased connectivity to the Internet decreases our connectedness to each other, a topic Sherry Turkle, mentioned by Carr in his afterword, explores in her research and a TED talk.