The Shallows author joined us to discuss just why attention is so important.
Is the internet making us stupid? What is the difference between information and knowledge – and why does it matter?
This week we’re in conversation with Nicholas Carr. Nick is an acclaimed writer whose work focuses on the intersection of technology, economics, and culture. In 2008, he wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“. His subsequent book, The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, was the first of its kind, calling on us to question the value of the internet and the impact that it was having on our brains.
A New York Times bestseller when it was first published and now hailed as a modern classic, The Shallows won the Pulitzer Prize and has been translated into 25 languages. It remains a touchstone for debates on technology’s effects on our thoughts and perceptions. And a second edition of the shallows was published in 2020.
In this episode we discuss:
- what led Nicholas to write the book and why it was so important
- the relationship between the internet, information, knowledge, memory, and our brains
- just why attention is so important
This episode is part of a new mini-series, which explores ‘who’s in control – the tech, or us?’ Look out for subsequent episodes with Nir Eyal, Adam Alter, and Anna Lembke, when they will be sharing their own views.
Georgie: Nicholas, thank you so much for joining us today on Freedom Matters. It’s absolutely fantastic to have you here.
Nicholas: Thank you, my pleasure.
Georgie: Well, so I’m going to start 10 or 11 years ago now, when you initially wrote The Shallows. And to start with, it would be great to understand what was going on in your life, and really what led you to write that book, why you thought it was important to write that book at that time?
Nicholas: Yeah. It began as a personal story about self-diagnosis because I had been a technology writer for quite a long time, loved computers, loved the internet. And around, I guess, 2007-2008, I started having this sense that my mind was being warped by the technology by being online a lot, on the web a lot. And in particular, I found it very, very hard to concentrate, to clear my mind and just focus on one thing for a long period of time.
And I particularly noticed it when it came to reading, reading a book or a long essay, or anything, it had become a struggle. For me, what seemed clear, but I wasn’t quite convinced myself at the time was that the technology, and particularly, the technology of the internet was retraining my brain to expect constant stimuli, the type of thing you get whenever you open up a computer or a phone these days.
I was suspicious of this, at first, that technology could affect the way I think, even when I’m not using the technology. And that’s what started me down the path of research, historical research in the media, scientific research into neuroscience, and how the brain adapts to technology. That ultimately, culminated with The Shallows.
Georgie: And how was it received when you first published it back in 2010?
Nicholas: Yeah. It was controversial, I offered what I think is a pretty damning examination of the internet’s effects on how we think. And I did find lots of evidence that it was and continues to undermine our ability to concentrate. And so as you can imagine, back in 2010, when the book came out, we were still in the midst of a love affair, particularly in the United States, but I think elsewhere as well, a love affair with technology and with Silicon Valley.
There was a very broad spectrum of reactions from complete dismissal. Like, “What is this guy talking about criticizing the internet? How dare he.” To people who said, “Oh, finally, somebody is actually confessing to something that I’m also feeling.” So, it kind of struck a chord with many people who I think were struggling with distractions and interruptions. But it also very much irritated those who wanted to believe only good things about the internet.
Georgie: Yeah. And it’s interesting, because I think it’s a love affair that is ongoing, and so many of those sentiments are still true today. And we’ll talk a bit about that later on in the conversation. But the main premise of the book, and it’s related to the argument you make that humans for a long time basically, we have ideas beyond our own capabilities. We want to be able to achieve more than we are physically capable or mentally capable of.
And so technology has always been in our nature because it helps us to extend what we are capable of. Whether that’s physically through things like the Plough or extending our senses with things like microscopes, reshaping nature so we can live alongside it better. Heating is a good example of that. And then also technologies which increase our intellectual capabilities as well.
So, you talked a lot about clocks and maps. But at the heart, I guess, of your argument you’re saying that the way that we’re using information technology now or the internet now, indeed, how we were using it back in 2010, is not increasing our capabilities as humans. If anything, it’s limiting them. Why were you saying that? Why did you think that? What were you observing?
Nicholas: I think one thing that’s distinctive about media technologies, information technologies, is that it has a very profound influence on the way we think, because it provides the environment in which we gather information.
And so if you look, and I tried to look historically in the book back to the development of writing, through the development of books, and I argue that one thing we saw when we began to read on paper, on pages, is that the technology itself helped us to do something which is unnatural for human beings. And that is concentrate. We’re naturally open to distraction and interruption. We want to know everything that’s going on around us.
But the technology of the printed page provided almost literally a screen against distractions, and trained us how to pay attention. And that unlocked a whole range of new ways of thinking or at least amplified those ways of thinking, the types of experiences, intellectual experiences you can only have when you’re concentrating and thinking deeply.
And all the associations and connections and metaphorical thinking and conceptual thinking, this all comes from the ability to actually maintain attention for a long period of time, to control your own attention rather than let the environment control it.
With the internet and the online world, in general, we had almost the opposite effect. This was a technology that wasn’t a screen against distraction, but actually gave us immeasurably more distractions than we’d ever had. And kind of everything about the way the technology is designed, it’s multimedia, it’s very responsive, you click on something, you get something new immediately.
It brings us back to a time before we were able to pay attention when the environment determined what we thought about. The environment that the internet creates for us is this environment of constant interruption, constant stimuli. And as a result, it becomes harder and harder to control our own minds and pay attention. And thus, we’re cutting ourselves off from what I think are the highest capabilities of the human mind.
Georgie: And can you talk a bit more about them? So, why is attention so important?
Nicholas: I think we’ve come to think that simply gathering information is sufficient to thinking deeply. And the internet certainly provides an incredible amount of information overlapping in all sorts of ways and coming at us all the time.
What’s missing from that sense of our intellect is the fact that gathering information actually is only the first stage in thinking deeply. Once you have the raw material, to think deeply about that you have to stop gathering information, you have to shield yourself from distractions. And when you do that, you can suddenly take in this new information, put it into a broader context, your own personal knowledge.
And then that’s when you start making all these connections. And it’s those connections and associations, not the raw little bits of information that really gives depth to our thinking. It’s what allows us to think conceptually, it’s what allows us to think oftentimes, creatively, we’re very good at taking in and spewing out information. But we’re not making the deep connections that are, I think, essential to deep thinking.
Georgie: It’s interesting you talk about how it’s in many ways is actually just a reversion to our natural instinct. But what you’re saying here is that really we’ve evolved beyond that and society has moved on quite considerably since hunter gatherer times, and we had to run from the incoming lion. And the problems that we now have to solve as a civilization are obviously, a lot more complex.
You talked quite a lot in your book about two neurological implications of the way that we’re changing our thinking. And you talked about neuroplasticity, and you talked about memory. Perhaps you could summarize quickly how our new ways of consuming information are actually affecting these important components of our brain.
Nicholas: One of the fundamental questions you come up against when you’re talking about technology, in our minds, is, how can a tool, a technology change the way we think even when we’re not using the technology? And the answer to that comes through the discoveries that neuroscientists have made about what they call neuroplasticity, the fact that our brains are constantly changing, physically changing, to adapt to change in our environment.
And so what happens is that, as we spend more and more time in the environment created by the internet, our brains change because our brains become optimized for gathering lots of information, for shifting our focus, for making rapid kind of responses to all sorts of stimuli, but necessarily, something has to be lost. When you’re optimizing for distraction and interruption, your brain begins to lose the capacity to pay attention.
So, I think all the discoveries that have been made in the last few decades about neuroplasticity gives us an explanation for why, at a physical anatomical level, these technologies can have a profound influence on the way we think. As for memory, I think if you look at how a lot of people respond to the internet, they say, “Oh, you know, it gives us this hugely expanded memory.” Because everything, we can find everything online, all facts, photos of what we did two years ago, whatever.
And so you hear people say, “Hey, we don’t have to remember things anymore,” because it’s all out there. What’s missing there, it’s great to have all this information available to us. But what’s lost in our sense that, oh, now our memory doesn’t matter, is that in order to have deep thoughts, you have to have a rich store of memories, whether it’s facts or experiences. And you really need to process that deeply, which requires attention.
What gives us rich memories is paying attention to information. If our thoughts are always scattered, and we’re always shifting our focus, then we have weak memories in which we’re not connecting new information to everything we know, in our minds. And I think that’s what we lose when we become so dependent on external sources of memory.
You can grab information through Google or whatever all day long, but if you’re not processing that deeply, if you’re not, as brain scientists say, if you’re not consolidating that into rich memories, you’re always going to have a superficial mind.
Georgie: It’s like we have access to everything, but we can use none of it in a way that is actually useful. It’s so interesting.
Nicholas: There’s certainly no question that the brain is most malleable, most plastic, to use the scientific jargon, during the first 20 years of a person’s life. That’s when you’re both building the connections, the neurological connections, and also pruning away once you’re not using a lot. Yes.
So, people who use the technology intensively from a young age, their minds are going to be more adapted to it. And certainly, I think what that means is they’re going to have more of a struggle to control their own minds, and to be attentive and to shield themselves, screen out distractions.
Now, will those be offset by neurological or intellectual changes that are beneficial? I don’t know. I’m dubious, because to me, and some of this comes down to a value judgment about what you think is most valuable about the human mind. But I do think that our basic ability to be attentive is not going to change because of the technology. You can’t be distracted and be attentive at the same time. And you’re never going to be able to do that. It’s just not possible because our brains don’t work that way.
So, yes, people might be better at reading social messages very quickly, and getting the gist out of them and responding very quickly and in doing that type of thing. But will that make up for the loss of deep attentive thought? My own feeling is that no, it won’t.
Over the last 10 years, I think people have become more aware that technology is making them less attentive. It is scattering their thoughts. I think, at this point, most people feel that viscerally that there’s something lost here. But at the same time, what we’ve seen in the last 10 years is the rise of the smartphone, and the rise of social media. And you could not possibly design two technologies to be more distracting, more interrupting, more grabbing hold of our mind moment by moment all day long.
So, I think on the one hand, our attitudes have become more skeptical about the technology. But the technology itself continues, in fact, at a markedly higher rate of speed continues to go down the path of keeping us even more distracted. So, yeah, I do think attitudes have changed, but I don’t think behavior has changed. And a lot of that has to do with the design of the technology itself.
One thing that’s interesting is now that researchers are looking at social media and smartphones in particular, they’re finding out new things about why these technologies have such a profound hold on our minds. You could say, without being too alarmist, you could say that these are mind control technologies.
And what it turns out, is going on, and this comes from very recent research that shows that when people have their phones near them, even if the phone is turned off completely, quite a large part of their attention is still focused, even though it’s subconscious on the phone.
And the reason that’s true has to do with something that in our minds that’s called the salience network. Our minds are attracted to those things in the environment that we think are most important or most likely to provide us with new, interesting, socially important information.
And what the smartphone has done, particularly because of all the social media apps, is it has become the most salient thing in our environment all the time. We’ve created a technology that is almost ideally suited to maintain a perpetual hold on part of our attention.
And what that leads to, and this also comes out of this research is that when our phones are around and they’re always around, let’s face it, we perform worse on problem solving experiments tests, we perform worse on tests of how we’re able to control our attention. We even perform worse on social tests.
For instance, if your phone’s around and you’re having an in-person conversation with someone, you’ll report less satisfaction with that conversation and less empathy with the other person.
So, I think what we’ve learned in many ways is it’s kind of a deeper level of understanding of why this technology has such a profound pull on our mind and on our attention, not only when we’re using it, but all the time.
Georgie: Yeah, because it is our social fabric now. And I guess even more so in this very kind of remote, isolated world. And has it been more commonly accepted, or do you still feel that at times you’re branded the Luddite?
Nicholas: Oh, I’m still at times branded the Luddite. But even still, I think that at this point, the overwhelming majority of people believe that this technology is creating problems. They might not believe it deeply enough to actually change their behavior, but they’ve seen around them and inside them changes that are making them uncomfortable. I might still be called a Luddite, but the argument is not being dismissed.
Georgie: Indeed. Okay. So, then switching tack a bit, then, as a writer who’s really aware of these issues, how do you manage your thought process? How do you manage your writing? How do you stay clear of distraction?
Nicholas: Well, I wish I could say I stay clear of distraction. Despite being called a Luddite, I use the technology a lot. And in fact, let me say that as a nonfiction writer, certainly, the ability to do research quickly online is extremely helpful. It speeds everything up. But I do, I constantly struggle with distraction and with the pull of the technology.
So, I do think that there are a couple of things you can do that are helpful, at a personal level. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is start living part of your life without having your phone on your person. So, whether it’s having a meal with people or going for a walk.
The big mistake is to think, “Oh, my phone is part of me and it always has to be with me.” Because as soon as you break that link, as soon as you say, no, this is a tool, and it’s good in some cases, and it’s not good in other cases. Then you can begin to retrain your mind to not expect constant stimulation and constant distraction. So, that’s something I try to do.
The other things you can do are just turn off any notifications. The introduction of automated notifications, particularly through social media, but also through all sorts of apps, that has been incredibly distracting. And I don’t think actually provides that much value to us. What those kinds of notifications do is allow your phone to determine what you think about instead of you determining what you think about. So, turning those off.
So, I do think there are steps that can be taken to reduce the influence of the technology on us. But I have to say, I think this is going to be an ongoing struggle for anyone who, whether for professional reasons or personal reasons, wants to spend at least some time thinking attentively and thinking deeply.
Georgie: Yeah. And then when you’re writing, because you’re talking a lot about how it’s hard now to do deep reading, and deep reading is important if we’re trying to get our head around kind of complex ideas. Lots of us find it very difficult to do that now.
Do you think about how your content is going to be consumed when you write it and how digestible it may be for the majority given that so many of us now find it hard to manage lengthy and complex texts?
Nicholas: I try to resist that temptation because it would turn me into a kind of writer I don’t want to be, who plays to short attention spans. And in fact, back when I wrote The Shallows, one of the reasons I organized the book in the way I did, if you haven’t read the book, it goes off in lots of different directions, and then circles back to the main point.
And one of the reasons I did that was to make it very hard to skim the book, because the book is a criticism of our skimming and scanning biases these days. So, I deliberately made the book, organized the book in a way that would make it very hard to skim, you’d be lost very quickly. And maybe this was perverse of me or whatever. But what I hoped was it would be the kind of book that if you were going to read it, you actually had to pay attention to it.
Still, to me, I think as a writer that remains both a big challenge. But also what makes writing interesting and satisfying to me is leading the reader through complicated thoughts and open-ended thoughts, and not simply providing seven facts that will help you enjoy your day better or something; the kind of writing that takes it for granted that people are going to be incredibly distracted. To me, to write that way would not be particularly satisfying. So, I try to resist that temptation.
Georgie: Yeah. And even your blog posts are. You got to sit down with a cup of coffee and make sure you’ve got some headspace to go through them. Interesting. And then, to finish on a positive note, I’d like to ask you, is there something within technology or an element, a piece of technology that you are particularly excited about?
Nicholas: I need to think about that. Certainly, the answer is yes. I think as we’ve seen during the pandemic, even though I’m critical of a lot of social media technologies, I think it’s pretty clear that if we hadn’t had the ability to gather together virtually and to have meetings virtually through our computers, the pandemic and the isolation people felt would have been even worse.
So, on the one hand, even though I’m critical about the technology, I’m also grateful it was around. And I think that gets to a bigger point, which is my intent is not to say we shouldn’t use these very powerful technologies. My intent is to say that we need to have a more balanced way of thinking and behaving around the technologies, where we understand both their strengths and their weaknesses, and not simply look at our phones or our computers as all-purpose tools that we need to use for everything we do.
Because I think that’s a mistake, and I think that dooms us, on the one hand, to leading less interesting lives, and certainly, less interesting intellectual lives. But it also dooms us to being evermore manipulated by the big companies that control the technology.
Georgie: I completely agree. Okay. One last question that we ask everybody, and that is, what does productivity mean to you?
Nicholas: To me, productivity has more to do, and I’m speaking here as a writer, I guess, has more to do with the quality of what you produce than necessarily with the quantity. So, it’s less about efficiency and more about producing something that is fulfilling to me, and satisfying to me. It still is more important to me to do good work than to do work quickly.
Georgie: Brilliant. Nick, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast. It was really fantastic speaking with you, and it’s left us with lots of food for thought. So, we are very grateful.
Nicholas: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. I really enjoyed it.