While reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, I’ve become a bit scared of our future but also not as concerned. The book is about what the presence of technologies like Google are doing to our brains. Carr theorizes that as we grow more accustomed to technology that allows us to quickly look up information (the Internet), we will gradually lose the ability to store this information. One of the examples he uses for how technologies change our thought patterns is movable type and the book. When books printed with the Gutenberg press were introduced, there was a major change in culture — there was no longer special status for those that could remember long stories and those that could do the beautiful artwork found in older books were no longer revered in the same manner. Humans changed their ideas of intelligence. Those that could learn information from books and make concrete thoughts and arguments from what they learned in those books were suddenly the most intelligent. Who is going to be considered the most intelligent in our new Internet society?
One of the real issues I have with the change in how we think relates to how we find the info that we formerly used to keep in our brains. Currently, we use services like Google and Yahoo. They are built in a way that makes what we think is important be the first links (this is done through various algorithms). Yes, we can change these algorithms as time goes on to better match our thinking, but what happens when we no longer can truly analyze situations due to the lack of ability to remember things? Personally, the less I know and remember about a topic, the less likely I will be to form coherent, in-depth analysis on of the topic. I fear that we will see a negatively exponential decline of our analytical skills — and in turn, our ability to craft search algorithms to our current thought processes. How can we solve our problems when we can’t remember the major tenets of the problems?
Conversely, I am intrigued by how humanity has changed with the changes in technology. I can’t say that our previously mentioned view of intelligence (those who can remember the most stuff) is better than our current view (those who can make the best argument based on what they know). I think this view has brought us some of the best aspects of our current society. Would Milton have been able to envision the marketplace of ideas if he was more concerned with remembering stuff? Would Einstein have been able to develop the theory of relativity if he was busy trying to remember every principle of physics along with some folk stories? Humans are an incredibly adaptable species and I think (and hope) we can move past this next move into “the shallows.” If we can’t, I’m very concerned for society but I haven’t found any compelling historical examples that would prove we can’t.