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Book reviews: 'Cognitive Surplus' by Clay Shirky and 'The Shallows' by Nicholas Carr

How is the Internet affecting us, socially and individually? And is it helping? Two authors survey the situation.

June 27, 2010|By Caitlin Roper, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Carr has synthesized a wealth of cognitive research to illustrate how the Internet is changing the way we process information. "The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention," he points out. He is particularly disturbed by the Internet's effect on our relationship with reading: "[I]n the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers," he argues, "we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us." He's got a point; as someone who has loved books since before I could make sense of them, I'll admit that it's harder for me to carve out space to read than ever before. Without question, I spend more time on the Internet than I do reading bound volumes. Yet once I begin a book, I'm still able to focus on its contents.

Be wary of the Internet's effects, Carr warns us. He makes a convincing case that we are altering our brains with every ping and click-though. Shirky, on the other hand, celebrates the possibilities the Internet affords, for civic engagement, for collaboration, for emotional support, for innovation. Who is right? I'd suggest that both of them are. If these books represent an equation that must be solved, we have to ask ourselves what scale of intelligence is more critical for us to evaluate? Is it the Internet's effect on humans individually or on humans as a whole?

We are all part of a bridge generation. We're also part of a massive experiment, and we don't yet know the outcome. But there's enough promise to all this for me to feel comfortable letting it play out, with maximum openness and flexibility, as Shirky suggests. At the same time, I have no doubt Carr is onto something too. We are altering how our minds work, and we are only at the beginning of a profound and unpredictable evolution.

Roper is managing editor of the Paris Review.

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