There’s a thrift store in Cobourg, Ontario that my wife and I absolutely love. Whenever we are out at the cottage we stop in at this hodge-podge store and look for cheap furniture, kitchen items, and books. Oh, the books. We always return home with more books than we originally brought with us.
Two of the books I picked up this summer are The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr¹ and Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For The Better by Clive Thompson.² The first raises the alarm of how the internet is changing our culture and our brain chemistry. It’s like Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death, but twenty-five years later.³ Carr looks at research about how technology has rewired the synapses in our minds. We’re not thinking the way we once were. The second book refuses to join the wealth of apocalyptic discourse on this subject, highlighting real life experiences of how the internet has positive impact on individuals and communities. Computers provide infinite memory, facilitate public thinking and problem solving, and are shifting our social awareness.
I thought it would be interesting to read these books at the same time so I read one chapter from The Shallows and then one from Smarter, repeating until I finished them both. While I knew the chapters wouldn’t correspond in terms of subject matter, I wanted to be in each writer’s world at the same time.
So which book was better? Which perspective wins the day?
Both books presented summary results of a number of fascinating research studies. Both books surveyed historical developments in writing, printing, and technology, and how they changed people and societies. Both books had important perspective to add to the conversation.
I’m not sure I would describe myself as an optimist (I did write my MA Thesis on Ecclesiastes, after all), but I found myself gravitating towards the stories of possibility outlined by Thompson in Smarter Than You Think rather than the pessimism of Carr in The Shallows.
To be fair, Thompson doesn’t offer a full rebuttal of Carr’s science–he simply suggests that neuroscience is in its infancy [p. 14]. Instead of trying to predict the damage that technology could be doing to us, he focusses on the possibilities that are being explored in the present. He offers stories of what can happen when humans, using rationality, intuition, and analytical skills, collaborate with the extreme memory, search-ability, connectivity, and processing power of computers.
Carr admits his own reliance on and enjoyment of technology [p. 200]. Yet his pages are crowded with alarm bells. He offers very few practical steps forward. He presents no real solutions to the problems he raises. There is just alarm, no inspiration.
Thompson isn’t blindly positive about technology. He offers areas of caution and admits that many of Carr’s fears are warranted [p. 13]. He argues that one of our major challenges of our current day is knowing when not to use digital tools [p. 14]. But these critical issues don’t drown out positive opportunities.
Our world is constantly changing. There will always be advancements in technology that change the way we do things. They will change society. They will change churches. With every change there will be people who raise apocalyptic alarm bells. But there will also be people who see new possibilities and opportunities opening up. I want to be the second kind of person: A person of possibilities.
Does embracing new possibilities and opportunities mean ignoring real issues? No. We need to have wisdom. We need to evaluate how changes in technology affect ourselves and our communities in negative ways. We need to be aware of the critical issues. But we can find solutions to these problems and embrace new possibilities.
Thompson predicts that it will be kids who will domesticate 3-D printing, “just as they were the first to domesticate computers, printers, Photoshop, and video-editing software.” [p. 112]. Why? Because they have free time and no pre-conceptions. May we put aside our pre-conceptions, our apocalyptic dispositions and embrace what could be?