Saturday, June 05, 2010

Shirky vs. Carr: Battle for the future mind

The Wall Streeet Journal online is playing off two authors of recent books with opposing premises:

Clay Shirky with his optimistic view of how the Internet is making us smarter by giving us more freedom to expand our minds, as discussed in his book, Cognitive Surplus

Nicholas Carr with his more pessimistic take on how the Internet is making us think more shallowly, from his book, The Shallows

As both a fanatical book reader and a collaboration technology specialist, I appreciate both views so this is a fascinating dialectic for me. So far I give the edge to Carr for realism and depth based on the articles, but I haven't read both books yet and of course I have my own bias as well.

Both authors share the common understanding that the way we read shapes the way we think, but they take away different lessons from that. I am reading Carr and he seems to have a good handle on the tradeoffs between the high velocity high diversity web tech reading mode and the undistracted reflective book reading mode. I haven't read Shirky, I don't know how realistic he is about the tradeoffs. His article seems a bit Panglossian.

Since I create web tech for clients for a living, I realize how powerful this technology is, but I am also often in a position to see how it affects their thinking. My biggest challenges in helping people think together using portals and knowledge management tech involve getting them to think about the content in a useful way rather than just clicking on things and making hasty choices. My objective in a good portal site is to encourage people to ask the right questions to the solve real problems faced by the team. Just putting links up on a page is helpful, but it makes a real difference to the outcome to have a structure that guides thinking.

Shirky seems to assume that greater cognitive freedom will automatically be used well because cognitive surplus will somehow make people want to be responsible for their own understanding.

Carr takes the view that media are not just neutral tools that can be used for better or worse, they actually impose a particular way of thinking and interacting upon us. So the freedom Shirky prizes has unspoken structure to it that we take for granted. I think this has a very strong basis in scientific theory as well, from a variety of fields. The symbolic mind did not arise out of nowhere as part of the modern brain macro structure. We know from modern neuroscience research that the brain is far more plastic than we previously assumed, and we know that abstract symbolic thinking involved distinct changes in the brain. It is entirely plausible that over time the nature of each type of media has shaped the brain in different ways. Every step had its tradeoffs.

Our assumption that in every age the tradeoff was always purely for the best ... that's the definition of a Panglossian view.

Maybe it's just my own bias as a book lover, but so far I think Carr has a more realistic view of the tradeoffs involved and understands better real advantages and disadvantages of the different kinds of media.

In one sense, the power of web tech is very obvious. Authors often find me talking about their books and contact me to start a dialog. That's a pleasure I rarely had when writing in a more traditional format. I am exposed to far more interesting material on the web than I could ever manage to gather up in a bookstore. But then I do have to isolate myself for a while from the distractions in order to really dig into a good book and engage the mind of its author and think deeply about their points.

Those are the tradeoffs for me, and if Carr is right, future generations won't have both options.

I'm looking forward to reviewing the Carr book when I'm done.

Update 6/5: Jonah Lehrer had this excellent NYT review of Carr which so far I largely agree with:

Update 6/6: Wen Stephenson on Bostom.Com with another good review:

Update 6/10: Carr's own blog "RoughType" has a list of reviews as well: and there's a wonderful conversation between Nicholas Carr, Jonah Lehrer and others on Jonah Lehrer's blog "Frontal Cortex" at

Update 6/20: Jonah Lehrer reviews Clay Shirky:

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