Two books that I consider must-reads for anyone concerned about the social and economic impact of new technologies are The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, by Clay Shirky.
I read both, I should add, as eBooks downloaded to my iPad.
Carr takes the reader on a tour of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience to make a very convincing argument that the Internet – or rather, the way we tend to behave on the Internet – is, in fact, having a substantive impact on our brains. We are quickly losing the ability to “read deeply,” as he puts it, and are instead becoming a society of people skilled at very rapid, efficient, and yet ultimately shallow thinking.
I’m convinced about the rewiring – mostly – though I don’t see the impact of it quite as grimly as Carr. Regardless, I have no doubt there are consequences that organizations will need to keep in mind as they seek to engage customers and members.
Partly the issue is one of attention: how do you get anyone to notice what you have to say in the first place? Anyone paying attention has already heard a lot about that one. But Carr’s book looks more closely at how we construct – or don’t construct – knowledge as we go about our day-to-day activity on the Internet. If Carr is right, and you sell anything that requires some level of learning and reflection prior to a purchase or join decision, the conclusions are worrisome to say the least.
In the meantime, I am happy to report that I had no problem reading deeply and finishing Carr’s book on the iPad.
Shirky’s view of the changes the Internet has brought are much more optimistic than Carr’s. He sees television and other traditional forms of mass media as forces that essentially hijacked our minds over the past century. The non-work time that we had available to us for mental activity was absorbed by watching Gilligan’s Island, Dancing with the Stars, and other mindless programming. The social Web has now given us the opportunity to take back that time, to use our “cognitive surplus” in much more dynamic and meaningful ways. Shirky makes a convincing case that this shift is already well under way.
In many ways, Shirky’s view is the glass half full to Carr’s glass half empty. I tend to share Shirky’s seeming optimism, but also his assertion that leveraging the cognitive surplus for public and civic good (as opposed to generating countless LOLcat-type initiatives) is hard work – work for which we need to be better preparing ourselves.