I just finished reading Nicholas Carr‘s The Big Switch in anticipation of getting a copy of his new book The Shallows. This troubling excerpt towards the end of the book hints at where he takes The Shallows and gives a less-than-utopian view of our dependency on all things web-related:
The printed page, the dominant information medium of the past 500 years, molded our thinking through…”its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline.” The emphasis of the Internet, our new universal medium, is altogether different. It stresses immediacy, simultaneity, contingency, subjectivity, disposability, and, above all, speed. The Net provides no incentive to stop and think deeply about anything, to construct in our memory [a] “dense repository” of knowledge…It’s easier “to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves.”
The implications are unsettling. As we advance toward an age where we will undoubtedly augment our reality and perception with computer-assisted technology (the old “jack me in” philosophy that is particularly prevalent to cyberpunk and no longer describes something terribly far off in our future), there’s a immense probability that, rather than using these technologies to enhance our natural ability to think and learn and remember, we will instead be using them instead of thinking, learning or remembering. Why bother remembering a date or a concert, when you can store it to a flash memory card with a thought? Why bother remembering appointments, birthdays. We already supplement our experience of important events (your child’s birth, for example) with cameras and video recordings, so much so that — I believe — we lose a sense of the moment, we are no longer present and active participants. Instead, we give up our participation in favor of participating later through recorded media. There’s no doubt in my mind that if a storage device was invented that allowed you to offload your memories to an external hard drive, that people would end up using that rather than remembering things themselves. And then, what? We lose the ability to remember how to remember?
It’s easy to see these technologies — a chip implanted in your brain to “enhance” some function or other and plug you in constantly to the Net, which Carr says we’ll start seeing within the next 20-30 years — replacing our natural functions in much the same way as a drug. A heroin addict is unable to quit because their body no longer naturally produces endorphins, relying, instead on the artificial endorphins provided by the drug. The same thing could happen with our memories and knowledge and ability to process data organically — when a chip can do it faster, more accurately, and store the information more permanently in more detail, why bother with these messy meat shells at all? Except, possibly, to avoid being a vegetable when the chip’s taken out…