Posts Tagged ‘Bill Keller’

King Ludd himself: Nicholas Carr on little bits of information flying across a screen

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Tiny bits of data zinging into your brain

I posted a couple weeks ago on Nicholas Carr‘s newest takedown of technology.  That was a few days after I wrote about Bill Keller‘s apparently unpopular column, “The Twitter Trap.”

James Temple’s dot.commentary over at the San Francisco Chronicle acknowledged the buzz: “The general take was that he was an old-media Luddite threatened by things he couldn’t understand. If Keller is a Luddite within these circles, Nicholas Carr is King Ludd himself, ready to smash the machines to preserve a world long ago lost.”

Well that’s not quite true.  Carr, when Temple tracked him down last week for a Q&A: said: “There are all sorts of benefits, intellectual or cognitive, that we get from the Internet. The most obvious is the fact that it’s much easier to find information than it was in the past, and that’s obviously a huge benefit in many instances. It’s also much easier to communicate very quickly with lots of people, and that can help a lot, particularly when you’re trying to solve particular problems.”

However, he added, “I think you really have no choice but to try to restrict the amount of time and the amount of mental energy that goes into watching information fly by on the screen.”

That’s kind of tame.  Then he was asked about the buzz he and Keller stirred:

Is contemplative thought expendable?

Q: There seems to be a reflexive reaction to your ideas in the tech world. When Bill Keller raised questions about Twitter in his recent column, some said dismissively that he was channeling Nicholas Carr, like it was an obvious insult. What do you think drives that kind of response?

A: One is that a lot of people, particularly people in the tech world, are deeply invested in technology. I mean economically invested, although they are also ideologically invested. Central to their thinking is that progress in computers equates to progress of humanity and society.

If you’re working in this area, that assumption makes you feel good about yourself and so you want to defend it when you hear someone making basic criticisms. Your natural reaction is to paint a caricature of nostalgia or Ludditism. That seems to be a completely normal reaction.

And second, I think there are simply people who don’t share my belief that more contemplative thought is important. They think getting as much information and processing it as quickly as possible, is really the height of their intellectual life. If you don’t care about quiet or more contemplative thought, then obviously you’re not going to even understand where I’m coming from.

Now that‘s scary.  Read the whole thing here.  Meanwhile, cheer up!  According to ReadWriteWeb, websites – including this one – will disappear within the next few years.  Boy, will that be a whole bunch of time down the toilet.

Meanwhile, Sara Barbour over at the Los Angeles Times thinks Kindle is way overrated – here.

Are we “outsourcing our brains to the cloud?” asks Bill Keller.

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, recently let his 13-year-old daughter join Facebook – my goodness, how had he stopped her before then?  Within a few hours she had over 170 friends, “and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth,” he admits.

This launches him on a meditation of our times. The column appeared last week, but in my travels I hadn’t gotten a chance to post a few words about it – nor have I had time to read all the comments, many of which are nuanced and excellent. It’s worth a look if you missed it.

Frank Wilson over at Books Inq. put this under the heading “More Complaining,” but I’m not so sure that’s the whole story.  I’ve made the same lament, and it’s not simply a curmudgeon criticizing the kids of today – I’ve noticed my own inability to concentrate without an every-five-minute squirt of dopamine from Twitter or Facebook … and yet, and yet, how else would I have met Arthur Sebastian Rosman, had not someone suggested our introduction on Facebook? (Actually, he had translated one of the essays in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, but he was just a name at the bottom of the page, back then.) I keep up with family, friends, and colleagues on Facebook, just as I rely on various news aggregators for news, and blogs for off-the-beaten track news.  Moreover, I’ve downloaded Henry IV, Part 2 onto my new Droid.

Yet I find it harder and harder to memorize a short poem.  Heavens, I find it harder and harder to read a short poem.  I find it harder and harder to get into that slow, reflective space where I can think long thoughts.  Keller writes:

As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. The capacity to remember prodigiously still exists (as Foer proved by training himself to become a national memory champion), but for most of us it stays parked in the garage.Sometimes the bargain is worthwhile; I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite Middlemarch. But [Joshua Foer’s  Moonwalking With Einstein] reminds us that the cognitive advance of our species is not inexorable.

My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?

Robert Bjork, who studies memory and learning at U.C.L.A., has noticed that even very smart students, conversant in the Excel spreadsheet, don’t pick up patterns in data that would be evident if they had not let the program do so much of the work.

He concludes:

Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and “Real Housewives.” But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.

The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?

The irony, the irony … I found the column because of an online news aggregator, and I read it on an Apple screen.  Now I am blogging about it.

OK, Frank. Call me grumpy.

(I’ll be in a literal cloud in 12 hours, back to the U.S.A.,  after spending a lot of zlotys and a lot of time getting 20 pounds of books from my travels into the Polish mail today.)

Postscript on June 3:  By now everyone knows that Bill Keller has stepped down as executive editor.  Apparently, NYT staffers had to intervene in his hate-hate relationship with Arianna Huffington and the new social media.  Could that be part of the reason why?