Shallow thinking

I’ve just received my copy of The Shallows.\1/ I’m looking forward to reading it, but not right now, as I’ve several other books on the go at the moment. I did, however, peek at the prologue where Carr mentions McLuhan (how could he not?), and the fact that the Internet is the latest medium to spur the debate on the impact of new media.

It struck me that while the Internet revolution may be as significant, or more significant than the Gutenburg revolution, there is an interesting difference. (Perhaps Carr will cover this in the book.) In the Internet Age we have the impact of visual representations (on television and in films [movies]) of what computer technology might be able to achieve. People in Gutenburg’s time experienced a revolution that unfolded over time, but we are in the middle of one that has been imagined ahead of time, and in considerable detail. That must surely have a major impact on how the revolution will play out, for reality is fast outpacing our earliest imaginings.

The Matrix is one powerful representation, but I suspect that Star Trek is more powerful, for it is in Star Trek that (information) technology is presented as ubiquitous and almost totally benign. I don’t mean the original Star Trek series, but the more recent ones: Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and even Enterprise. It is the great boon to society. Everything can be solved by means of technology, and usually instantaneously. Information is always somehow available. It is only in the face of unexplained interference or sabotage that the tense drama of being stranded in hostile terrain can be played out, but those scenarios are few and far between. (How is is that crew members can get stuck in turbolifts when site-to-site transport can be used in other emergencies?) More often, Star Trek captains command their chief engineers to solve impossible problems in unbelievably short timescales. And they always achieve the impossible. Mission Impossible happens in every episode to the nth degree. Kirk, Picard, Sisco and Janeway are not the real heroes, rather they are Scotty, Chief O’Brien, and B’Elana Torres.

And this presentation of technology affects many other more popular films and television series, so even those who have never seen Star Trek see the Star Trek Paradigm visualized regularly. Mobile [cell] phones may not be Star Trek communicators or tricorders, but they are the twenty-first century prototypes of twenty-fourth century fiction. We want the Internet to become what the Federation Database has become.

This advance visualization must have a massive impact on the Internet Revolution. The Internet already affects the way we speak: we no longer look things up, we google them. And it must surely be affecting the way we think. The Big Switch\2/ made a lot of sense of things for me, and I’m hoping Carr will do the same in The Shallows. But no matter the pressure of the instantaneous Internet, I will savour the deferred gratification of holding back starting until I can devote sufficient time to serious reading and reflection.



1. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember (London: Atlantic Books, 2010).

2. Nicholas Carr, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (New York: W W Norton, 2008).

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