The paperback edition of The Shallows has just been published and should be in stores now. It includes a new afterword, which takes a look at the mounting backlash against the Net’s cultural hegemony. Here’s an excerpt:
I’ve always been suspicious of those who seek to describe the effects of digital media in generational terms, drawing sharp contrasts between young “Internet natives” and old “Internet immigrants.” Such distinctions strike me as misleading, if not specious. If you look at statistics on Web use over the past two decades, you see that the average adult has spent more time online than the average kid. Parents are as besotted with their BlackBerrys as their children are with their Xboxes. And the idea that those who grow up peering at screens will somehow manage to avoid the cognitive toll exacted by multitasking and persistent interruptions is a fantasy contradicted by neuroscientific research. All of us, young and old alike, have similar neurons and synapses, and our brains are affected in similar ways by the media we use.
Net culture isn’t youth culture; it’s mainstream culture. And my guess is that if the incipient Net backlash expands into a broad movement, the people leading it will be not the nostalgic old but the idealistic young. It’s worth remembering that one of the original targets of the sixties counterculture was the then-new mainframe computer, which seemed to be reducing human beings to strings of numbers. Campus protesters didn’t just burn draft cards; they folded, spindled, and mutilated IBM punch cards. “Punch cards, used for class registration, were first and foremost a symbol of uniformity,” historian Steven Lubar has written, and “they became the symbolic point of attack.”
Those times, and those attitudes, feel like ancient history now. As computers shrank, they became a lot less threatening. Eager for their assistance, we welcomed them into our homes and then into our pockets. But the young are still the enemies of uniformity, and the Internet, as it extends its reach into all the nooks and crannies of our days, is looking more and more like an enormous conduit of conventionality. What are Facebook and Google but giant institutions, arms of the new establishment? What are smartphones if not high-tech leashes? Today, online databases hold more information about us than could fit on a mile-high stack of punch cards. Some kind of rebellion seems in order.