I have the honor of being the designated interviewee in the March issue of The Sun magazine. The interview, by Arnie Cooper, covers a lot of ground, and it’s been posted in its entirety on The Sun’s site. Here’s a taste:
Cooper: Do you think computers have harmed our relationship with nature?
Carr: I certainly think they’ve gotten in the way of our relationship to nature. As we increasingly connect with the world through computer screens, we’re removing ourselves from direct sensory contact with nature. In other words, we’re learning to substitute symbols of reality for reality itself. I think that’s particularly true for children who’ve grown up surrounded by screens from a young age. You could argue that this isn’t necessarily something new, that it’s just a continuation of what we saw with other electronic media like radio or tv. But I do think it’s an amplification of those trends.
Cooper: What about the interactivity of the Internet? Isn’t it a step above the passivity that television engenders?
Carr: The interactivity of the Net brings a lot of benefits, which is one of the main reasons we spend so much time online. It lets us communicate with one another more efficiently, and it gives us a powerful new means of sharing our opinions, pursuing our interests and hobbies with others, and disseminating our creative works through, for instance, blogs, social networks, YouTube, and photo-publishing sites. Those benefits are real and shouldn’t be denigrated. But I’m wary of drawing sharp distinctions between “active” and “passive” media. Are we really “passive” when we’re immersed in a great novel or a great movie or listening to a great piece of music? I don’t think so. I think we’re deeply engaged, and our intellect is extremely active. When we view or read or listen to something meaningful, when we devote our full attention to it, we broaden and deepen our minds. The danger with interactive media is that they draw us away from quieter and lonelier pursuits. Interactivity is compelling because its rewards are so easy and immediate, but they’re often also superficial.
Fantastic interview. Your answers are delivered in such a concise and lucid way that even though I am already familiar with those ideas, it still was a joy to read.
Great interview. Did you happen to see Lady Susan Greenfield’s (a highly respected neuroscientist) comments regarding social networking risking “infantilising” the mind? I saw The Guardian’s take on the article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/feb/24/social-networking-site-changing-childrens-brains); there appear to be a number of versions of events (http://news.google.co.uk/news?ned=uk&ncl=dU-m0c9zk-P3DAM7HwbOldZgbAhLM). The excerpt you posted reminded me of them.
[Apologies; that Google News link was less relevant than I initially thought.]
Sorry, I don’t want a “relationship to nature”. It is hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and contains many creatures both large and small which would like to eat me. I will gladly take air-conditioning, heating, and freedom from predators and pathogens, over “direct sensory contact with nature”.
This is fundamentally where I disagree with you and many others, Nick. There is an idealized, nostalgic view of “nature”, where technology is seen as dehumanizing. Getting eaten by a bear or dying from infection or spending one’s life in backbreaking agricultural labor is a miserable fate, and that’s “nature”. It’s not about philosophers walking around pontificating – those folks were a tiny, very privileged, elite.
“Imagine trying to read a book while simultaneously working on a crossword puzzle. That’s the intellectual environment of the Web. ”
Or imagine trying to think about what’s going on outside/inside/outside a window when three quarters of the brain cells that could be used for the thinking-about find themselves doing the looking-through.
So many swirling dots and so few brain cells left for thinking after you’ve connected them!
Thought provoking, thanks. You quote McLuhan saying “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.” One could apply this to every innovation right from electricity to nuclear reactors to P2P file sharing. Humanity then seems to be stuck with two choices. 1. Don’t bother innovating. 2. Our innovations will change us and our worlds in ways we cannot predict, sometimes for the better and other times for the worse.
I read the article last night in the paper version. :)
I agreed as I read it and was happy that I had just closed The Ambassadors by Henry James, a book I have been trudging through for some weeks. Happy because I recognized that I am understanding the content more readily on p. 144 than I did on p. 10, and happy that I am sitting reading for longer periods.
I also thought about the recent report on NPR (a series) on multi-tasking, especially in today’s young people. They may be skillful at listening to iTunes, IM-ing with friends, working on homework and answering email simultaneously. But when working on homework, it was found that reading something in one sitting, your brain path goes deeper as you build on previous concepts. If you leave it to do something else, when you go back to the reading, your brain doesn’t pick up where it left off. This has stuck with me, and that is one reason I try to read a whole article from beginning to end in one sitting, like your interview.
I found the article very compelling. Might you be suggesting we are creating an adaptation to a way of thinking that ten years ago might have been considered attention deficit disorder? Like any new technology, the conscious choice to use it in one’s best interest will likely rule the day. A contemplative approach to internet use is possible. We are encouraged to be distracted frequently which will feed profitability for marketeers, but we have the choice to get what we need and ignore the rest. Thanks for bringing your insightful thought to my attention. I read the whole article without distraction!
Too bad the interviewer didn’t ask Nick about the influence of computers/Internet in education. Obama’s stimulus plan put a big chunk of money in the hands of tech to put more computers and high speed lines in schools but none to increase teacher pay.
What does that say about the priorities of his administration? Its saying we don’t need teachers. After all – its the computer age and computer skills are more important that interpersonal skills, right?
The sad thing is that that rare talent called teaching, the ability to “turn on the light” inside another human through language, writing and illustrations, is being lost. Today education is just sitting kids in front of computers having them read lessons and then fill out online tests. The human interactive element in teaching is going away. The odd-ball Einstein kids, the under achievers who later do good, are being pushed aside because if they just don’t succeed academically, it’s a matter of lack of “natural talent” – its not the educational systems fault, right? The US could end up like China a country of highly educated people who lack the imagination and talent to produce new kinds of innovations like we had in the past. What was really wrong with the slide rules and a pencil? It created nuclear power and genetics, to name a few?
Greetings Seth, didn’t we have this conversation many moons ago? Your take on nature and the need to be connected thereto is less than convincing.
The “direct sensory contact with nature,” enables a huge variety of sensory and multiple other areas of development. We are talking about regular walks in the woods or a fishing trip, not a Jurassic like experience. Come on; nature implies natural, not contact limited to non natural elements, plastic, metal and synthetic materials that typically fill most children’s rooms and homes. The loss of regular fine and gross motor development because of the constant zombie like need to be planted in front of technology rather than playing outside can lead to a less than healthy developmental process.
Just as much as we are what we eat, the contact we have with our external world forms and shape’s us accordingly.
Nature enlivens our capacities and rests us from the bombardment that this materialistic age wishes to push upon us.
To conclude, there is nothing wrong with labor, in fact I can personally attest to the fact that spending ones working days tending the earth offers myriad opportunities for the development of skills that continue to develop throughout ones life.
As a garden boy on an old country estate, I double dug for weeks on end, sawed wood with a two man saw all winter long, and the list could be very long but suffice it to say, these experiences have resonated in me to become like shining jewels in later life.
Warm regards, Alan
Get real! The idea that nature is a gentle comforting influence is an illusion. At any given time, half of the biomass of the earth is being digested by the other half to be recycled into organisms that are consumed again. The country side may look peaceful and comforting but all the organisms looking back at you see you as food and are waiting for you to re-join the food chain – Bon appétit!
Greetings Linuxguru1968, thanks for letting me know how you view the world of nature. Your statement that “the idea that nature is a gentle comforting influence is an illusion” certainly makes it very clear.
The attached video left me wondering!
I would like to scold you for the lack of temperance within the context of our intercourse; I can only assume that there must be some internal need to suppress with force my point of view. I was hopeful, after reading your comments about teaching that a similarly enlightened attitude might exist regarding nature and its benefits.
Did you ever meet David? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGrQcQ9fWLc
Warm regards, Alan