Tools of the mind

One of the things I try to do in The Shallows is to place the Internet into the long history of technologies that have shaped human thought – what I term “intellectual technologies.” In this clip from an interview I did recently with Big Think in New York, I discuss three of those technologies: the map, the mechanical clock, and the printed book.

8 thoughts on “Tools of the mind

  1. Alain Yap, Morph Labs

    As always, great points, Nick.

    May I add that with the printed books came the understanding that ideas could be spread even without the middleman’s discourse or storytelling, that essentially ideas can be communicated and spread not just across space and time and conversely, one can learn what other people think in greater detail thus proving and disproving assumptions formed in relative absence of un-opinionated data.

  2. Dragos

    I liked a lot the observation that the book “shields us from distraction”.

    Now, technology evolved and we invented new ways to distract ourselves like bookmarks (mainly used to refer to interesting webpages) and more recently the “like” button which becomes our social footprint in time.

    Thus my question is “where is the FB “like” button for your very interesting clip (by the way I authenticated my comment with the Facebook account)

  3. oilypicture

    I just fundamentally disagree with the foundation of this post.

    Graphic images predate maps by thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands, but the NATURE of those images can tell you a great deal about the fundamental processing system at work in them. The aboriginal cultures of both the Americas and of Australia were extremely abstract, one could say schematic, where the earliest art in Western Europe is much more visually oriented-“realistic”. The cultures that produced those schematic representations were far more similar to each other than they were different. The same, by comparison could be said of cultures producing realistic or naturalistic images. Human beings were producing graphic representations in the form of tools and toys for tens of thousands of years before they ever produced maps. They produced representations of celestial objects before maps as well. The essential cognitive mechanism of graphic representation was present as software long before it was abstractly applied to represent earthly spaces.

    Carr’s second thesis is that the scientific method is a child of the mechanical clock. Not hardly. Some years ago I read an article in Scientific American about time and the ancients. The article referred to a Greek writer from about 2400 years ago who discussed writings preserved from a thousand years before his time referencing the dates at which certain constellations first rose. This was something any student of science at the time would have been well familiar with. The writer noted that there was a difference of some weeks, a little over two, in the ancient dates and the then contemporary dates. After some discussion of his method the ancient writer deduced the precession of the Earth’s axis of rotation and gave it a value near what we know today to be its true value of 22,000 years. (So guess what ELSE he had to know!)

    We do know the Greeks developed some sort of calculating mechanism called today the “Antikythera Mechanism” for the place at which it was found, but it was a PRODUCT of the scientific method that had thrived in a special culture for nearly a thousand years rather than the seed of that intellectual revolution.

    But what of Carr’s special assignation of great importance to the invention of the printing press? Of course there were also great libraries in the Greek world. In “Cosmos” Carl Sagan spends an entire show the fulcrum of which was the great library at Alexandria.

    Carr acts as though books alone had the power to exclude the world in a way unique in human experience, but books, particularly in the time of the Alexandrian library, were the heirs of sweeping traditions passed in verse through countless generations of oral storytellers. There is good reason to believe ancient cave art was used in the process of storytelling. There were certainly travelling storytellers who would pass tales of the glory of the ancients from village to village. Each of these used a capacity humans have had for tens of thousands of years in great abundance- to be led through a process of imaging events they could never actually experience.

    Carr’s central thesis is just wrong. The technologies did not make us what we are. They simply made a different use of what our brains have done since the hardware of our species was set more than a hundred thousand years ago.

  4. John Schoettler

    Nick, well stated as usual.

    What are your thoughts on the ‘Gamification’ of our culture and how that will change and influence how the mind works? The January issue of NewScientist goes into detail about this trend and recently posted a short video on it @

  5. D.K. Wilson

    As a once and future columnist/blogger, I never thought of myself as a parasite, unless you count the world as the host…


    I find the explanations of the importance of the map, clock, book, and Internet woefully narrow and actually intellectually dishonest.

    There are prehistoric and barely “historic” depictions of a round world when denizens of Western culture believed the world was flat.I mention this because maps have been around in many forms far longer than any popular notion.

    However, the purpose of the map – as contextualized by Mr. Carr – was to stifle thought and imagination, and confine the human to a certain space.

    Similarly, the clock was derived for the purpose of defining work as a monetary unit describing the societal servitude to a higher human authority.

    The book was derived as a portable tool the “powers that be” forever more could use to refashion history and the ever-passing present in their image – and therefore shape human thought, forcing the denizens of the West to conform or be branded as an “outsider.”

    Additionally, the book and the ability to twist reality through its words provided the means for Western conquest. The most popular book – The Bible (THE book) – was and is used to forever highlight the notion of the “Other” as a primitive and evil enemy to be made subservient to Western ideals, or to be wiped from the face of the Earth.

    No Western “thought changer” has had a positive influence on our society, as none was derived for a positive purpose, and that includes the Internet, which was derived as an Intranet to allow the government to share its secrets more quickly with itself and nothing else.

    The Internet as we know it is, today, a tool used by its users mostly as a pervasive source of distraction from life and by its makers for control those of the distracted.


    Oily picture writes:

    “Each of these used a capacity humans have had for tens of thousands of years in great abundance- to be led through a process of imaging events they could never actually experience.”

    I recommend viewing some of the Karl Marlantes (author of Matterhorn) interviews available online, in which he describes one experience he had recently, at a book reading in Berkeley. Many of the original peace protesters were present at the book reading, and Marlantes was expecting a very unfavourable welcome. Similar to that he had experienced many decades back in Washington when performing duties as a young ‘kid’ marine just back from service. On the contrary the author was surprised, in that his book reading provoked an immediate debate amongst those present – in which the experience of events as offered in his book – enabled those present at the bookstore, who came from an opposite end of the ideological spectrum to begin to embrace, what Marlantes felt was the others’ point of view. BOH.

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