Get on my lawn, kids

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.

9 thoughts on “Get on my lawn, kids

  1. Nick Carr

    A further note, for the curious: The quotation from Steven Lubar comes from his article “‘Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate’: A Cultural History of the Punch Card,” which you can read here.

  2. Jonathanfvernon

    Mark Prensky coineed the terms ‘Diigital Native’ and ‘Digital Immigrant’ in 2001; he deserves ridicule; he put this in an academic paper yet every wild idea is an assumption with no evidence at all or research to support it.

  3. Constance Campana

    I think the rebellion has started, but not the desired one, perhaps. I like so much what you have to say about books. The violence you describe on p. 165, “To make a book discoverable and searchable online is also to dismember it” can be witnessed (and heard) in college libraries each semester. No more quiet, no more evidence of the intense, private tracing of a complex thought; instead, students talk as they read, as their screens flit back and forth and as each, from each separate laptop, pulls up the ‘paper’ being written for the next day’s class. And this is what this process has been named: “collaboration.” It’s as though they are eating the texts.

  4. Orionwl

    “…was the then-new mainframe computer, which seemed to be reducing human beings to strings of numbers…”

    I wasn’t alive back then, but I suppose that it was still perceived as something that could be fought against. Now, it is commonly taken as fact that human beings can be and will be reduced to strings of numbers, and there’s not a thing that we can do against it.

    My biggest problem with this is that it makes the world seem boring. Everything and everyone is quantified. It is all about perceived “market value”. Which somehow makes everything the same.

    We’re smugly going into the future with the idea that tomorrow will be a faster, more flashy, higher resolution version of today. But also less human and more bureaucratic. To survive, you need to keep up. Don’t dare go your own way.

    The sentiment is that there is nothing qualitative left to discover any more… Is it really all just numbers getting bigger?

  5. Kevin Kelly

    “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… Some kind of rebellion seems in order.”

    Nick, well said, and I agree totally. The resistance will come from within, from the young. However, like the 60s counterculture, the rebellion will be subsumed in the long run.

  6. Constance Campana

    I don’t know. Rebellions are fueled by hope, by a belief in change. How young are ‘the young’ Nick and Kevin are referring to? And what, specifically, will they be resisting? I ask because I have a hard time imagining anyone, especially, say, the 18-21 age group I teach–but anyone, really, who is used to using the technology available today, giving it up. Why would they? Or will the possible rebellion include the continued use of technology, in some way? I can’t envision it. Maybe we are the ones with hope–


    “What are Facebook and Google but giant institutions, arms of the new establishment?”

    There is a banking crisis unfolding day by day here on the island of Ireland. Every single, for definite statement, every final figure becomes outdated as soon as it is announced. More analysis of the balance sheet of large financial institutions is performed, and the Irish state ends up taking a stake in another one, to avoid it going burst.

    One of the few whistle blowers within the Irish banking system, who lost his career as a result of standing up, has been interviewed several times on radio and television in the past couple of years. One interesting story he did tell on radio, was more of an observation on his part. He was taking a short journey on a rapid commuter train in Dublin city lately. A young kid got on at a station with a skateboard, jeans that flop all over the place, the long hair and the attitude. He sat down and pulled out a paperback novel, which he proceeded to read during the journey. The name of the paperback was ‘Too big to fail’. The mature, experienced whistle blower from the Irish banking industry cited this example, of one which shows how recent events have influenced practically all levels of society, and all age groups.

    The point is, we tend to ignore skateboard kid. We assume they just blend into their native habitat, be it a meeting place in the urban landscape, a street corner, a cafe or music hall. We don’t expect it of skateboard kid to have a brain and/or conscious aswell. Maybe that was the case in the 1960s also? Maybe it was a willingness to dismiss of a part of society, as simply part of the urban furniture, that provoked a kind of reaction back then.

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