Last week’s spat between Nicholas Carr and Steven Pinker generated a lot of attention — and, happily, delivered a couple of the more lucid framings yet of the debate over whether digital culture makes us shallow, as Carr argues in his new book, or simply represents yet another sometimes-distracting element that we can learn to deal with, as Pinker countered in a Times Op-Ed last Thursday.
I sympathize with both arguments; I see Carr’s point but feel he overplays it. I find digital culture immensely distracting. I regularly dive down rabbit holes in my computer, iPhone, and iPad, taking wandering, shallow paths much like those Carr describes. Yet I remember getting distracted by other things — newspapers, magazines, favorite books I’d already read, tennis matches, conversations with neighbors — as a young adult in the dark dark pre-Internet era. So instead of reading tweets and blog posts instead of writing my book(s), I read again some favorite passage about Eric Shipton exploring Nepal, watched Wimbledon, or phoned my sister to see how grad school was going. As Pinker notes,
distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life.
I agree. Twitter indeed offers endless, easy, and lasting distraction; it calleth as I compose. But 20 years ago, so called too The Sporting News, the New York Review of Books, and my tennis racket, my binoculars, my bicycle, and my Gibson ES-345, a stack of books I hadn’t read and several bookshelves full I had read, not to mention all the people I could find to talk to if I took a long enough walk. I didn’t work any more steadily or deeply back then than I do now, once I get going. But now I am far less isolated socially and intellectually, even living in rinkydink Montpelier, than I was back then living in large university towns. I don’t mean to dismiss Carr’s concerns altogether. But I side with Pinker and Jonah Lehrer in being skeptical that the Net is working a fundamental, singular, bad bad voodoo on how we think.