The Uses of Half-True Alarms3
One might be more prone to ask such questions if one were more attentive to the fact that they are not altogether new. Carr himself quotes T. S. Eliot, who anticipated the courtside BlackBerriers (“strained time-ridden faces/Distracted from distraction by distraction/Filled with fancies and empty of meaning”) in 1935. An English writer once clucked at the unpleasant development that “reading has to be done in snatches”—and that was in 1890. “Prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience”—thus Nietzsche in 1882. Perhaps the difference between 1882 and 2010 is that the conscience about taking the mind’s time is gone. Modernity is nothing if not a long-running speed-up, with the world unceasingly going to the speedier dogs. Much of what Carr notices, or fears, was already in play, and accelerating, long before the internet. It was an alarmed and anti-modern Henry Adams who first pondered the idea of “the acceleration of history” way back in 1907—though arguably the history of today is spinning its wheels.Microsoft Office is my best friend.
Carr would no doubt respond that a repeated alarm is not necessarily a false alarm, and he would be right. There is good reason, after all, why we are living through something of a backlash against the frenzy of attention dispersion, a backlash for which Carr’s book will become canonical. The tech engineer-promoter Jaron Lanier, who coined the term “virtual reality,” has a book out called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, denouncing “the hive mind” of the internet and declaring that the “widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction.” Even old-school capitalists object to the new dispensation, although not always for Carr’s reasons. In another recent book, Googled: The End of the World As We Know It, the business journalist Ken Auletta catches media mogul Barry Diller recalling that at a meeting with Google co-founder Larry Page, Page “did not lift his head from his PDA device.” “It’s one thing if you’re in a room with twenty people and someone is using their PDA,” Diller told Auletta. “I said to Larry, ‘Is this boring?’” “No. I’m interested. I always do this,” said Page. “Well, you can’t do this,” said Diller. “Choose.” “’I’ll do this,’ said Page matter-of-factly, not lifting his eyes from his handheld device.” That’s new-media power for you—the power to offend Barry Diller.
So Carr, however loud his tocsins, is worth attending to. I am not the only professor these days who has a pretty good idea what the fidgety fingers of students are doing as they ostensibly take notes, and, having watched a graduate student clicking the keys for inordinate periods of a seminar during a whole semester, I am on the verge of banning laptops from my classrooms. The arts of contemplation have been hard to practice for centuries, but that is no reason to make them any harder.