In his 2010 New York Times bestseller, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr tracks humanity’s transition from the spoken word, to the written, the printed, and the digitized. The work is compelling, often transitioning seamlessly between scientific findings and illustrative anecdotes. Throughout, he avoids presenting himself as a Luddite (the word appears only once — in the prologue (3)) while still making the argument that today’s technology is leading to a required re-wiring, of sorts, of our brains.
As Carr lays the groundwork for his larger argument, he turns to scientific findings such as Michael Merzenich’s 1968 work exploring and mapping the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Carr points to the explicit plasticity of the organ — a quality long rejected by generations of scientists before (24). Leaving no guesswork regarding the eventual direction of the book to his readers, he concludes at the close of chapter one that “the possibility of eventual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains” (35).
Each chapter thereafter tracks the changes that we are forced through as we accept technology into our lives. Beginning with centuries-old adjustments to the way we navigated (the map), the way we told time (the clock), and the way we transferred knowledge between one another (the written word), Carr then turns to our interactions with today’s technology. He notes how the screen is replacing the printed form, how the hard drive and the search engine are replacing memory, and how the computer as a whole is replacing human agency. He points to studies that prove that, as our new tools allow us to “multi-task,” we are, instead, spreading ourselves too thin, effectively missing out on the salient details of the information we consume and produce on a daily basis. He writes that “the price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation” (211).
Throughout, the author weaves scientific findings in with the teachings of theorists and philosophers such as Marshall McLuhan and Lewis Mumford. This is to remind his readers that the way technology affects us is not one to be observed solely in a laboratory. Alternatively or concurrently, his goal may have been to appease both the reader seeking scientific proof and the one seeking theoretical insight. Regardless of his motive, Carr’s work was well received. In addition to his Times bestseller status, the piece was widely acclaimed by reviewers (Amazon.com) and nominated for a Pulitzer in the general nonfiction category (The Pulitzer Prizes). In Slate Magazine, Michael Agger compares the book to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, pointing to the way Carr presents his concerns about contemporary technology by “admirably subjecting his hunch to scrutiny.” Agger goes on to express some skepticism about Carr’s emphasis on science (“brain science is like the new freshman quarterback who shows lots of promise,” he writes), but eventually calls Carr “a realist in pointing out that the literary, attention-capable mind, though it may not quite go the way of the chanting Greek poets, will no longer reign.”
It is this emphasis on the mind of the individual that characterizes Carr’s analysis. “For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit,” writes Carr, “the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science and society” (10). This observation, made in the book’s opening chapter, is an effective introduction to the perspective from which readers are then guided through the author’s remaining arguments: how the mind of the individual, located at the “center of art, science and society,” is being changed. Carr seems to bypass the institutions shaping that individual’s mind, instead jumping directly into the center of the imaginary circle.
Certainly, the relationship between the individual and society is by no means unidirectional, and Carr does not explicitly set out to imply that society as a whole should be excluded from consideration in his critique. In fact, in his chapter on the effects of technology on our memory, Carr touches on how “personal memory shapes and sustains the ‘collective memory’ that underpins culture” (196). He goes on to assert that, “to remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers” (197). Still, this analysis of the mind’s relationship to culture continues to concentrate on the “I” in the equation and the work as a whole rarely touches on how the collective “we” acts. That subtle abstraction , however— from I to we — does appear in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, particularly in the form of, as the book’s front cover notes, an analysis of what “happens when society adopts new behaviors [emphasis added].”
Shirky introduces us to the issues dealt with in his 2008 work with an anecdote — a mechanism that he will use throughout the rest of the book. In chapter one, he tells the story of Ivanna’s phone, left in a New York City cab in May 2006, and the epic battle to retrieve it and shame the individual in whose possession the phone ended up. After Ivanna’s friend Evan posted her story to the Internet, he passed the link among his friends and family who spread the link further through their respective networks. Eventually, after a huge spike in traffic to Evan’s site, the broadcasting of email addresses, threats of physical violence against Evan, the arrest of the perpetrator, the return of the phone, and Evan’s decidedly smart choice to go into the public relations industry, some serious questions were still left unanswered. “Do we want a world in which a well-off grown-up can use this kind of leverage to get a teenager arrested? . . . a world where, whenever someone with this kind of leverage gets riled up, they can unilaterally reset all the priorities of the local police departments?” (13–14). These questions, Shirky notes, are rhetorical. “The real question is, What happens next?” (14).
In the case of Here Comes Everybody, what follows is ten more chapters, each presented with another story from popular culture — be it how a website like Meetup.com came to be, how activists shined light on the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals, how Linux was created by both one developer and a community of developers, and so on — combined with a framework or tenet of our new organizing tools. Throughout, he points out that the tools we have today (or, at least, the ones that were available up to and at the point of the book’s publishing) are responsible for significantly lowering the barriers of entry related to accessing the energy, skills, and attention of groups of disparate individuals. By making it easier to organize, he offers, more people will do so: “One of the uncontentious tenets of economics is that people respond to incentives. If you give them more of a reason to do something, they will do more of it, and if you make it easier to do more of something they are already inclined to do, they will also do more of it” (18).
As a prominent theorist himself, Shirky makes sure to reference those who have come before. He uses both the “Coasean Ceiling” and “Coasean Floor” to make his points — references to Ronald Coase’s essay, “The Nature of The Firm.” The former refers to the point at which the high transaction costs of managing an organization no longer make the existence of the organization worth it. The latter is the point at which the transaction costs become so low, that there is no payoff for the organization to exist to perform its function. Our new social tools, Shirky argues, enable us to break through the Coasean floor by creating loosely organized groups (he uses as an example photographers who happened to be at the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, NY in 2005) whose transaction costs are so low, there’s very little incentive not to perform them (pooling photos from the event on the social photo site, Flickr.com).
Including the work of social theorists such as Coase, Ethan Zuckerman (whose Global Voices site he calls out as a challenge to the “tempting” assertion that a “journalist would have to be anointed by some older form of media” (72)), and Yochai Benkler (for his theories on non-market creation of group value — “the ways people are happy to cooperate without needing financial reward” (133)) grounds Shirky’s analysis in the frameworks that shape how many see present day society. In the epilogue of the 2009 paperback edition of the book, Shirky tells the story (318) of Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer who invented the pocket-sized book in 1501 — an historical reference made by Carr, as well (70). Calling the invention one of the “small revolutions extending the big revolution of movable type,” Shirky offers that “the lesson from Manutius’s life is that the future belongs to those who take the present for granted” (319).
With this emphasis on moving past the present in order to understand the future, Shirky encourages his readers to see that our networks are stronger thanks to new behaviors enabled by technology. Consequently, he posits that there is a shift in the balance of power from the institutions that govern our lives to these technology enabled networks. According to Shirky, this shift is worth celebrating — and in many of the examples he offers, it certainly is. But a consideration of how we act in our new present deserves an equally important analysis of how we are acted upon. In considering the latter perspective, Shirky’s “rhetorical” questions above become less so — forcing us to question the ways in which the technology that we believe we control begins to take control of us.
Twenty years ago, Neil Postman raised such questions in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. By moving his reader through a continuum of technological changes, Postman establishes a taxonomy of phases: from tool-using cultures to technocracies to Technopoly. Much like Carr and Shirky in their respective volumes, Postman threads historical references with theoretical verses to present an argument on the new human condition that has begun (and will continue) to become the norm in today’s society. Postman, however, takes a more comprehensive view than his successors, preferring to see shifts in the flow of influence resulting in holistic cultural changes, rather than changes observed in the behaviors of the individual or collective.
In observing the differences in which Carr and Postman portray the evolution of the mechanical clock and the subsequent changes due to its use, one can see quickly the varied modes in which the two authors present their arguments. After outlining the mechanical clock’s move from the monastery as a tool used by Christian monks to signify prayer times to an ever-present and critical tool of synchronization in the general community, Nicholas Carr notes that “The mechanical clock changed the way we saw ourselves . . . it changed the way we thought . . . our minds began to stress the methodical mental work of division and measurement” (43). Here we observe Carr’s aforementioned emphasis on the “I” when developing a framework for the evaluation of technological advancements.
Postman also sees the clock as a major milestone in technologically influenced societal shifts. He notes that King Charles V ordered the clock bells be rung hourly rather than on prayer times (as had been the case with the monks). This shift, he argues, was indicative of “a tool being employed to loosen the authority of the central institution of medieval life” (27). It is this type of shift — cultural institutions yielding to the development of those tools which were once an integrated part of that culture — that characterizes a technocracy. “With some exceptions, tools did not prevent people from believing in their traditions, in their God, in their politics, in their methods of education, or in the legitimacy of their social organization. These beliefs,” he continues, “directed the invention of tools and limited the uses to which they were put” (23). As technocracy took hold of a post-medieval world, elements of culture such as, “consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion [had] to fight for their lives” (28).
Technocracy, however, still allowed for these elements to coexist alongside technology. “The technological was the stronger, of course, but the traditional was still there — still functional, still exerting influence, still too much alive to ignore” (48). Not so, Postman goes on to argue, once Technopoly took hold; in Technopoly, there is no more room for alternatives. The powers driving advancement of technology throughout our cultural institutions yield to no traditions. Thus, whereas Shirky sees our current technological landscape as an enabler — a framework that allows us to organize and act in new ways as a collective — Postman sees it as a force acting on us.
For instance, both Shirky and Postman reference the concept of “information overload.” Shirky believes the best way to tackle this overflow of content from various media channels and platforms is to place the job of “filtering” that content into the hands of its consumers, rather than its publishers. “Filter-then-publish,” he writes, “whatever its advantages, rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means that the only working system is publish-then-filter” (98). The job of filtering, then, is tended to by individuals driven to participate out of emotional connection (what Shirky calls “love”), not money — the latter not being as important now that transaction costs to participate are so low.
Shirky, of course, had the benefit of having seen various social media platforms (MySpace, Twitter, LiveJournal, et al.) in action when he wrote Here Comes Everybody. Not so for Postman’s Technopoly. Regardless, it is doubtful Postman would be so willing to trust the masses — or, rather, those under the influence of Technopolian forces — with the role of filtering content for general consumption. After all, in Technopoly, “free rein” is granted “to any technology” (129), including those used for the publishing and filtering — even language itself. Postman argues,
The question with language, as with any other technique or machine, is and always has been, Who is to be the master? Will we control it, or will it control us? The argument, in short, is not with technique. The argument is with the triumph of technique, with techniques that become sanctified and rule out the possibilities of other ones (143).
The ease with which communities may filter the overflow of information being published, therefore, is of no use when the tools being used for publishing and filtering — language, machine, technique — are operated under the forces of Technopoly.
It is important to note the way in which Postman separates technology from Technopoly. Instead of pointing to how specific tools, such as an online search or text message, may affect our brains or inspire a social movement, he frames the concept as a “thought-world.” He outlines some of the tenets of this thought-world when writing of the “originator of scientific management,” Frederick W. Taylor:
. . . Taylor’s book The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911, contains the first explicit and formal outline of the assumptions of the thought-world of Technopoly. These include the beliefs that the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts (51).
Postman’s concerns are not with the tools used — otherwise he would not delineate “tool-using” cultures as a separate step in his taxonomy. Rather, it is the way in which society readily adopts these tools: without a thorough consideration of the forces acting on these tools — in particular, the motives of these forces.
In her 2012 South by Southwest Interactive talk, “The Power of Fear In Networked Publics,” researcher danah boyd noted that
we fear the things — and the people — that we do not understand far more than the things we do, even if the latter are much more risky. For this reason, it’s not surprising that people fear technology. Its newness is confusing and no one’s quite certain what to do with the promises it offers.
Shirky and Carr have produced intriguing and thorough works which present theories and frameworks to turn technology into something we do understand (Shirky certainly presents a far more optimistic one than Carr). But theories, according to Postman, “are oversimplifications, or at least lead to oversimplification . . . Their weakness is that precisely because they oversimplify, they are vulnerable to attack by new information” (77).
boyd went on to reference Melvin Kranzeberg’s First Law of Technology: “Technology is neither good, nor bad, nor is it neutral.” She added that, “given this, it’s irresponsible to assume that the tools we’re building just wander out into the world with only positive effects” As such, this critique of technology will continue with Technopoly as a guiding force, for it presents a framework through which we are not forced to see a good, nor a bad, nor certainly a neutral. Rather, it asks us to see the forces acting on that world into which our tools are “wandering” and enables us to consider the motives of those forces and the consequences of allowing them to continue as they are.
As a first step, we must review some of technology’s most heralded achievements. As Postman writes in Technopoly’s first chapter, “a wise man — even one of such a woeful countenance — must begin his critique of technology by acknowledging its successes” (7).