“The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation… The problem today is that we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Chapter 8 is titled “The Church of Google”, but Carr begins by reviewing the ideas of efficiency and productivity brought about by Fredrick Winslow Taylor. We learned in school about Taylor’s experiments meant to boost efficiency in a steel plant; by breaking down processes into small steps and testing to find the best execution of those steps, Taylor created a system that successfully increased productivity (Carr parallels this to the algorithms used by Google and the like). Taylor saw these methods translating into society, “creating a utopia of perfect efficiency” (Carr).
Though I won’t get into the full description and analysis of Google, one specific initiative that Carr writes about is the company’s effort to “digitize all books ever printed” and make the contents easily searchable (Carr also discusses the copyright infringements willingly incurred to complete this goal, but I won’t get into that, either). Obviously the two main goals of this project are to make information more available to the world and to make that information easily searchable. While the outcomes of such an effort are overwhelmingly positive, Carr argues that we should still consider the side effects. “To make a book discoverable and searchable online is also to dismember it” (Carr). I have experienced this in my own research; when a Google book pops up as a result and I click on it, it takes me directly to that page in the text with my phrase or search term highlighted. While the time and effort it saves any user is incredible, it also encourages the information to be read and used without referencing the full text. “The intellectual technologies it has pioneered promote the speedy, superficial skimming of information and discourage any deep, prolonged engagement with a single argument, idea or narrative” (Carr). Of course, the reader is able to go back and read the chapter or full text from which the phrase originated, but the point is that Google’s methods encourage the opposite (to say nothing of the effects of in-text linking and ads around the page; for a review of Carr’s thoughts on this topic, see my post about chapter 7).
The quote I began with was in response to a passage from Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden – what Carr describes as “a classic study of technology’s influence on American culture”. The point of these two quotes, and a key point of my blogging efforts, is to highlight the need for balance between an efficient life and a reflective one. As Carr phrases it, “the contemplative mind is overwhelmed by the noisy world’s mechanical busyness,” and I think we need to ensure that it doesn’t drown us out completely.