The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Book Reviews

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William Hasselberger

Mouse brain, NICHD/NIH, I. Williams; flickr.

In a discussion of the rapid expansion of transportation technologies, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the pilot and author of The Little Prince, sounds a note of concern about the role of technology in human life. In his book Wind, Sand, and Stars, originally published in 1939, he writes: “In the enthusiasm of our rapid mechanical conquests we have overlooked some things. We have perhaps driven men into the service of the machine, instead of building machinery for the service of man.” But Saint-Exupéry’s final assessment of technology growth is optimistic: the machine is not our master, he says, “it is a tool.” This popular view, sometimes called instrumentalism, holds that technologies are merely passive tools that help secure the conscious ends of individuals. We shape and are in control of our tools, not the other way around. 

Nicholas Carr disagrees. In his prescient and provocative new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr argues that instrumentalism, though “comforting in its hubris,” ignores the ways in which certain technologies can shape the very formof human thought. His charge is that the now ubiquitous technology of the Internet is altering the way we think in profound and worrying respects. Carr makes his case by weaving together two strands of argument: (1) recent empirical research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience indicates that Internet use compromises attention, long-term memory, and the capacity for immersed and retentive reading; and (2) a proper historical and philosophical account of the developing role of technology demonstrates its role in shaping the habits of thought of individuals and the intellectual practices of cultures, for good and ill.  

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