Carr’s self-interest

There’s a bunch being said about Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows”. Most notably a lot of print media jumping onto the the Ever-Betters bandwagon. Obviously Carr stating that reading long form print is being drowned out by the internet is right up the alley of the old media in their death throes.

That clinging of the moribund is however just a side-effect.

Carr’s argument is wholly one of self-preservation. If you are an old media and old academia educated intellectual, you will be passed by left and right by those that are able to strike the right balance between the old and the new. Those that use Twitter and Wikipedia to their full extents while still reflecting on their relative merits, those that can process megatons of information every day while doing their best jobs and retreat from time to time still to read a book or write a piece.

In short: Carr has nothing on us and he knows it. The Shallows is a desperate attempt by the older generation to remain relevant in a new world. Ultimately futile of course, but it should still provide Mr. Carr with some temporary currency.

Or as James Bridle puts it in part one of his seven part futurist tome (better than I can, but I hope I may be excused):

I am paying attention, but I am paying attention to everything, and even if my knowledge is fragmented and hard to synthesise it is wider, and it plays in a vaster sphere, than any knowledge that has gone before. —“Stop Lying About What You Do”, James Bridle

6 thoughts on “Carr’s self-interest”

  1. It is not a matter of generation, not really. It is not a matter of electronic and paper or real and virtual. You know, it is a lot simpler than it seems. Adapt or die. That is all, adapt or die. Darwin described it as evolution. There is something like a media ecology, and this ecology is acquiring a few new species, it is evolving. It is possible that some species will become extinct. The old species are not necessarily dying out, but the configuration space available to them is changing. The old species will however die out if they do not adapt.
    My take is that reading, and getting information, remains important. Papyrus, paper or pixels… it’s just media.

  2. Great post. @Dannie: exactly, it’s about adapting. However, the generational argument has some merit, as the emergence of the Web introduces radical and fast changes in the ecosystem of information and communication – and society as a whole. Ecosystem changes lead to paradigm shifts, to new belief systems and business models. It’s not a case of gradual change, as especially media companies are fundamentally incompatible with the new order, as their sole reason for existence is exploiting content scarcity with a monopoly on access to the public sphere.

    The clear demarcation of ecosystems naturally results in all sorts of fun disruptive innovative stuff – which is to be expected – but also provides an excellent explanation to the mystery of seemingly bright people such as mister Carr clinging to old belief systems: there’s money to be made, right there. There’s a whole world of oldthink institutions still making boat loats of money by running their businesses to the ground, and they’re more than willing to reward anybody with fame & fortune who’s willing to make them feel good about it – telling them they’re essentially doing a good job, that even if they’ll lose in the end, they will have fought the good fight.

    Nicholas Carr is essentially a car salesman, whose job isn’t really selling a car, but giving middle-aged men with money and regrets a fake sense of youthfulness and opportunity by handing them the keys to a shiny convertible. You can’t blame the car salesman for not telling that bald 55 year old he should have divorced his wife and quit his job ten years ago. Sure, the car salesman is a liar and he damn well knows it – but he is simply a part of life. A really annoying one, I’ll grant you that, but well, what are you gonna do.

  3. Valid points all. Though I think the old thinking people are really at the brink of being overrun by the waves of change.

    What we need to keep doing is what we have been doing all this time: properly retort him, do not let ourselves be co-opted and carry on with destroying the foundations of everything Carr and his people believe in.

    Slow and steady wins the race.

  4. @ dannie

    the application of evolution theory to society can get you into trouble fast. the key difference is that in biological evolution, species have no choice about their changing environment. so it is adapt or die indeed (where adaptation is not a conscious process). in society however, we do have a choice. if a certain development of the social ecology turns out to be non-beneficial for individuals, they can choose not to be part of that development. and if enough individuals choose not to participate, the development might even stop. or at least be viewed in perspective.

    as for the original post, i can’t see how this is a proper retort to ‘carr and his people’. it is, so to say, a rather shallow retort. by tying carr to the so-called old media, the author creates a straw-man argument. from what i understand, carr is lamenting the loss of the ability to read any long text, independent of the medium. so he’s trying to make a case for deep reading, and the solitude and deep thinking that is associated with it. so any proper retort that aims to destroy ‘the foundation of everything carr and his people believe in’ should address that.

    but what really caught my eye, was the link in the second line to the adam gopnik article. ‘ever-betters’ is not a term used in that article. gopnik discerns the positive ‘never-betters’ like clay shirky, the negative ‘better-nevers’ like carr and the ‘ever-wasers’, who say there’s nothing new here. why would the author use the word ‘ever-betters’? is it simply a typo? is it poetic license? or is it that the author was so busy twittering, blogging and doing important things with his smart-phone, that he just didn’t have the time to read or properly skim the 10-page article and digest it? is that what james bridle means with ‘paying attention to everything’?

  5. @michel: My post is meant to be a shallow observation, not a proper retort. I’ve seen people in the Netherlands try their hand at it though and not bring it off too well.

    I don’t accept the accusation of straw manning because the association seems to be strong and happening with mutual consent so I’ll conflate them for convenience.

    But yes good catch on the ‘ever-better’, I’d say it’s a fortuitous typo. It works. Why not have it stick?

  6. @ alper

    if your post is just a shallow observation, then how can you so self-assuredly conclude carr ‘has nothing on us, and he knows it’? or is it just the same cockiness that leads clay shirky to say tolstoy sucks? why do you think nobody in the netherlands has come up with a proper retort yet and you can seemingly only come up with a shallow observation? could it be carr has a point, and you know it?

    as for the straw-manning, i think it’s not enough to say that the association seems to be strong. ‘seem’ is a pretty weak basis for any argument, and it almost sounds as if you’ll take anything to make your point. it reminds me of something i once read somewhere: “an opinion should be the result of thought, not a substitute for it”.

    i’ll accept the ‘ever-betters’ if you can explain how exactly it describes carr and his ilk. because i have a hard time getting it to work.

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