Monday, August 16, 2010

Pinker's Non-Critique of Carr's "The Shallows"

Harvard's Steven Pinker reviews Nicholas Carr's The Shallows here. I am much-taken by Carr's book, but realize that there will be criticism. Indeed, every work that strongly puts forth a truth claim that is wide-ranging will be and should subjected to critique. The person who does not wish to be criticized for what they say will end up saying nothing.

Pinker writes: "If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting." But I don't see Carr making that far-reaching of a claim. I think Pinker has set up a straw man here.

"The existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience. Experience does not revamp the basic information-processing capacities of the brain." Pinker writes this to state that constant Twittering will not shape the brain so much as Carr thinks it will, but will make the person into a more effective Twitterer. Twitter postings will not turn your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings. I want Pinker to say much more here, which he could had he the space. When a person becomes adept at all the physical and mental skills needed to tweet, the brain has been shaped. It's like this: before I could not tweet (tweeting was foreign to me, awkward, etc.); now tweeting is "second nature." More accurately, tweeting is now "nature" to me. It is "natural." Behold the morphed brain.

Pinker writes: "Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour." I'm confused. What else is "addiction" but the shaping of the physical brain. And then, as always with Pinker (it seems to me), I am confused as to what "develop strategies of self-control" means for someone who seems to deny free will. Do we really have a choice, on Pinker's worldview? It's not clear to me.

Pinker concludes: "Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart." Note that Carr sings the praises of the Internet and information technologies as well, when he points out what they do and do not do, giving positive value to certain aspects of them.

Pinker's little nytimes piece is very brief. He is a brilliant thinker, and could say much more. He does not really engage Carr's reasoning here, so I don't find it to be a helpful review. At most we know Pinker is not fond of Carr's book.