Analog Nostalgia

In the 1990s, when the World Wide Web was new, breathless news reports warned of con artists, pedophiles, neo-Nazis -- they were lurking in cyberspace. "And now, these vicious predators are seeking new victims … on the Internet!"

That kind of cyber-fear-mongering hasn't completely disappeared, but it lost its novelty some time ago. Now that our lives have been thoroughly reorganized around the Web, people are asking not whether it's out to get us but whether it's changing who we are and whether this change is for the better. In his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, technology writer Nicholas Carr argues that our minds themselves are changing. While he used to happily spend hours reading a book or lengthy article, "now my concentration often starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do." In The Atlantic article (written only two years ago) on which the book is based, Carr wrote that his concentration drifted "after two or three pages" -- who knows how short his attention span will be a few years from now.

Carr surely hopes that enough of us will overcome our own reduced attention spans to make his own book a success. The publishing industry is certainly living in terror as it faces a younger generation that doesn't view bound pages with quite the romanticism their elders do. A few years ago a well-known blogger, just a year or two out of one of the world's finest universities, told me, "I don't really read books." At the time it was alarming, but today few of us would be surprised to hear something similar from someone in their early 20s.

There's an adage that says that technology invented before you were born is taken for granted, technology invented up until your 20s or 30s is exciting, and technology invented after you hit 40 is threatening. It may need to be updated given the speed with which changes in communication and information are happening. If you're older than 25 or so, you can remember life in the analog age, which is a constant reminder of how remarkable the changes of the last 20 years have been.

However you feel about the consequences of technological change, we all have to work harder to get used to it than our ancestors did -- not just because we are living at a particularly critical time but because the pace of change has accelerated. Moore's Law states that the number of transistors that can be packed onto a computer chip doubles every two years (the prediction, made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, has so far held). There are some, like inventor and author Ray Kurzweil, who posit a similar exponential curve of innovation more generally: As time goes on, technological development grows more rapid, with the time between radical innovations growing shorter.

While it may be some time before we know whether the curve of innovation is truly exponential, the world around us is certainly shifting faster and faster. If you had been born 500 years ago, the world you lived in would have looked pretty much the same upon your death as it had upon your birth. Your grandparents could go a decade or two with steady but relatively minor progression in the tools they used to live their lives. Now the accoutrements of our lives -- even those, like books, that seemed eternal -- are apt to be obsolescent. Last week, NPR reported that the Stanford engineering library is getting rid of its paper copies of periodicals. It's hard to argue with them, when fewer and fewer people are bothering to walk to the stacks to pull out a dusty copy of the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.

The ways we passed our time, the things we enjoyed, the activities that defined our days not too long ago are being relegated to the sad realm of nostalgia, a cultural "oldies" file that fewer and fewer people will find at all interesting, let alone relevant. Is that change unnerving? Sure. But we should be able to cut through the emotion and make reasonable judgments about each custom that passes away. The fact that you spent hours in the college library writing papers doesn't necessarily mean that a student who spends those hours in her room writing papers (or crafting multimedia presentations) has had an education less rich than yours, merely because she hasn't run her hands over the embossed spines of decades-old volumes on her way back to her carrel. Her education may be impoverished and shallow -- or maybe it was yours that was lacking. But if we can't sort the new and useful from the new and idiotic, then the faster change comes, the more lost we'll be. Somewhere in America, the owner of a small ball-bearing company is being told by her nephew that she totally needs to be on Twitter. She thinks he's wrong, but she's not quite sure why.

It's entirely possible that within our lifetimes we'll see yet another transformational change, on the scale brought by the Internet, television, the printing press, or even the development of agriculture (the last still ranks as the most important technological innovation in human history). When we do, we'll undoubtedly lose something, just as we do with every change. Sometimes these losses are trivial -- like the noble tradition of buggy-whip craftsmanship -- but sometimes they are more meaningful. When those changes transform an already extraordinarily complex society, the question of whether, taken together, they are good or bad for us itself becomes tremendously challenging to answer. But it's never too early to start asking.

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