By James Dacey
I must admit that after long days spent in front of the computer screen researching stories, jumping from website to website, checking e-mails, etc, etc, I do sometimes find it hard to settle down in the evening and become fully absorbed in a good book. A real shame because this has always been one of my favourite pastimes and a great way to relax.
This was part of my motivation for going along to a talk last night about how the internet may be changing the way we read and think. The speaker was US writer Nicholas Carr, a long time critic of technological utopianism who caused a stir in 2008 with his article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr has since developed the arguments into his new book “The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember”, which he was describing last night at the Festival of Ideas in Bristol.
Nicholas Carr web sceptic
Carr’s main argument is that with the ever-increasing presence of the Internet in our daily lives we are losing the ability to think deeply and creatively, and to store things in our long-term memory. He believes that the control imposed by search engines and the constant availability of hyperlinks to whisk us away to other websites mean that the internet is starting to rewire our brains. “We have become obsessed with the medium, and the net is remaking people in its own image,” he argued.
It was certainly a fascinating talk and Carr argued his case well, particularly concerning the “plastic not elastic” nature of the brain and how the Internet lies in a rich history of “tools of the mind” including maps, the clock and the printing press. But too often he simply glossed over the positive aspects of the Web, such as the opportunities for online collaboration and the liberation of media now that anyone can comment or blog about their opinions. Then, of course, there is the obvious irony in the fact that many of us found out about his gig through the Festival of Ideas website.
Carr seemed to be harking back to a golden age when all of the great thinkers worked in isolation to formulate their brilliant ideas, aided only by their prolific reading of books. And it got me thinking about whether this was really true for the great scientific thinkers of the last century. Naturally my mind went to the greatest of them all, Albert Einstein, leading me to the question of whether Einstein would have let himself become distracted by the fruits of Web 2.0 such as Facebook and Twitter, and whether this would have had a negative effect on his brilliant mind.
Well, just looking at the clutter in the recently uncovered picture of Einstein’s desk in Princeton taken on the day of his death suggests that the great man didn’t need a work environment completely devoid of distraction. And of course, he had his many other “distractions” outside of science including his violin, his sailing and his sometimes complicated private life involving a divorce and a second marriage to his cousin.
Einstein was clearly a highly social animal who enjoyed networking. There are reports that he regularly attended parties and that he used his fame to arrange meetings with many of the great intellectuals and celebrities of the day, including Picasso and (possibly) Marilyn Monroe. He was also very good at responding to correspondence from fellow professionals and fans. A recent feature article in the print edition of Physics World describes how in 1953 alone Einstein received 832 letters and responded to 476 of them.
So my little gedankenexperiment led me to conclude that yes Einstein probably would have been distracted by e-mails as he fought a losing battle with fanmail, and I’m sure he would have surfed the net regularly to find out about the latest music and cultural affairs. I also believe he would have set up a Twitter profile to keep in touch with his many “followers”. In fact, this kind of tool would have freed up a lot of time for Einstein, allowing him to communicate with his hoards of fans via single “tweets” rather than trying to respond individually. And I’ve no doubt that Einstein’s wickedly clever one-liners would have made him a Twitter sensation.
But whether all this web activity would have proved too much of a distraction for Einstein and damaged his ability to think so profoundly about the nature of space, time and matter…well, who can say? Carr would probably argue yes.