Jimmy Wales and Nicholas Carr
March 30, 2011, Greencastle, Ind. — Increasingly, wherever people go, they can be reached by phone, get an e-mail or text message, and even search the Internet. The ubiquity of devices and inundation of information in today's world has [Download Video: "Perpetual Distraction" - 2105kb] "a deep influence on the way we think," Nicholas Carr told an audience at DePauw University tonight. "And what it's doing is essentially bringing us into a state of perpetual distraction." (l-r: Jimmy Wales and Nicholas Carr; [Download Video: "The Debaters Arrive" - 1320kb])
Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, debated Jimmy Wales, founder of the world's fifth most popular website, Wikipedia, in "Wired... and Weary?". Presented by the Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture Series, the program drew a crowd of about 900 people to Kresge Auditorium in DePauw's Green Center for the Performing Arts.
Until about five years ago, people had to sit down at a computer to surf the Internet. It usually required them to go to a room where the device was located, they took care of business, then they moved away from the machine and got back to their lives. Today, Carr notes, smart phones and other portable, wireless devices mean we're always available, capable of being "pinged" at any time, 24/7. He argues the increasing barrage of information is having a negative effect on our abilities to concentrate, contemplate and reflect.
"And we find this compelling as human beings because we love to gather new information, but it's important also to realize we may be losing cognitive skills, habits of mind that, at least in the past, have been considered absolutely essential to a rich intellectual life, a rich personality, and ultimately, even a rich culture," he noted.
Wales, founder of an international collaborative free content encyclopedia and one of the world's top business and technological visionaries, responded, [Download Video: "Points of Difference" - 6055kb] "The general thesis that he puts forward, that the Internet emphasizes certain cognitive skills and de-emphasizes others, is unquestionably true. I think we differ primarily in our pessimism about that," he declared. "I don't think it's as bad a thing as he thinks it is, and I don't think it's happening as much as he fears it is."
According to Wales, "We can easily imagine an idealized age when people read long books and thought very hard about issues, but that idealized view doesn't necessarily match up with the reality. The reality is that people who don't have good access to information, they may be thinking, 'Oh, I should get a library and get a book about that,' but did they really, do they really have time to do that?" When there's a news story from a faraway place, for example, "Thirty years ago you'd just say, 'Yeah, Armenia, hmm, OK.' Today, you'd go and look that up, you'd find out about Armenia, you'd read what's going on there, you'd get some context of knowledge so you can better understand the world around, the events around you. And that is 'The Shallows' -- that is a basic understanding of things that is not deep-deep -- but it's valuable, it's really, really important. And it makes possible going deeper." (at right: Wales and Carr flank moderator Dan Gurnon, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry)
The Wikipedia founder argued that with the Kindle app on his iPad he winds up being able to carry more books with him when he travels and winds up reading much more than he used to. [Download Video: "Going Deeper with Devices" - 741kb] "Therefore the technology for me, in this instance, has enabled me to go deeper in that same kind of very old-fashioned, long form, very reflective study of some topic."
Carr is a longtime user of technology who quickly admits that computers have greatly aided his work as a writer. But he pointed out that most web pages are viewed for 10 seconds or less, people at work have been known to glance at their inboxes 30-to-40 times per hour, and the average teen is sending and receiving 3,300 text messages, "which is about one every six minutes they're awake." He told the crowd, [Download Video: "Interruption Machine" - 1522kb] "I think many of you, if you're very critical and very truthful about how you use technology, will admit that this is very much a distraction machine, an interruption machine, and very rarely anymore are you alone with your thoughts."
In Carr's view, the Internet is [Download Video: "More on Effects on the Mind" - 2714kb] "literally retraining our brains to want to think in one way -- which is a very fast-paced skimming and scanning method of grabbing lots of information very quickly -- but the 'Net is providing us with little or no opportunity, and little or no encouragement to think in a more attentive way -- to shield ourselves from distractions and interruptions and really focus on one thing." [BONUS CLIP: [Download Video: "Long-Term Implications on Culture & Society" - 2902kb]]
But Wales argues, [Download Video: "Impact on the World" - 2933kb] "When we think about the impact of the Internet, generally, on the intellect of the world it's very difficult to see that, on net, it's a negative thing." In the developing world, "people are getting access to information for the very first time" because of technology, he says, "amazing arrays and quantities for a very low cost. And that change, we're just now at the very beginning of it in many, many places around the world. It is a fundamental and phenomenal change to people's lives that you go from having absolutely no information, no way to see through things, to having the entire world at your fingertips. It's an astounding thing to contemplate."
Tonight's event marked the second-ever Ubben Debate. The first, held September 11, 2009, brought Howard Dean and Karl Rove to the DePauw campus for a lively exchange.
The Carr-Wales session touched a number of issues, including criticisms by Carr in 2005 about the inaccuracy of Wikipedia entries (he says the site has made many improvements in its editorial controls), the power of Google in the Internet universe, and whether this week's move by the New York Times to charge regular users of its content could be the sustainable business model content creators have been seeking.
[Download Video: "Conversation & Ideas" - 1817kb] "I think many of the experiments that are going on right now in the newspaper world to charge for content are naive and hopelessly optimistic and they will give up on them," Wales asserted. " I could be proven wrong on that, but I don't think there's a simple answer to this question. I don't think we're moving toward a world where everything online is going to be completely free or ad supported, nor do I think we're gonna lose this great, open, free world of conversation and ideas."
Carr believes, [Download Video: "Carr on Journalism's Survival" - 1602kb] "At some point this is going to stabilize and I don't think all newspapers -- print or online -- or going to disappear, and I don't think all journalists are going to disappear, but I'm very concerned that because we as a society seem to think this is something we should get for free, that ultimately we're going to have much fewer quality journalists working out there and as a result we're gonna be less informed as a populace." He added, "We've all been so seduced by the freedom of the Internet that we haven't really struggled with the ultimate accounting that's going to come down the pike not too long from now. We're gonna have to decide whether we want to sustain our culture at a very high level or if we just want free stuff."
Jimmy Wales is concerned about how layoffs in newsrooms are affecting what's being covered. [Download Video: "What's At Stake" - 2500kb] "The places that I worry about are not the large, grand issues of our time. I think we'll always have enough journalists to thoroughly cover what Barack Obama is doing, and, in fact, whenever I see a press conference and it looks like there's 50 or 100 journalists hanging on every word that Obama says, I think, this looks like a bad investment to me. I think 10 of them would be plenty. And the rest of them should be out doing some journalism, not just sitting in a press conference." Wales says what's been hurt in recent years is coverage of small, local stories -- things like school board meetings, which are no longer covered in many communities.
The two guests visited separately with students at afternoon forums, then held a joint news conference at The Inn at DePauw before dining with students, faculty and alumni at the home of DePauw President Brian W. Casey. The Ubben Lecture, which ended with a standing ovation, served as the capstone of a day-long, student-led initiative in which the campus was encouraged to spend the day without using the Internet, mobile devices, or other tools that connect people in electronic ways which do not require vocal communication or face-to-face human interaction. Seniors Christine Walker (student body president) and David Dietz (executive vice president of DePauw student government) came up with the idea of a "tech-free day" and were interviewed by Indianapolis ABC affiliate WRTV in the morning. A small show of hands at the debate indicated very few people actually made it through the day with their gadgets remaining in the "off" position.