The Shallows (2010) Nicholas Carr. Summary of Chapter Three: Tools of the Mind

This is my summary of chapter two of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr. (For my summary of chapter two, please click here!)

Conceptualizing the evolution of technology

Our intellectual maturation can be traced by looking at the way we draw pictures. Infants scrawl down only a very rough visual representation of what they see, as we get older, we develop the ability to represent pictures more accurately, with scientific precision.

This ‘artistic maturation’ process seems to mirror Jean Piaget’s evolutionary model of cognitive development within children:

  1. In very young children’s pictures there is no recognition of perspective or depth.
  2. As children mature, they develop a greater sense of intellectual realism – pictures display a greater degree of proportionality.
  3. Finally, children develop a sense of intellectual realism – they employ abstract scientific measurements to make their pictures even more accurate.

The above process of individual development also seems to mirror the evolution of map making in society:

  1. The very first maps were simply scrawls in the dirt.
  2. Over many centuries these maps became more accurate and increasingly sophisticated scientific measurements were employed to portray regions with more precision.
  3. Finally, maps were developed to display abstract ideas in an efficient form, as with the London Tube Map for example.
london tupe map.jpg

The London tube map – changing the way we perceive space?

These historical advances in cartography didn’t simply mirror the development of the human mind. They helped change the human mind. The more frequently and intensively people used maps, the more their minds came to understand reality in the maps’ terms.

The upside of this is that people are generally now more able to comprehend (unconsciously?) the unseen forces that shape their existence, because so many modern maps represent areas which we do not see in our day to day lives.

What the map did for space, the clock did for time….

For most of human history, time was experienced as cyclical phenomenon, dictated by agrarian rhythms, and it ‘flowed’ rather than being divided into abstract chunks.

All that started to change in the later half of the Middle Ages when monks started to demand more rigorous time keeping methods following an edict from Saint Benedict which stipulated that prayer should take place at specified times of the day. This spurred on the development of clocks which measured time.

As commerce, industrialisation and urbanisation took place, clock-time became increasingly important to co-ordinate the activities of business. And the units of time by which we measured things became smaller too…hours became minutes became seconds.

As clocks became smaller and watches became more popular, clock time infiltrated into our daily lives.

The clock profoundly changed the way we thought – it made us perceive reality as broken up into discrete measurable chunks, all divisible into further sub-units.

As Lewis Mumford said in ‘Technics and Civilization’, the clock ‘helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. The ‘abstract framework of divided time’ became ‘the point of reference for both action and thought’.

Categories of human technology

Carr suggests that there are four categories of human technology, divided according to how they support our amplify our native capacities.

Technologies which enhance physical strength include the plough, the ruck sack, the fighter jet.

Technologies which enhance the sensitivity of our senses – the microscope and the amplifier for example.

Technologies which reshape nature to better serve our needs and desires – such as genetically modified crops or contraceptive technologies such as the pill (heralding in the age of ‘plastic sexuality’, to coin one of Anthony Gidden’s phrases.)

Finally, there are intellectual technologies, which extend our mental powers to find and classify information, to take measurements and make calculations and even to formulate and articulate ideas. Carr provides many examples of intellectual technologies including: the clock, the map, the typewriter, the abacus, the sextant, newspapers, schools, library, the computer and the internet.

intellectual technologies examples.png

All technologies are an expression of human will, and all change us to an extent, but is intellectual technologies which affect us the most deeply. It is these that transform the very way we perceive our place in the world, and the ways in which we express ourselves.

Technological determinism versus Instrumentalism

There is an ongoing debate over the extent to which technology shapes the individual. Technological determinists argue that by and large technology shapes the individuals. This view is like that of structuralist sociologists who argue that society shapes the individual. Exponents of this view include Veblen, Marx himself, and McLuhan.

Instrumentalists take the contrary view and argue that individuals play more of an active role in using technologies, and effectively have control over technology rather than being controlled by it.

So who is right? It depends on your analytical focus…

If you look at any particular technology at a particular time, then the instrumentalist view seems to be right. For example, the Amish have successfully resisted the use of many technologies into their culture.

However, if you take a broader, more general and historical perspective, then it is hard to argue that we choose not to use widely adopted technologies such as the clock, the map, the school or the internet.

As Landgon Winner puts it:

‘Though we’re rarely conscious of the fact, many of the routines of our lives follow paths laid down by technologies that came into use long before we were born’.

The social consequences of technology

The debate between technological determinists and instrumentalists is unlikely to be solved any time soon. This is probably because the stance one takes depends on the broad or narrow perspective which one has already subscribed to.

However, most of us can agree on the fact that that technological advances are often turning points in human history. It is hard to imagine modern civilization without technology.

Carr states that it is harder to measure the historical impact of technological developments on the neurocircuitry of the human brain. This is because, up until very recently, we simply haven’t had any way of measuring micro-level changes to the human brain.

However, the recent findings which support neuroplasticity (outlined above) suggest that the brain is extremely malleable. It is therefore reasonable to posit that with every mass adoption of a new intellectual technology such as the clock, map, or internet, there is a parallel mass re-wiring of our neural circuitry.

Each new technological development has influenced how we find, store and interpret information, how we direct our attention and how we remember and forget. New technologies have also influenced how we interact with others. In short, new technologies favour certain mental traits, leaving others to fade away.

Carr further suggests that we hand down our habitual neural patterns to our children, which are further reinforced by schooling and the media. Genetic traits matter little in establishing the general neurological zeitgeist, it would seem.

Nicholas Carr devotes the rest of the chapter to an account of how intellectual technologies may have shaped people’s mental capacities in a very broad sense.

He theorises that the development of the alphabet and of a written, rather than an oral culture represented fundamental evolutionary shifts in human social development. A literate culture (rather than an oral one) was necessary as a basis for modern science.

He generally seems to believe that writing enhances human consciousness

summary of chapter four please click here. To purchase the whole book, please click the link below…

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