Author Archives: David Stearns

About David Stearns

I am a historian and sociologist of technology (PhD, Edinburgh), and a former software developer. My academic research has so far centered around money and payment systems, and my first book, Electronic Value Exchange: Origins of the VISA Electronic Payment System, is now available from Springer. I also teach in the Information School at the University of Washington. You can follow me on Twitter at @DaveStearns or send me email at dave.stearns@gmail.com.

The Social Meaning of Technology

Sometime in the early-1980s, Kodak began using a sleek new voice messaging service that they called KMX, short for Kodak Message Exchange. It was pretty cool for the time; you could dial in from most anywhere via a toll-free number, authenticate with a mailbox number and passcode, and exchange asynchronous voice messages with other employees. Although voicemail systems are completely normal to us now, most people at this time had never heard of such a thing. Home answering machines were just becoming popular, but the idea of dialing into a centralized system so that you could send voice messages to individuals and groups was still somewhat revolutionary.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, my father worked for Kodak for his entire career. By the time they adopted KMX, my father was an executive who spent most of his time coordinating his sales and marketing force, so he spent a lot of time, both at work and at home, on KMX. Most evenings after dinner, he would go up to his home office, dial into the system, listen to his new messages, and leave his responses. He could easily spend a few hours doing that, which of course meant that his colleagues had to spend a few more hours listening to the messages he sent them, replying to his questions, and so on, and so on. Today, we often complain that the ease of email has created a torrent of unnecessary messages, but at least one can visually scan email text; imagine if you had to listen to every rambling voice message, in real time, happily narrated by the sender!

By the late-1980s, my father also had a computer on his desk at work that was no doubt hooked into the company’s new email system, but I don’t think he ever turned it on, nor did he ever learn to type with any kind of proficiency (how now has a laptop, but my mother is the one who types the emails). I once visited his office around that time and I noticed a thick layer of dust covering his beautiful IBM PS/2, which seemed like an absolute travesty to me. But my father was of an earlier generation of executives, a generation that came of age with dictaphones and secretaries who would type his recorded messages onto office memo sheets. He was much more comfortable using a system like KMX than email, as it was similar to what he already knew. KMX seemed like a big dictaphone in the sky; typing messages into a computer was a secretary’s job.

I tell this story to highlight that we often overlay complex social meanings upon new technologies that go far beyond their mere function. If we look only at the function of some new system, such as voicemail or email, we often miss the ways in which the adopting culture struggles to make sense of the new technology in terms of what they already know and do. The meanings we now ascribe to these technologies are often subtly different from the way people thought about them when they were first introduced. Our current meanings are the result of a dynamic interplay between the adopting culture’s attempts to fit the new technology into their existing categorizations and traditions, and the ways using that new technology alters their thoughts and perceptions, challenging those existing assumptions, categorizations, and rules.

America Calling

This phenomenon becomes more evident when we look at detailed historical case studies of technological adoption. Over the Christmas break, I got a chance to read one such account, Claude Fischer’s book America Calling: The Social History of the Telephone to 1940. I had read bits and pieces of it before, but never had the chance to read it all the way through, and I’m glad I did. Fischer’s account is fascinating and enlightening.

Fischer notes that the first generation of Bell executives came from the telegraph industry, so they tended to think of the telephone as a new kind of audible telegraph: a serious tool for serious (meaning “male”) business use. Bell’s designs and marketing reflected this assumption, and their sales efforts focused mostly on male urban professionals, who often saw the telephone as a convenient replacement for messenger boys.

Although Bell marketed the telephone as an urban business device, it was nevertheless eagerly adopted by rural farmers, especially the farm wives who saw the telephone as a very welcome tool for social interaction. Fischer recounts stories of farmers setting up their own exchanges and lines, often piggy-backing on their existing barbed wire fences, so that they could communicate with friends and family. Bell actively discouraged not only these private exchanges, but also the social use of the telephone, warning women to not tie up the lines with “idle gossip.”

The various companies that provided telephone service did eventually accept and then encourage this more social use of the telephone, but Fischer argues that it was not until a new generation of executives had come of age, a generation that came from other industries where sociality was a norm. The first generation of executives were too conditioned by the dynamics of the telegraph industry, and were thus unable to see the ways in which consumers were transforming the social meaning of their new device.

If we accept this notion that the social meaning of a new technology is dynamically worked out over time, then we should also expect that something similar will occur with today’s mobile phones and social media. How people 20 or 40 years from now will think of these may end up being quite different from the way we think of them now, primarily because they will have grown up in a world where these devices are not something new. In some ways we have already seen a shift in the meaning and usage of the mobile phone: we now use this device to send asynchronous text messages far more often than we make synchronous voice calls. Today’s “mobile phone” is really a misnomer; we are already starting to think of these devices more like pocket-sized computers than telephones.

Bringing Order out of Chaos

Summer has finally arrived in Seattle. We just finished a very typical cycle that we like call “Juneuary,” when the weather feels much more like January than it does June. It happens pretty much every year, and every year Seattleites moan and complain about it. We often get a nice stretch of weather in late April or early May, just to tease us, and then it goes back to being cold and rainy for another six to eight weeks. But then something magical happens; sometime during the first or second week of July, we go from 50 degrees and raining to 70-80 degrees and sunny, and it generally stays that way through the first part of September. It’s as if someone just flips a switch, and Seattle becomes one of the most glorious places to be in the continental United States.

This is also the time when Seattleites return to their gardening in earnest. The soaking rains of June followed by a few days of warmth and sun seem to turbo-charge the growth of every kind of plant, including those that we’d rather not have: the dandelions, clover, and moss that thwart our attempts at a decent lawn; the insidious vines that creep over from the neighbor’s yard and wind their way around everything; and all manner of quick-growing weeds that seem to spring up from nowhere and fill the planter beds, crowding out the flowers and bushes that we so meticulously planted the year before.

I often joke that our yard is very “intertextual,” which is a nice way of saying that it’s really a complete mess. I was out in the garden yesterday, mowing and trying my best to bring some order to the chaos that is our yard. I’ve never been a talented gardner, so my efforts are mostly on the macro level: mowing down the lawns, pruning back the large bushes, ripping out clusters of weeds and dead plants, or digging up sections that are beyond the point of any kind of surgical redemption. I often think that I am really just holding back nature’s unending and rather effective efforts to reclaim our yard and house  to the wilderness. What little pastoral tranquility we have achieved is the result of a constant struggle to bring order out of chaos.

Of course, gardeners are not the only people who bring order out of chaos. In many ways, this is what all artists do too; they creatively engage with unformed materials in order bring about new forms of order. Gardners create an ordered nature out of wilderness. Sculptors release enticing forms from the solid blocks of material that surround them. Potters caress beautiful and useful shapes out of formless clay. Dancers bring purpose and structure to otherwise random movement. And musical composers stich together ordered melodies, harmonies, and rhythm from a cacophony of possible sounds.

It may sound odd, but I think engineers do this as well. This shouldn’t be all that surprising though, as engineering and art are far more connected than we typically assume. The term ‘artisan’ points towards this connection; we don’t use it all that much anymore, but it refers to someone who is skilled at making things that are both useful and beautiful. Engineering, and especially computer programming, is really an artisanal craft. It requires a creative engagement with the world, an engagement that seeks to bring order out of disorder.

To be a bit more accurate, artists and artisans participate in the ongoing, redemptive work of God to bring about order in creation. Now, I’m not a trained theologian, nor play one on TV, so you’ll have to excuse me if I inadvertently start spouting heresy here. But it seems to me that much of what God does in the word involves bringing about order out of chaos, or restoring that order whenever it begins to disintegrate. We as artists and engineers get to participate in that redeeming and sustaining action, and we do so through our creativity.

In his book Voicing Creation’s Praise, Jeremy Begbie argues that “human creativity is supremely about sharing through the Spirit in the creative purpose of the Father as he draws all things to himself through the Son” (179). He then goes on to describe how we get to participate in this work:

There needs to be an interaction with creation, a development, a bringing forth of new forms of order out of what we are given at the hand of the Creator. And there will be a redeeming of disorder, mirroring God’s redeeming work in Christ, a renewal of that which has been spoiled, a re-ordering of what is distorted. This redeeming activity will entail a penetration of the disorder of the world—human and non-human, just as the Son of God penetrated our twisted and warped existence. It will also entail judgement; an unmasking of disorder, a denunciation of that which disfigures the world, as at Golgatha. There will be a transformation, the forging of a new order out of the ugliness of disorder, as in Christ’s resurrection (179).

How do you participate in the redemption of disorder, the bringing of order out of chaos? What would the “unmasking of disorder” and the “denunciation of that which disfigures the world” look like in your vocation?

Becoming a Christian Engineer

In 1991, I was a fresh-faced, fairly naive information systems major who was about to graduate from college. A few months before the end of school, an alumnus who worked for Microsoft came to our seminar and showed us a video of a speech Bill Gates had made the year before at Comdex. The speech was entitled “Information at Your Fingertips” and it was Bill’s first attempt at articulating a vision for the future of PC industry, a future where everyone would have instant and easy access to whatever information they could ever need or want (he gave another more-well-known version of the speech in 1995). Watching it today, one can’t help but smile at Bill’s enormous glasses, bad haircut, and cheesy delivery, but at the time, his vision looked incredibly cool to me. I knew then that I desperately wanted to be a part of making it happen.

I jumped into the software industry shortly after graduation, and spent nearly a decade designing, building, and managing software that could deliver information to people’s fingertips. Although I had studied information systems, I did so at a small, integrative liberal arts college, so most of what I learned about the practice of software engineering was actually acquired on the job. I learned C, then C++, and a smattering of other higher-level languages. I became adept at relational databases and SQL. I read books on algorithms, object-oriented theory, design patterns, human-computer interaction, and obscure programming tricks. I learned to evaluate the efficiency of everything I did, to seek the optimal solution. I read Dilbert religiously. I watched a lot of sci-fi. I became an engineer.

As I acquired the technical skills of software programming, I also took on some of the more annoying behaviors that are often characteristic of engineers. I became quite arrogant, assuming that my computer skills were evidence of a broader intellect that enabled me to have the correct opinion on just about anything. I became easily frustrated when people chose what I deemed to be a suboptimal course of action. I figured that I was capable of solving just about any problem given the right set of tools and techniques. And by “any problem,” I meant, any problem: automating sales reports was really just a special case of solving world hunger, homelessness, and the troubled middle east. All that was needed, I naively assumed, was a bit of rational decision making, supported by better computer systems that could catalog and deliver the right information at the right time.

After a few years, however, I started to notice that with every set of problems we solved, a whole new set of problems seemed to emerge. We would start every project with the greatest ambitions and expectations, but by the end we were already starting to see its shortcomings and thinking “oh well, we’ll fix that in the next version” (and we always assumed there would be a “next version,” even though our customers would have probably preferred us to just fix the problems in the existing one). Throughout the 1990s, we did automate scores of routine tasks, and developed tools that could catalog and retrieve information in ways similar to Bill’s vision, but our greatest social problems still seemed as intractable as ever. In some ways, we may have actually made them worse.

By the late 1990s, I was starting to get pretty cynical about the software industry in particular, and technology in general, so one of my friends suggested that I read Neil Postman’s book Technopoly. It was just what I needed. I can still remember how the following passage completely stopped me in my tracks:

You need only ask yourself, What is the problem in the Middle East, or South Africa, or Northern Ireland? Is it lack of information that keeps these conflicts at fever pitch? Is it lack of information about how to grow food that keeps millions at starvation levels? Is it lack of information that brings soaring crime rates and physical decay to our cities? Is it lack of information that leads to high divorce rates and keeps the beds of mental institutions filled to overflowing? (60)

I stayed in the software industry for a few more years, but reading Technopoly eroded my faith in modern technology’s ability to solve our larger social problems. I channeled my inner grumpy old man, and started to wonder if modern technology was actually more the cause than a solution to our social ills. I read Thoreau and pined for the simpler life. We got rid of our TV and spent more time reading. We bought a dining table made from reclaimed factory floor boards. We replaced the overhead electric light with a candelabra that we diligently lit each night. I exchanged my power tools for manual ones. I replaced my GoreTex with wool. I bought a push mower. I became a Romantic.

Well, sort of. I’m a city-boy at heart, and I never really learned how to appreciate poetry, so I was never quite the card-carrying Romantic. Still, I became much more of a techno-pessimist and eagerly read all the prominent Christian critics of modern technology. I also began to wonder whether one could really be both a engineer and a sincere Christian. If, as Ellul and Borgman claimed, industrialists and engineers were primarily responsible for the modern mindset, including all the social ills that it led to, how could a sincere Christian continue to do that kind of work?

Shortly thereafter, I left software to go back to graduate school, hoping to deepen my understanding of the ways in which modern technology had influenced our culture, and determine if my Christian and my engineering selves could really co-exist. I had never been much of a historian (business and computer science are perhaps some of the most a-historical fields there are), but the critics I most admired seemed to be well-versed in the history of technology, so I thought I should pursue that as well. It turned out to be a good decision, but not for the reasons I originally thought.

As I began to study the history and sociology of technology, I discovered that most critics of technology, especially the ones who write for a popular audience, rely on a theory that is no longer supported by most historians. That theory, commonly known as “technological determinism,” posits that technologies have a kind of one-way, deterministic “impact” on any society that adopts them. The stronger forms of this theory also hold that technological innovations advance according to an internal logic that makes technological progression inevitable and unstoppable.

Although technological determinism was the dominant historical theory for the first half of the 20th century, most current historians consider it to be only half right. Technologies most certainly change the societies that adopt them, but those changes are rarely, if ever, deterministic. Instead, detailed historical cases show that consumers play very active roles in shaping our understanding of what a new device is and is good for. In some cases, they also instigate a physical or functional reshaping of the new device as they seek to make it fit better into their lives (for example, the Kosher mobile phone).

This discovery opened up the possibility that I, as a Christian who was also passionate about technology, could actively engage in the reshaping and redeeming of these new devices. When we think as a technological determinist, we are left with a fairly bleak choice: adopt the new device and suffer the inevitable consequences; or completely reject it and hope you can convince others to do so as well. As Sherry Turkle has reminded us, this is the language of addiction—it’s similar to the way an addict thinks about his or her drugs. But when we realize that both engineers and consumers play active roles in the shaping of new technologies, a new possibility arises: the opportunity for a participatory redemption.

This realization also helped me see how I might reintegrate my Christian and engineering selves. If technologies did not have deterministic impacts and did not advance entirely according to their own logic, then it was dreadfully important for more Christians to be actively involved in not only the engineering of new devices and systems, but also their early adoption. If Christians aren’t there to inject their own values into the design, production, marketing, and adoption of new technologies, we really have no excuse if we don’t like how things turn out. Blaming deterministic outcomes just obscures what is really a lack of engagement.

I also began to realize that my Romantic reaction was just as short-sighted as the techno-optimism of my youth. It was certainly good to question the purported benefits of modern technology, and perhaps reject a few things that were really more of a distraction than a help, but to deny the flourishing I felt when designing and building software was to deny an important part of who I was made to be. Not all of us are made to be farmers or poets. Some of us are made to be engineers and artisans.

Are you a Christian involved in some kind of engineering practice? If so, how do you integrate your faith and your work? What makes a Christian engineer different from a secular one?

Sherlock, or Why Engineers Need to be Involved in the Christian Commentary on Technology

SherlockA while back, my wife and I were trolling the streaming options on Netflix, when we came across what looked to be an interesting setting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. This recent BBC series is simply titled “Sherlock,” and unlike the other versions we’ve seen, which had been set in Doyle’s original context of late 19th and early 20th century England, these episodes are set in the present day. Sherlock still solves perplexing crimes with his amazing powers of deduction, but now he uses a mobile phone instead of his usual network of street-savvy children. Watson still serves as his assistant, but he now reports their adventures via a blog instead of the newspaper.

The series is really fantastic, but what I find most fascinating about it is the way in which the writers had to sift and separate which elements of the original characters and stories were truly essential, and which were merely accidental, contextual, and contingent. In other words, they had to extract and maintain what made Sherlock truly Sherlock; the rest they could then update and play with to better fit our current context. Writers are, of course, the best equipped to do this kind of thing with stories, as they have the skills and sensitivities necessary to analyze the various components and ascertain which elements must remain, and which could be different.

In a similar way, engineers are the best equipped to do this same kind of work with technology. Engineers are trained to look inside the “black box” of a given device or system and separate which features are absolutely necessary to its function, and which are the products of relatively arbitrary decisions made by the original designers. In other words, engineers are uniquely equipped to look deep inside a given technology and highlight the aspects that could be changed without sacrificing the device’s core function.

This, I think, is one of the reasons why engineers need to get involved in the Christian commentary on technology. Too often, technological critics treat the targets of their ire as black boxes, failing to separate the things that are essential to the way something works from those things that could easily be modified and reshaped. In this kind of analysis, one is often left with the impression that the entire device must be resisted if any of its present behaviors are found to be undesirable. But if those undesirable behaviors are not really essential to the way the device functions, a new possibility emerges: we can domesticate the device by altering those accidental behaviors so that they better fit with our existing social values.

Let me try to make this more concrete with an example. In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that hypertext is inherently more difficult to read than traditional linear text because each hyperlink requires the extra cognitive task of deciding whether to follow the link or not (126-129). He supports this argument by citing a number of studies where researchers asked one group of students to read a story in a traditional printed form, and another group to read the same story decorated with hyperlinks that when clicked, took them to different parts of the narrative. Those who read the hyperlinked version tended to score lower on comprehension tests administered after reading, and several subjects complained that the story was hard to follow. Conclusion: hypertext is inherently distracting and harder to read.

I have a lot of sympathy for this conclusion, as I too have experienced my fair share of badly-designed hypertext that I found frustrating to read. But notice the way that Carr is treating “hypertext” as a black box. There is no discussion here of how the particular text was designed: how many links there were, whether the links took the reader to something related or helpful versus something tangential, and how the links themselves appeared and behaved on the screen. All of these things are actually quite flexible, and can be altered by the individual designer without loosing the essential feature of hypertext. In order for hypertext to be hypertext it must contains a few links, but as any web developer knows, the design of those links can make an enormous difference in how effective the text is.

In the early days of the World Wide Web, developers actually had very little control over how hyperlinks were formatted on screen. Web browsers almost universally rendered them in bright blue, heavily underlined text, which made them stand out from the other text on the page (sadly, this is also the style used by this WordPress template, and writing this post has made me realize I need to change that). This kind of styling made the links not only highly noticeable, but also visually distracting, resulting in the kind of extra cognitive load that Carr describes. But starting in the mid-1990s, browsers began to support features that enable page developers to control the visual appearance of hyperlinks, allowing one to style links in more subtle and less visually distracting ways. One can even make links look very similar, or even identical, to the surrounding text, but then become more noticeable when the reader hovers the mouse pointer over the link. This sort of styling allows readers to generally ignore the links until they decide to interact with them. Browsers also added scripting features that have further enabled developers to alter the behavior of an activated link—I’ve seen several sites that display a definition for the word clicked upon in a small floating panel in the same page, so that the reader does not navigate away and lose context.

The structure of a hypertext—how many links are used and what those links connect to—also makes a significant difference in how one experiences the content. Excessive use of links, or links that take the reader to seemingly unrelated pages, commonly lead to confusion and lack of comprehension. In the early 1990s, page designs tended to use hyperlinks like Visual Basic developers used 3D effects when they were first introduced—far too often and without consideration of whether the effect was actually improving usability or just creating unnecessary visual distraction. A more judicious use of subtly-styled links that connect to truly useful and related content would no doubt result in hypertexts that would fare better in the kinds of studies that Carr refers to.

After looking through Carr’s footnotes and doing some searching (which, I must say, would have been much easier had I been able to click on the footnote as a hyperlink, and then click on his citation to view the original paper), I found some of the studies he referred to, and as I suspected, their results were actually a bit more nuanced than what he portrays in his book. Although the stories the researchers tested were harder to read in hypertext than traditional linear form, the researchers also noted “Hypertexts that were structured to capitalize on the inherent organization of the domain (usually hierarchical structures for information content) often resulted in better comprehension, memory, and navigation” (DeStefano & LeFevre 2007, 1636). Extra markers that indicated the kind of content a given hyperlink would lead to also improved navigation and learning. Sadly, the researchers did not explore whether more visually-subtle link styles decreased distraction and improved comprehension, but one would assume that these kinds of links would require less cognitive load than highly-noticeable ones.

My point is really just this: when we critique new technologies, we need to separate between the elements that are truly essential to their functions, and those that are more accidental, contextual, and contingent. In many cases, the latter can easily be changed so that the devices fit better into our lives. Engineers are well-equipped to make these kinds of distinctions, which is why, I think, more engineers need to get involved in the Christian commentary on technology. Additionally, if we fail to make these kinds of distinctions, those who do understand these technologies will no doubt find our critiques to be short-sighted, and therefore dismissible.

If you’re an engineer and you’re now convinced that you’d like to get involved in the Christian commentary on technology, there is an excellent opportunity to do so coming up very soon: The Digital Society Conference, which will be held June 22-23 on the Seattle Pacific University campus. You can read more about our motivations in my blog post about the conference, and get more details and register on the conference web site. Hope to see you there!

Google Doodle for Bob Moog’s Birthday

Moog Google DoodleDid you see the Google Doodle for today? It’s a functional model of an analog synthesizer in honor of what would have been Bob Moog’s 78th birthday. You can adjust the oscillator, filter, and envelope settings to create a wide range of sounds. It even has a recorder attached to it so you can capture your creations and share them with others!

Over a year ago now, I wrote a couple of posts about Moog (rhymes with ‘rogue’) and his synthesizer. The first was inspired by a documentary about Moog and his work. Here is a trailer for that, in which he discusses how people reacted to the synthesizer when it was first introduced:

Moog recounts how critics at the time really didn’t know what to make of his creation. For them, “real music” came only from strings, wood, brass, or skins. These new electronic synthesizers seemed more like sophisticated noise-makers, something useful for sound-effects engineers, but hardly something that could be categorized as a “musical instrument.” Moog’s most strident critics actually accused him of “destroying music” by introducing a most “unnatural” device.

The synthesizer’s shift from “noise-maker” to “musical instrument” is captured well in Pinch and Trocco’s book Analog Days, which was the subject of my second post on Moog. These authors trace the early days of the Moog, describing how it quickly became a staple feature for psychedelic rock bands of the late 1960s. But in the fall of 1968, a recording was released that completely changed how people thought about what the synthesizer was, and was good for. It was called Switched on Bach, and as the title implies, it featured the works of Johann Sebastian Bach performed entirely on the synthesizer. The album was an instant hit, and was one of the first classical recordings to ever go platinum. That album inspired many other keyboardists to explore the potential of the synthesizer and integrate it into their creative work.

I think the history of the synthesizer is valuable for two reasons. First, it reminds us to be careful about conflating the concepts of “natural” and “traditional.” The synthesizer was certainly untraditional when it was introduced, but is was just as much an artifact, and therefore unnatural, as a violin or saxophone. And instead of destroying music, it opened up entirely new sonic possibilities that helped expand the creative potential of musicians. We need to be careful when making dire predictions about how this or that new device will destroy some aspect of our traditional culture—it may very well turn out to be quite the opposite.

Second, the synthesizer, like the iPad or the telephone, is the kind of device that requires a bit of “working out” before a culture decides what it actually is and what it’s good for. The synthesizer’s social meaning was underdetermined and somewhat flexible when it was first introduced, and the way it turned out was influenced just as much by its initial users as it was by those who designed, produced and marketed it. Early adopters often play key roles in redefining and reshaping new devices so that they better fit into the target culture.

OK, enough theorizing—now go make some music!

The Digital Society Conference

Digital Society Conference Logo

A little over a year ago, I attended a conference on technology, culture, and Christian spirituality down at Laity Lodge in Texas. That conference featured Albert Borgmann, the well-known philosopher of technology, as well as those who have found his work to be an inspiration for their own.

It was an engaging and fun conference, but my colleague Al Erisman and I returned from that trip feeling that something was missing from the discussion. Both of us felt that the practical experiences of those who design, develop, and direct technical projects were not yet integrated into the theoretical perspectives of the academics. I also felt that the insights from more recent science and technology studies could add more nuance and balance to the discussion.

In response, I started this blog, and Al started writing some pieces for his journal Ethix. We both spent some time working out our thoughts, and when we met again last fall, we decided to organize another conference, one that would continue the great work done down at Laity, but also build upon it and push the conversation forward in light of our current context.

I want to invite you to join us at this conference. We seek to gather a diverse set of people who are interested in rethinking the Christian commentary on technology for the digital era. Our aim is to start a new conversation that blends the theoretical perspectives from academia with the practical experiences of those who actively work with and on information technologies. Al, myself, and several of our speakers have worked in both arenas, and know how valuable it is to have each of these perspectives inform the other.

The conference will be held this summer, June 22-23 on the Seattle Pacific University campus (Seattle, WA, USA). We have a fantastic set of keynote speakers, the names of which regular readers of this blog will no doubt recognize:

They will be joined by several other panelists who will discuss the Christian commentary on technology thus far, how communities and individuals are flourishing (or withering) in online spaces, and how we can integrate our Christian faith with our engineering practice.

Space constraints require us to limit the size of this conference, so register early to guarantee your place!

If you know someone who would be interested in this conference, please forward this post to them, or send them a direct link to the conference web site: http://www.spu.edu/digitalsociety.

I hope to see many of you at the conference!

The Shallows (a Review)

[updated on 12 May: I was in a bit of a bad mood when I wrote the original version of this review, and I think I got a bit too snarky at points. This obviously irritated a few people (see comments below), and probably made it more difficult to understand what I was saying. I’ve updated this to remove the snark, and clarify a few things that were missing from the original review. My apologies to those who found the original irritating; hopefully this version will be less so.]

The ShallowsScattered. When I talk with friends about their lives these days, I often hear that word. They feel like there’s far too many things vying for their attention, too much information to absorb, too many things to keep track of. They wonder what happened to all that time that our labor-saving devices were supposed to reclaim for us. But more importantly, they worry about how their constant flitting from one thing to another is altering the ability to concentrate, to focus on one thing for an extended period of time. They are concerned that the manifold distractions that seem to multiply like furry tribbles are keeping them from contemplating and reflecting on what really matters most in life.

Similar concerns underlie Nicholas Carr‘s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Carr states in the introduction that over the last few years, he had noticed that he was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on one particular thing for any length of time. It was much harder for him to sit down and get lost in a book, or to follow an extended argument in an academic paper. Instead, he gravitated towards the short snippets of information he received via his various information technologies: emails, blog posts, web pages, tweets and the like. Although he was getting older, he suspected that the real cause of his increasingly scattered mind was those chaotic and insistent flows of information, so he set out to research what neuroscience has discovered about the ways information technologies effect our brains.

Carr’s book is essentially an attempt to put some scientific muscle behind one of Marshall McLuhan‘s most provocative statements: “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios and patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance” (Understanding Media, 31). Carr argues that these changes in “sense ratios and patters of perception” are actually material, structural changes that occur within the brain, changes that affect the way our brains work, and the kinds of tasks we are able to do.

It turns out that our brains have a certain degree of “plasticity.” That is, our brains are constantly changing, physically reacting to the stimuli we receive, the tasks we do often, and the tools we use to do those tasks. Like water carving out a channel, neural pathways that fire often become stronger and more conductive over time, making it easier for us to leverage that part of our brain in the future. Sometimes this even causes a physical enlargement of our brain cells. For example, Carr discusses how cabbies in London have a measurably larger posterior hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for storing and manipulating spatial information.

But this plasticity can also have a “dark side,” Carr asserts. If we spend more and more time consuming small bits of disconnected information, our brains will physically restructure to optimize for that kind of thinking, and thus we will lose our ability to perform what he calls “deep reading.” Such a loss, Carr declares, will be detrimental not only to our creative engagement with the world, but also our general cultural wisdom.

Carr does an excellent job reviewing the scientific evidence for neuroplasticity, leaving little doubt that the things we use to convey information shape the physical makeup of our brains. He also stresses that these changes happen very rapidly, regardless of age or prior education/experience. He highlights a study in which the brain patterns of those who had not previously used the Internet began to resemble long-time users after just six days of exposure (121). In the afterword, he also makes it clear that generational differences, or the kind of education one has had, should make no difference:

I’ve always been suspicious of those who seek to describe the effects of digital media in generational terms, drawing sharp contrasts between young ‘Internet natives’ and old ‘Internet immigrants.’ Such distinctions strike me as misleading, if not specious. If you look at statistics on Web use over the past two decades, you see that the average adult has spent more time online than the average kid (226-7).

In many ways, we really shouldn’t be all that surprised that our brains physically change to accommodate new tools. Each new technology requires some getting used to, and over time we develop new skills and abilities that we didn’t have before. The question is, however, do these physical changes actually affect the way we think and behave? If so, do they do so deterministically? If six days of exposure to the world wide web were enough to make the study subjects’ brain patterns look like long-term users, does that mean that those subjects would now start to think and act just like those long-term users as well?

Carr seems to answer this in the affirmative, but I think this is where his book is the weakest. Although he includes a paragraph to acknowledge that technological determinism is problematic, he nevertheless argues like a determinist throughout the rest of the book. His basic premise seems to be that reading books always creates a linear, logical, focused, detached mind, while using the Internet (in any shape or form) always creates a non-linear, reactionary, distracted, tribal mind. This assertion, of course, is based on similar ones made by McLuhan and Ong, but I’ve always been rather suspicious of it. In addition to being a bit insulting to pre-literate societies and those who don’t typically read books, I think it also suffers from a lack of necessary distinctions.

Carr echoes the media studies claim that reading printed books always results in the same kind of psychological and cultural effects, regardless of the content of those books. He notes that “Whether a person is immersed in a bodice ripper or a Psalter, the synaptic effects are the same” (72). The implication is that synaptic effects result in psychological and behavioral effects as well, so he would expect that someone who reads mostly escapist fiction, or even pornography, should end up with the same sort of mind as someone who reads mostly philosophy. Carr takes this even further, however, and says that these same changes happen very quickly and regardless of age or previous education or experience. The implication is that if you stop reading printed books and only read on the web, you will quickly become a distracted, shallow thinker.

I remain unconvinced by this argument for a few reasons. First, Carr seems to be lumping a wide array of information technologies into what he calls “the Internet.” He makes no distinctions between demand-pull media (such as web pages and ftp file downloads) and instant-push media (such as SMS text messaging or Twitter); instead he just declares that all of it is designed to convey a constant, unstoppable stream of distractions. He also discusses eBook readers without making any distinctions between genre; escapist fiction might work perfectly fine as an eBook, while other genres might not.

Second, Carr also seems to be assuming that all people gain wisdom and creatively engage with the world in the same way. Recall that his argument hinges on the idea that physical changes to the brain will result in particular psychological effects, regardless of age or prior education/experience, and this, he warns, will result in a loss of cultural wisdom and a decline in creativity. But I have known many people that I would not hesitate to call ‘wise’ who no longer read books at all. Instead, their wisdom is of a different kind, and comes from a long and persistent engagement with the material world: gardening, farming, fishing, etc. To say that wisdom comes only from reading printed books seems to me to be a bit problematic.

Third, I find his claims about a loss of creativity to be a bit surreal given the explosion of creativity enabled by digital tools and social media. Yes, much of it is inane and derivative, but one must also consider the degree to which these tools have also enabled talented artists to make new kinds of work, and get that work in front of more people. One might try to argue that on the whole, average cultural creativity is declining, but I think that would require some harder data, and I don’t think Carr provided them.

Lastly, my own experience with the book also raises questions about his thesis. I’ve used a computer since 1980, have programmed them for a living for many years, and have spent quite a lot of time on the Internet. Yet I was able to sit down and read Carr’s book over the course of a few days. I followed his argument closely, engaged critically with his claims, and creatively wrote a review of it on this blog. If, as he claims, the Internet will quickly turn me into a shallow and uncreative thinker, regardless of my age or previous experience/education, how was all of this possible?

Despite these shortcomings, Carr’s book will no doubt remain an enduring fixture in the debates surrounding the Internet, mobile communications, and social networking. Those interested in the topic will no doubt want to become familiar with the book, which is very easy to do, as Carr’s writing style is easy to read and very approachable.