After reading this very short clip from Nicholas Carr over at NPR’s Marketplace, I immediately had to order his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. For now, I’ll suffice it to say this won’t be the only post on Carr; he’s a terrific writer of science and the brain and it doesn’t keep him from speaking confessionally, or leading off Chapter 1 with 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s not so much neuroscience as it is a scientist’s probe into a very “being” shift that is happening here in the internet age–you know, as if streaming television, twitter news feeds, and rapid-fire blog skimming could impact, in any way, the way we “be.” Carr says it does and, stealing a line from 1960s media academic Marshall McLuhan, it does so because “The medium is the message.” Though we spend more time thinking about what new e-mails sit in our inbox, or about what the Flash player is loading, or about what Spotify will recommend to me next, it’s not so much the content of our new medium, but the medium itself that is changing us–and Carr seems to think the medium–the internet–is turning us inward. As he says in The Shallows:
Our focus on a medium’s content can blind us to these deep effects. We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads. In the end, we come to pretend that technology itself doesn’t matter. It’s how we use it that matters, we tell ourselves. The implication, comforting in its hubris, is that we’re in control. The technology is just a tool, inert until we pick it up and inert again once we set it aside…The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.
Creepy! Twilight Zone, anyone, as you and I both sit skimming and scanning other pages as we read this one, full wifi bars alight, multiple tabs open above, a little blank tab on the far right, ready to lead the next web expedition? This “bounties and conveniences” idea is at the heart of his short piece for NPR, on the shifting philosophy behind “the search.” Discussing Google, and particularly its newest feature on Android, Google Now, Carr is saying that “the search” is more intimately yours than ever before, and that it’s not such a good thing. Exchanging the big, existential questions for the temporal ones, the search has become more about take-out and slim fit jeans, than “transcendence” or “truth.” Searching now, as Carr notes, is incurvatus in se, turned inward, a mirror to the self.
In other words, Carr seems to be saying, the definition has become it’s counterdefinition. A search now is the absence of a search. Or is it? What would Walker Percy say, who wrote, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” Here we are, sunk into everydayness, looking for our nephew on YouTube–are our searches numbing that possibility of “being onto something?” If Google is holding up our mirror, showing me when I usually take the B train to work, what advertisements I might be geared towards, my patterned personalized searches, maybe it does know me better than I do–or, atleast, knows a subconscious me I don’t quite know. Maybe that’s not good, but all hope isn’t lost–Binx Bolling was an addictive moviegoer and the media’s just changed–there’s still that possibility that my everydayness is intruded upon. That, in searching, I am being searched.
When we talk about “searching” these days, we’re almost always talking about using Google to find something online.
That’s a big change for a word that long carried existential connotations — a word that had been bound up in our sense of what it meant to be human. We didn’t just search for car keys or missing socks. We searched for truth, for meaning, for transcendence. Searching was an act of exploration that took us out into the world, beyond ourselves, in order to know the world, and ourselves, more fully.
In its original form, the Google search engine did just that. It transported us out into a messy and confusing world — the world of the web — with the intent of helping us make sense of it. But that’s less true now. Google’s big goal is no longer to read the web. It’s to read us.
Last month the company hired Ray Kurzweil, an artificial intelligence expert, as its director of research. In the future, he says, Google will know so much about you that it will be able to deliver information before you even ask for it. You won’t need to search at all.
That future is already taking shape. You can see it in the personalized search results Google provides based on your earlier searches. And you can see it in a new Android app call Google Now. It tracks your location and uses prediction algorithms to deliver useful information to your smartphone preemptively.
These days, Google’s search engine doesn’t push us outward so much as turn us inward. It gives us information that fits the pattern of behavior and thinking we’ve displayed in the past. It reinforces our biases rather than challenging them, and subverts the act of searching in its most meaningful sense. There was a time when search engines opened new vistas for us. Now, they hold up a mirror to us, giving us back a reflection of ourselves. Search has become a tool for self-absorption.