WNYC’s Sara Fishko left us with some intriguing questions. To answer them, Brooke speaks to Nicholas Carrabout how Marshall McLuhan's theories have held up, 50 years later. Carr's latest book is called The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, and examines the impact of our growing dependency on computers.
BROOKE: When Sarah produced that piece in 2011, she left us with some intriguing questions. To answer them, we called Nicholas Carr, whose latest book is called The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, Nick, welcome to On the Media.
Carr: Thanks very much
BROOKE: IN your previous book "The Shadows" you do argue that Google is making stupid.
CARR: Or the internet in general, but yeah.
BROOKE: How so?
CARR: One of the things that happens when we go online, in addition to getting access to tons of information is that we get bombarded by little bits of information. We become distracted and interrupted from the deeper sources of conceptual thought and creative thought which really requires us to screen out distractions and pay attention to one thing for some period of time. The technology encourages us browsers and surfers rather than people who go deep.
BROOKE: Wouldn't McLuhan have said that TV makes us stupid? And Socrates thought that writing made us lazy and absent minded. Is this just a scared reaction to a technology that our minds haven't become accustomed to dealing with yet.
CARR: McLuhan, in particular, emphasized that whenever we adopt a new informational or communicational medium we do change the way we think. That's what he meant by 'the medium is the message'
BROOKE: He didn't think those ways were necessarily bad though.
CARR: No, I kind of venerate the printed word. He had trouble with it. It was his classic idea of a hot medium that so dominates us that we lose our connections with each other and with the world.
BROOKE: How is text in his view, hot?
CARR: A hot medium for McLuhan was one that totally engaged us. Text was his classic example. You can't shift your focus away from the text and still keep reading. You tend to cut-off you're hearing, your other sense because you're so focused on interpreting the words printed on the page. That's what he meant by 'hot.' It's very dominating. We've become more isolated and more individualistic because we're not participating with other things. He thought that electronic media, other media, computer media eventually would kind of free us from the domination of the word.
BROOKE: Of course telephones for reading these days than they do for voice communication.
CARR: And I think that would have completely blown McLuhan's mind. He thought we were moving away from the world of text. The telephone was an early example of that. We were going back to communicating by voice as we used to in oral cultures. And yet, the telephone has gone from being a voice medium to largely a text medium. Completely the opposite of what McLuhan expected.
BROOKE: So the more thorough the engagement, the hotter the medium is. And he saw television as a cool medium because you weren't cut off from other people when you were watching it.
CARR: We have to think of what television was like back in 1964 when he wrote 'Understanding Media.' The picture was terrible. The sound was pretty terrible. It was usually black and white. And so it didn't dominate you. A 'cool' medium is one that is low definition in his terms. It doesn't give us a whole lot of information. Now, of course, television is hi-def. We have huge screens. We have great sound. So I think it's actually been transformed from a cool medium, to what McLuhan defined a hot medium.
BROOKE: What would he have said about radio?
CARR: He thought radio was a hot medium. That in order to make sense of radio you had to listen very, very hard just as text dominates your eyes, radio dominates your ears. Doesn't let you do anything else.
BROOKE: McLuhan talked famously about the global village. What do you think he would have thought about today's social network. I think he would have had mixed feelings. In fact he had mixed feelings about the global village. On the good side it makes us more social. More involved with other people. On the bad side, he thought the global village was one that was tribalized. There's not privacy, everybody knows what everyone else is doing. Constantly on view. Constantly being judged. You lose this privacy and this kind of sense of individual self. Again another example of how things haven't played out the way he expected them to. If he saw a smartphone for instance, he would think it was the hottest medium possible. You just have to look at how people use the smartphone, they're completely immersed with all this rich information coming from it. In it's text in its visual, with its audio. And it dominates you. And on the one hand that seems to be a very isolating technology in his framework, because you're alone with the medium. On the other hand - you know a lot of what people are doing is communicating with other people. Expressing themselves. So there's this tension. It's like our new devices are smartphones and tablets are hot mediums doing cool jobs. It would have been interesting to hear what he had to say about that cause I don't think it fits into his paradigm all that neatly.
BROOKE: Nick, thank you so much.
CARR: You're welcome.
BROOKE: Nick Carr's latest book is 'The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.'
BOB: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary, Laura Mayer, Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma and Andrew Chugg. We had more help from Kasia Mihaylovic. And our show was edited by…Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Greg Rippin.
BROOKE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. This week we bid farewell to two producers - PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. They’ve been at the helm of our excellent spin off podcast, TLDR for the last year (if you haven’t heard it yet, shame on you!). They’re moving on to bright futures in the podcast realm. Thanks for everything boys. we’ll miss you!
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