Clay Shirky vs. Nicholas Carr: how the internet has changed the way we think about human interaction

  • How do mass amounts of information immediately available on the web affect human behavior and human interaction?
  • An imagined conversation between Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky
  • Begin the interview in five, four, three, two, one…camera rolling!

Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky: Hello, Nicholas. Glad to be meeting with you to discuss this important issue. I know we have some differing views on the ways that mass amounts of information, immediately available on the web, affect human behavior and human interaction. How funny that I’ve been tracking your work through the very technology that we will be discussing today.

Nicholas Carr: Hi, Clay. Yes, I’m glad to be meeting with you. I’ve been following your speeches online and I must say your views are compelling. I can’t say that we reach much of a consensus, though.

Clay Shirky: Ah, well, to hear a dissenting opinion is to reshape one’s own knowledge! Isn’t that what the internet is all about, anyway? The internet an environment where opinions and ideas are made immediately available to a vast population. It’s the immediacy which makes it special. The internet completely changes the manner of human behavior and human interaction. It’s a revelation!

Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr: I agree without hesitation that the internet is indeed a miraculous digitalized space full of endless information. It gives us access to information in a way that was once unheard of. Now, all it takes is the simple click of a button. As a writer, it has made my life easier when researching. However, I have to highlight your point about the internet changing human behavior and human interaction. This is something that we need to be cautious about, Clay. Is it changing these things for the better?

Clay Shirky: Please explain what you mean in more detail. The benefits of the internet always come with the bad. Just reflect on the introduction of the Gutenberg Press! Much of its early product was trash. The erotic novel came out far before the informative scientific novel, and the internet must be understood in the same way.  It is imperative to comprehend that the good is always attached to the bad!

Brain plasticity

Nicholas Carr: I understand that there is good and bad associated with the web, but you need to look deeper and think about how that information influences our brains and our behavior. On one hand, the internet allows for us to absorb that “good” information that you speak of. But we also absorb the “bad” information. On a different note, changes in our brain circuitry are happening whether or not we invite them. Our brains are like hard drives, always seeking more information. We are hungry for this immediacy that we have come to depend upon. In semblance to a hard drive, we crave information, we need information input. Scientists once thought our brains were ‘fixed’ by early adulthood, but we now reply on the theory of brain plasticity–that our brains are malleable and constantly evolving. There is no getting around it, Clay. Our use of the internet changes the way that we as humans fundamentally think! Not to mention that much of our free time is spent devoted to this machine, detracting from a more physically-based interaction with society. Don’t these issues worry you?

Clay Shirky:  How has it changed the ways that we think? Give me an example. It has certainly changed our ways of thinking for the better! Furthermore, it allows people to interact in crucial situations such as the outbreak of ethnic violence in Kenya! It brings people together. I don’t see the importance of focusing solely on the ways that the internet shapes our thinking, instead you should look to the way that it helps to connect people and help the world!

Our brain is shaped by our internet use

Nicholas Carr: Why don’t I provide you with that example, Clay? It might help to elucidate my point. Looking back to history, specifically with the invention of the typewriter, we can already see a change in the ways that technology shapes our brain’s processing. Writer Fredrich Nietzsche voiced his concerns that his writing became “more tense” after having the typewriter for only a short while. He claimed that writing equipment “takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Moreover, centuries of reading books and other printed works have engineered our brains to think in a certain way, and the same thing is happening now.

Clay Shirky: How so?

Nicholas Carr: Just think of the ways technology has advanced since then! The way that we as web users read and process information has changed completely! I used to be able to delve into a lengthy article, but now my eyes stray after just a few minutes, distracted by the flashing advertisements in the sidebar or the temptation to constantly check my email! The internet has no doubt caused us to perform more poorly on crucial thinking tasks. Additionally, we have to be cautious of the fact that the internet is now creeping into our TV programs, newspapers and magazines. It’s limits extend beyond the screen. The immediacy of web information is overloading our brains, changing how we think and process. A study done at the University College of London supports my discussion. This study found that people ‘skimmed’ every article, never going back to one they’d visited before. It’s as if there is just too much for us to take in, and although the immediacy is appealing, it might not be as beneficial as you think.


Clay Shirky: I can easily diffuse this caution by explaining to you the importance of the web in promoting civic value and changing society for the better. As I mentioned earlier, the web was crucial in helping people to communicate following the outburst of ethnic violence resulting from the presidential election in Kenya in 2007. The government ordered a media blackout, and the Kenyan Pundit blog became people’s immediate source of information. Comments poured in. This immediacy of information was key in connecting people and providing crucial information not available elsewhere. The author was unable to manage this herself, and so a site called Ushahidi was created, making information available to the world population by aggregating it, mapping it, and making it public. Isn’t it remarkable that a single implementation in Africa could become a worldwide development in less than three year’s time! Just look at the advantages of the internet in connecting people!

Nicholas Carr: But what about the disadvantages of this immediacy? You need to take that into account as well, Clay.

“The freedom to experiment means the freedom to experiment with anything" -Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky: As I mentioned before, with good information comes the bad. One cannot be separated from another on the internet. However, the internet provides an environment for cognitive surplus, and we see incredible experiments online. The internet itself is kind of like a social experiment, Nicholas. In this space, there is definitely an existing spectrum of good and bad information. However, you must keep in mind that the “freedom to experiment means the freedom to experiment with anything.” Referring to the Turrence theory, we can understand how to better manage the internet. The example of human behavior we inherited in the 20th century is that we are all rational, self-maximizing characters. Therefore, the key of the internet is to understand that, despite the bad, it is a place where people can use cognitive surplus to create civic value in a way that can change society and human interactions.

Nicholas Carr: Well, we can clearly both agree that the web changes human interaction and human behavior! While I have taken your views into account, I will continue to see the internet as changing the way that we process information, questioning whether immediacy is a positive attribute.

Clay Shirky: I will keep your thoughts on brain plasticity in mind in my future speeches. I hold firm on my belief that the internet is a miraculous space for people to engage. Keep in mind that every year, people collectively have a trillion hours of free time. Some of this free time goes into choosing to help creative civic value and change society, therefore changing human behavior and interactions. Once again, remember that with the good comes the bad.

Nicholas Carr: I certainly will, Clay. Thank you for meeting with me.

Clay Shirky: You as well, Nicholas.

Shake hands and exit interview.

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One Response to Clay Shirky vs. Nicholas Carr: how the internet has changed the way we think about human interaction

  1. Art Marr says:

    If fault is to be found with Shirky and Carr, as well as almost all other internet pundits on information overload, it is in their premises, not their conclusions. Almost all hold the implicit assumption that humans are sensitive to information as static facts. However, if informed by the most recent findings from affective neuroscience on human decision making, this position cannot be true.

    Specifically, Shirky and Carr (and nearly all of his peers) hold to positions that are not neurally realistic, and would have to abandon much of their opinions (and specifically the reality of information overload) if they were informed by the recent findings in affective neuroscience on how human minds actually process and choose information. Surprisingly, this argument can be made quite simply, and is made (link below) using an allegory of the Boston Red Sox pennant run over the years.

    (Alas, my argument at three pages is a bit long for a comments section, but perhaps not as a link.)

    A. J. Marr

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