On The Right To Be Interrupted; or, Why Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Shallows’ lacks insight

I’ve been thinking recently about attention and concentration. Part of my PhD is contingent on the idea of technology transforming the human brain/psyche/consciousness, and I’m particularly interested in how internet technology can help or hinder concentration. So too, apparently, is Nicholas Carr.

As a brilliant illustration of the point, right as I was trying to write the second sentence in the above paragraph I was interrupted, this time by the television, and I had to take a break from trying to write, temporarily unable to concentrate on the task. Interruptions like this happen all the time – in fact, we’ve developed a society based on the right to interruption. For this reason, I am more than a little sceptical of many of the claims that Nicholas Carr presents in his occasionally excellent, occasionally over-the-top book The Shallows. Carr positions Internet technology as one that is fundamentally interrupting  (though he never considers it in so many words, and perhaps if he did he’d see the problems with his thesis) and he talks much about the speed with which we mutli-task, switch browser windows to check emails, tweets, Facebook and other internet services.

Carr seems to think these interruptions are somehow more common, more distracting, or somehow categorically different from the cacophony of non-digital interruptions that routinely happen as part of modern living. An example I’ve been considering of late, and one so ubiquitous it’s effects are virtually invisible, is the car. The car is a fundamentally interruptive technology, yet you won’t hear Carr railing against the noise pollution the motor vehicles put out and the disrupting and degenerate effects it has on people who live with the constant interruptions typical of high traffic environments.

More than half the world’s population now lives in cities. Cities are full of cars and other vehicles. The sound of vehicles is fundamentally an interruption: a listener has no say over when a car arrives, it’s convenience and degree of interruption left mainly up to chance, and one can easily come to dominate the soundscape (particularly if it’s fitted with an obnoxious muffler). It is every car drivers right to interrupt your train of thought with the sound of their approaching vehicle, not just those drivers who sit on their car horns. By driving down my street, a car’s operator interrupts the evenness of whatever I was aurally percieving (consciously or otherwise) by asserting their presence sonically. Yet when confronted with this ‘evidence’ of the combustion engine’s fundamentally disruptive nature, most sane and rational people would simply suggest I move to a quieter suburb or obtain ear-plugs. So why isn’t Carr satisfied with advocate moving to a quieter digital suburb? Apparently it’s not possible to switch off your phone, ignore your emails, or even deliberately neglect your Facebook account.

Interruption is a right built into the very foundations of our society. Even beyond the objects with which we give explicit permission to others to interrupt us (the telephone, the email client, the IM chat window, the social network, the emergency siren, the car horn) we give permission to things like: other people’s stereo’s and televisions; to chairs as people scrape them backwards to stand up; to keyboards and appliances as they click and whirr in the office space; to the aircraft flying overhead; even something as common as the speech of anyone within ear-shot… interruption is an officially sanctioned part of society.

But imagine if we prioritised the ability to concentrate over the ability to ‘actually get things done’ (which inevitably will require at some stage being loud and/or interruptive). Imagine if the rights of everyone else to be uninterrupted by your presence and activities superseded your right to be loud, or to be heard, or to drive a car, or to walk with heavy footfalls, etcetera, etcetera. Imagine if we wrote it into our laws. It’s an impractical world from the current perspective, and for various reasons, but it’s also not an impossible one. We could never truly silence everything (animals, plants, the wind, etc) but nor would we want to. The differences between these sounds and human made sounds however is that the latter often conveys semantic information (i.e. ‘this is a car approaching’, ‘there are road-workers in that direction’). And studies have found that  restoring human capacity for attention involves the kind of non-semantic, unfocussed attention that is most often associated with staring at plants (to put it overly simply).

Obviously I’m overstating the case against interruption here, but only for the sake of rhetorical comparison. Does Carr do any less? Flip open any page of The Shallows and pull out a quote at random warning of the dangerously interruptive properties of digital technology. Here’s one plucked at random from the page where I’m currently reading:

“…the powerful tools for discovery, filtering, and distributing information developed by companies like Google ensure that we are forever inundated by information of immediate interest to us – and in quantities well beyond what out brains can handle. As the technologies for data processing improve, as our tools for searching and filtering become more precise, the flood of relevant information only intensifies.” (p.170)

Lets re-write the above as if it were about the interrupting effects of the motor vehicle:

“…the powerful tools for transport, contact, and distribution developed by companies like Ford ensure that we are forever inundated by motor cars of immediate interest to us – and in quantities well beyond what our brains can handle. As the technologies for motor vehicle travel improve, as our tools for directing and guiding traffic become more precise, the flood of relevant information only intensifies.”

It’s more than a little bit specious an example, but it’s not entirely beyond the scope of imagining. When read as a lament aimed at ‘interruption’, many of Carr’s assertions about the fundamentally brain-altering nature of the Internet tend to lose their persuasiveness. Perhaps, however, they actually should be taken seriously – but rather as a generalised caution about the problems involved with a whole suite of interruptions. It seems quite unlikely, however, that this idea could ever be taken seriously outside the pages of Sci-Fi.