For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
The tension between this earlier article and the vast majority of articles one finds about Google and technology in general manifest an interesting divide: the problem (or benefit) is generally what we do with technology rather than the nature of the technology itself. In other words, we always have the agency. It’s rare articles like Carr’s that show how other things have agency besides simply humans. Of course, Bruno Latour and others in Actor Network Theory have long made similar arguments, but it’s interesting, in watching the most recent Google controversies, how rarely such thinking about “other actors” comes into even highbrow magazines like the Atlantic. Questions of monopoly take on much more importance given a greater awareness of Google’s (and all technlogy’s) agency. For example, as Eli Pariser has recently written, if you don’t know what Google “is hiding from you”, then it has a monolopy over much more than simply searches.