Carr opens this chapter with a description of how our depictions of space change as we age. In childhood we might draw a rudimentary picture to represent our house. In adulthood, we’ve gathered the tools to both make and comprehend complex special maps like blueprints. Vincent Virga, an expert on cartography, explains how the progression of mapmaking skills in human history parallels these stages of cognitive development. Man’s first maps were scratched in the dirt. As time passed, we used tools like the compass and mathematical formulas to make our maps increasingly realistic. Eventually our maps not only could accurately represent space, but ideas in space––for example, a potential battle plan. Advances in cartography not only changed the way we dealt with space but the way we understood space forever. Map technology––in which we reduced reality into a microcosm, making an analogy for space––marked an increased capacity for abstract thinking in humans.
The progression from childhood to adult styles of mapmaking is a representation of human affinity for abstract thought throughout all of history. As we get older, we not only gain the ability to accurately represent space in analogous forms, but also to represent ideas of space in analogous forms. The way concrete mapmaking gave birth to abstract mapmaking reflects a general effect that tools like cartography have on human cognitive abilities.
Clocks, Carr argues, did the same thing for time that maps did for space. The demand for precise time measurement originated in the monastery, where life is regimented and revolved around ritualized prayer. As more and more people started working in factories rather than fields, synchronization became even more important. Clocks became more accurate, smaller, and cheaper––eventually becoming personalized in the form of the wristwatch, advertised as a way to stay productive.
This segment reiterates how a tool has changed our conception of something like space or time from a concrete relationship into an abstract one.
Like the map, the clock changed our thinking. These tools marked the move from Middle Ages thinking to Enlightenment thinking, in which the goal became to discern patterns beneath the surfaces of life. In other words, where knowledge in the dark ages tended to use surface evidence to jump to mystical conclusions, the new way of the Enlightenment was abstract, always pushing the depths for reasonable, provable patterns. “Independent of the practical concerns that inspired the timekeeping machine’s creation,” writes Carr, “…the clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man.”
Both the map and the clock heralded a change in our thinking. We exchanged topical, dark-ages mysticism for the Enlightenment’s focus on larger patterns. The takeaway here is that tool-enabled, abstract thinking was the foundation needed for what came next: Scientific man.
Carr places the map and the clock into a category of technology he terms intellectual technology. All technology, Carr argues, was created to expand and extend aspects of humanity. Intellectual technologies, then, are tools that extend our mental powers. One benefit of new intellectual technologies is that they frequently allow the general public to have access to ways of thinking previously only available to the elite. Carr calls this new way of thinking, specific to each technology, the technology’s “intellectual ethic.” To phrase this another way, Carr is saying that each technology rests on a set of assumptions about how the mind works. That set of assumptions is the “intellectual ethic.” Carr finds it strange that inventors rarely pay attention to the intellectual ethics of their inventions, for, he argues, it is the ethic that has the most profound effect on users.
Carr’s point is that the defining characteristic of technologies like the Internet, the map, and the clock is not just that they extend cognitive powers, but that they change the very way we think. Mentioning that the intellectual ethic is often ignored is Carr’s way of implying that there is, again, something uncomfortable for humans in admitting the way our tools change us.
There are different points of view about the extent to which technology influences the course of human history. The determinists take an extreme view, believing humans to be at the whims of technology’s nearly autonomous progress. An extreme determinist mindset can be found in Marshall McCluhan, who wrote that humans were merely the “sex organs of the machine world,” existing only until technology develops the capacity to create itself without us. Instrumentalists like David Sarnoff, on the other hand, take solace in the idea that our tools are neutral. Instrumentalists like Sarnoff believe that intellectual technologies are instruments and that we have total control over how we use them.
Carr turns to two opposing theories about the way technology does or does not affect us to delve into the scope of the discomfort humans feel at the idea that technology can rewire our brains. This segment highlights two extremes to incite readers to evaluate both and try to place themselves on one side.
Both sides of the argument agree that breakthroughs in technology have marked pivotal moments in human history. Carr himself sees merit in both sides, but reveals a determinist leaning when he points out that humans have rarely been conscious of, or asked for, the side effects of our discoveries. The problem with investigating merit on either side of the argument is that––while we have ancient artifacts to study––we have no ancient brains. In other words, we can study the tools of past ages but we cannot study the physical minds of their users to track how these minds did or did not change.
Carr qualifies his determinist leanings by noting the difficulties of scientifically investigating the relationships between people and technology in the past. This sets up the reader for ways in which science has advanced to make such investigation possible.
The scientific discovery of neuroplasticity has shed some light on the issue, however. While the basic form of the brain has not changed, as H.G Wells notes in his 1938 book World Brain, man’s “social life, his habits, have changed completely, have even undergone reversion and reversal, while his heredity seems to have changed very little if at all, since the late Stone Age.” (49) We can assume, in other words, that using tools has strengthened certain neural pathways and diminished others simply because man’s way of interacting with society has changed so deeply.
The thrust of this segment is that a deterministic leaning viewpoint––or at least, a standpoint that rejects technology as simply neutral––is undeniable due to the mere fact that mankind’s way of interacting with the world has undergone such vast and stark changes.
Carr argues that one way technology has changed our brains is by changing our language. Technology gave us new metaphors for understanding the world. With the advent of the clock, we received new words and concepts. We could describe previously inexplicable organs, like the brain, in a mechanistic fashion. In this way, external technologies had deep effects on our use of metaphors and, as a result, on our internal worlds.
Working within the history of these changes, Carr identifies metaphorical language as proof of technology’s deep effects. Identifying language as a changed aspect of human life serves his argument by pointing to altered internal life and even physical anatomy.
While language itself is not a technology because we learn to speak without instruction, reading and writing are acquired skills and count as intellectual technologies. Instruction in different types of reading and writing shapes and molds the brain in a variety of ways. Carr provides evidence for this by referencing brain scans done on populations like the Chinese who use logographic symbols. Such populations have widely different brain circuitry than those who use phonetic alphabets.
The gist of this section is that speakers of different languages have different brains. Because language is a technology, the implication here is that each variant on a technology has a highly individual effect.
As Carr points out, we didn’t always have writing. Human culture was originally based in oral––or spoken––traditions. In ancient times, the difficult systems of Egyptian and Sumerian scholars required memorization of thousands of characters, meaning interpretation was limited to the elite. Writing was dictated to and read back by a select group of literate scribes. When the Greek alphabet was invented in 750 BC, the new system of letters was more economical, requiring less memory resources and thus setting the groundwork to expand literacy. However, even in the fourth century BC, writing remained a novelty, and many had doubts about this new technology.
Carr moves to an even more “macro” scope, identifying the social consequences of language technology. Writing, for a long time, was laborious, making literacy an elite privilege. The implication is that advancements in writing technology would change social structures by expanding literacy to the masses, further proving Carr’s point that technology has greatly affected the development of mankind.
Carr recalls the Phaedrus, a famous work by the philosopher Plato. In the Phaedrus, orator Socrates tells the story of Thoth, Egyptian god and inventor of writing. In the story, Thoth’s invention is rejected by King Thamus on the grounds that men will become forgetful. Thamus’ worry is that writing, acting like an external bank for memory, will cause his subjects’ internal memories to wither. Plato, a writer, obviously had a different standpoint. He fought the oral tradition because it relied on recall and limited knowledge to the stores of human memory. While Carr notes that our ancestors may have had emotional depths we know nothing about due to their reliance on memory, there is no doubt that the transition into a literary, writing-based culture was the foundation for the achievements of the Western world.
For Carr’s book, the story of Thoth’s rejection by the king perfectly describes a general worry experienced by many (dating even back to ancient times) on the eve of a new technological era––that something, inevitably, will be lost.