Carr opens this chapter with Alan Turing and hisTuring machine, an imaginary device that anticipated the modern computer. Turing’s machine would be a “universal machine” able to be programmed for any conceivable purpose. However, even Turing admitted his idea was limited by speed, or computing time, which was very slow in the early 20th century. In Turing’s time, it was far faster and cheaper to have a man in a darkroom render a photograph than it was for the earliest digital computer to complete the same task. Today the Internet, no longer limited by speed, has absorbed and digitized every sort of information imaginable, taking Turing’s idea to new heights. The cost of a computing task, Carr reports, has dropped by 99.9% since the 1960s.
The foundational concept for this chapter is Turing’s idea of a machine that could serve any purpose and would have unlimited potential. By opening with the Turing machine, Carr preps the reader to be astonished by how quickly the make-believe became reality, all through eliminating the obstacle of speed.
The web’s evolution offers a compressed history of media, having absorbed the functionality of everything from Gutenberg’s press to the movie theater. Text was first, as typographical symbols were the easiest to represent. Next, with the lowered cost of bandwidth, web pages began to incorporate photographs and drawings. Soon the job of radios and phonographs was absorbed by the Net too, and when MP3s were invented, sound files could be compressed for easy sharing. Finally, the Net consumed movie theaters, able to quickly transmit not only video but also elaborate 3D games.
This segment explains how the functionality of each type of media was absorbed in turn by the Internet, foreshadowing the Internet as a force for making old technologies obsolete. In short, the Internet is Turing’s machine come to fruition––but it has consequences.
Carr points out that the difference between the Net and other mass media is that the channel of communication goes both ways. Not only does the Net connect you with businesses, it provides a platform for personal interaction. Sites like Wikipedia, Flickr, and YouTube successfully rely on users to provide the enormous amount of content offered.
The Net provides things that media in their original form could not: namely, “bi-directionality” (or content that is both consumed and created by users).
As the speed and capacities of the Internet increased, the amount of time we spend logged on has skyrocketed. A 2009 study reported that adults were spending an average of twelve hours online a week, not counting time on handheld phones. Carr warns us, too, against the assumption that much of this Net use is being taken from leisure time otherwise devoted to TV. Nielsen studies show that as Net use has increased, the time Americans devote to television has increased as well. The point being: Net use has only increased the time Americans spend in front of screens. Users for example, often watch TV as they operate both a laptop and a mobile phone.
What Turing did not predict was that as the speed of his machine was enhanced, we would spend more and more time using it. The takeaway here is that Americans spend a massive amount of time on the Internet, and that amount is only increasing. In practice, speed of technology doesn’t equal more free time for people to spend on things other than technology—it just means more free time to spend on the Internet.
What is definitely decreasing is the time spent reading print medium like newspapers, magazines and books. A 2008 study reported that young adults, the most avid Net users, spent a mere 49 minutes a week reading printed matter. Though we are definitely reading more words in total due to the amount of text on the Net, less and less of this text is in paper form. Carr brings it back to Turing, stating: “Once information is digitized, the boundaries between media dissolve.” Things like cassettes, spools, phonographs––tools specific to their medium––have been replaced by the faster, cheaper, all-purpose-tool of the Internet.
Carr continues to outline the consequences of the Turing machine being actualized in the form of the Internet. Not only do we use the Internet more, but we read drastically less. What’s more, the consequence of the Internet’s media-absorbant power has pushed a wide array of technological objects into disuse and obsolescence.
Though people still collect records and use film cameras, there is no question that such items have lost their economic power and, as a result, have been shelved as what Carr calls “progress’s dead ends.” While the benefits of the Internet––connectivity, accessibility––are many, there are consequences to pushing aside the various physical mediums we used to use and replacing them with a universal medium. The DVD industry, the United States post office, and the newspaper business have all fallen on hard financial times, with newspapers and journals putting all resources into digital outlets, and many publications ceasing to exist all together.
In the same way that machines take workers’ jobs, the Net has taken the jobs of old media. A further consequence, then, of the Internet is the obliteration of entire media industries.
Carr points out that the process of digitizing other mediums––particularly text––recreates content in the internet’s image. In other words, the reading experience online is intensely different than on paper. The content is broken down, strewn with hyperlinks, and set against the distracting background of all the other information the Net has absorbed. While hyperlinks increase the ease with which we can jump between documents, the nature of Net searches encourages the fragmentation of texts. The result is that we skip from fragment to fragment at lightning pace. Quoting the blogger Cory Doctorow, Carr concludes that computers plunge us into an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.”
Not only does the Internet take over the job of distributing the content of other mediums, it changes that content irrevocably. The hyperlink, for example, chops up our reading experience and encourages the user to skip back and forth. Here Carr is introducing one of his main points: The Internet is designed to engender distraction.
As people’s minds grow used to the Internet’s way of unbundling and fragmenting content into easily consumed bits, other media are evolving to mimic the Internet’s style. Magazines like Rolling Stone no longer publish sprawling, 7,000 word features, but instead a jumble of shorter pieces. Newspapers focus on headlines, summaries, and tables to make skimming their contents easier. Television networks use text crawls on the screen to run pop-up ads and shows like Late Night with Jimmy Fallon are written to encourage breaking up the content. The writers know that video hubs like Hulu will later choose select clips to show for free. Even experiences in the real world are becoming mediated. Certain symphonies and theaters encourage audience usage of platforms like Twitter during performances so the audience can engage in group commentary whilst the performance is taking place. The experience of the classic library is changing too, becoming less and less a place to go for free reading time and increasingly synonymous with free Wi-Fi.
One of the most interesting consequences of the Internet becoming our primary means of consuming information is that older mediums are also changing to reflect the Internet experience. The way we move through the world is increasingly resembling the way we navigate a series of websites. Television and even live experience are embracing the social media concepts of sharing and the Internet standard of small, easily digestible pieces. The concern is that we are changing our surroundings to match the functionality of a new technology, rather than changing the technology to fit our surroundings. Whether this change is good or bad is Carr’s primary question, and remains to be seen.