Critical views of science in the news

Chain links: Is the Internet empowering or enslaving us?


I don't believe in God—at least, not any version I've encountered so far—but I do believe in free will. Free will, which I define as our capacity to recognize and act on choices, is what makes life meaningful. I can't be sure that free will exists, so my belief is, I suppose, a faith. And it is a faith sorely tested by advances in science and technology.

Recently, for example, I've been brooding over whether the Internet, laptops, smart phones and all the razzmatazz of our wired (and wi-fi) age are enlarging or diminishing our free will. Because free will is not something you either do or don't have; it can thrive or shrivel, depending on your circumstances. You have more free will now than you did when you were two years old, for example, or than you would if you were locked in a prison or afflicted with Alzheimer's.

The proximate cause of my brooding is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), in which Nicholas Carr argues that Google, e-mail, Twitter and so on are transforming us into fast-twitch intellectual skimmers. Pundits Jonah Lehrer and Steven Pinker assure us that the Internet's upside outweighs its downside. But I can't stop fretting over The Shallows, which I just reviewed for The Wall Street Journal and chatted about on

Carr's most disturbing proposition is that we are not choosing all our cool new information technologies of our own free will. He raises the specter of "technological determinism," a term coined by cranky economist Thorstein Veblen to describe how technologies such as the steam engine, railroad and telegraph propagate in ways that often seem beyond our control.

Veblen's contemporary, Karl Marx, was evoking this idea when he wrote, "The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrialist capitalist." Carr also quotes the gnomic 1960's egghead Marshall McLuhan, who called human beings "the sex organs of the machine world." McLuhan's aphorism reminds me of Richard Dawkins's description of human beings as "lumbering robots" constructed by selfish genes to make more copies of themselves.

Carr's book has made me excruciatingly aware of how my digital gadgets control me, rather than vice versa. When I have a job to do, like finishing this column, I compulsively check my e-mail and online comments on my articles, and I wander off into hyperlinked rabbit holes far from my topic. When I mentioned this problem to a friend, he retorted, "Just stop! Quit whining and turn your wi-fi off!" But that's like telling an alcoholic to just stop drinking.

Technological determinism seems especially compelling when I watch my teenage kids speed-texting their friends, updating their Facebook accounts, chortling over Tosh.0 clips on YouTube. Did they really choose this life or was it foisted on them? They wonder, too. My son says he sometimes thinks about spending less time online, but he worries that he'll be cut off from his friends.

Some of us seem more in control of these technologies—or at least benefit more from them—than others. These are the inventors, builders and sellers—the equivalent of Marx's feudal lords—intent on making us slaves of their products. Carr notes that Google has designed its search program to entice us to keep clicking hyperlinks rather than lingering on a page. The more Web pages we look at, the more ads we see, the more money Google makes. Google is "in the business of distraction," Carr writes.

According to the most radical version of technological determinism, even lords like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are just tools—sex organs!—of their own inventions. This idea culminates in paranoid sci-fi visions like The Terminator and The Matrix, in which the machines turn on and attempt to destroy their hapless human creators.

I realize the irony—even contradiction—of this column. I wrote it on a laptop, embedded hyperlinks I found via Google (lots of good stuff about technological determinism on Wikipedia), and e-mailed it to my editors who posted it on this Web site for you to read and respond to online. Just last week, I was enthusing about how surveillance and communications technologies will help us achieve a world without war. In this world, I like to think, we will have more choices, more free will, than we do today.

Will our technologies take us to a peaceful, prosperous utopia or to a dystopian nightmare? I still believe (or should I say I have faith?) that the choice is ours to make.

Image: Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, from Wikipedia

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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