It’s been some time now since I finished reading The Shallows, what the Internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr and I keep thinking about the following passage:
David Levy, in Scrolling Forward, describes a meeting he attended at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center in the mid-1970s, a time when the high-tech lab’s engineers and programmers were deciding many of the features we now take for granted in our personal computers.
A group of prominent computer scientists had been invited to PARC to see a demonstration of a new operation system that made “multitasking” easy. […] the new system divided a screen into many “windows”, each of which could run a different program or display a different document. To illustrate the flexibility of the system, the Xerox presenter clicked from a window in which he had been composing software code to another window that displayed newly arrived e-mail message. He quickly read and replied to the message, then hopped back to the programming window and continued coding.
Some in the audience applauded the new system. They saw that it would enable people to use their computers much more efficiently. Others recoiled from it. “Why in the world would you want to be interrupted -and distracted- by e-mail while programming?” one of the attending scientists angrily demanded.
I keep thinking about that scientist.
Almost forty years later, we can see how the windows interface has been chosen as the most preferred way to do things. There are windows within windows within windows everywhere, especially when navigating the Internet.
Along the book, Nicholas Carr explains how he began to notice that the Internet was having a much stronger and broader influence over him than his old stand-alone PC ever had:
“The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. […] Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected. […] I missed my old brain.”
I can very much relate to this, even when I don’t consider myself to spend much time online or multitasking when working with my computer. But, I do have a child and I keep thinking about how the way we interact with computers will be making an influence on him, especially when his brain is still developing.
The life of the Internet is facing interesting years. Meetings, such as the one referred above, are happening everywhere all the time. Meetings where decisions are being made on topics that will immensely influence not only the way we work, but also the way we live our lives, such as the idea of “windows”.
And I keep thinking about that scientist.
And also about a parallel world where scientists attending that meeting said “no” to “windows”. A world where our relationship with computers is being designed to support our concentration, instead of multiple threads of information. Would my old brain be back?
I dream with a better, more human digital world for our children.
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