I've spent the last week working through the literature criticizing the effects of the Internet on our brains, the balance between our inward (private, contemplative) ;and outward (public, social) lives, our ability to read novels, and wrapped up with arguments for unplugging. Next week I start constructing the response.
Fundamentally, while I'm sympathetic to these arguments, I think the way they've framed the problem and its solutions are seriously flawed. I've already talked about the problems with equating literary reading with thinking and intelligence more generally; three other issues concern me here.
First, they normalize the present: they take today's computers, Web design, social media, etc. as a given. Now, people like Carr and Powers aren't Web designers or engineers, so they don't have a professional obligation to ask how you could design information technologies that don't promote the sorts of practices that lead to distraction or cognitive fatigure-- or as Carr puts it, degrade our ability tothink, read and remember. But tacit assumptions matter, and far from conceding this ground, I think it's worth exploring.
Second, I think the digital Cassandra literature accepts a view of humans as largely disembided information processors. Carr is a bit of an exception, in that he makes some reference to embodied cognition, but it's not really central to his argument: he's not arguing that Google makes us stoopid because we think with our bodies as well as our brains. And the point of digital sabbaths are to refresh the mind more than the body: taking up old hobbies or getting out in the sun are mainly ways to clear the mind-- recharging the brain by giving it some other inputs. Instinct says that recognizing the embodied quality of cognition will help in formulating good solutions.
Finally, they don't recognize that there are forms of interaction with computers that are engaging, absorbing, challenging, and for some people can be hugely satisfying. Michael Green's wonderfuly, quirky old book Zen and the Art of the Macintosh is all about how his work with graphics and desktop publishing becomes a journey to enlightenment. Ellen Ullman is poetic about programming, and the immense satisfactions (and perils) of getting "close tot he machine." Finally, there are hugely profitable, accessible, and familiar computer environments that are also deeply attractive: they're called games. And for all the problems they can pose, I think that better understanding what makes games compelling can help us better understand how to create devices an experiences that many of us will find more satisfying and satisfactory.