Works in Progress - Spring 2020

Our Heads in the Cloud

By Nicholas Carr | March 2, 2020
Christoph Scholz/Flickr
Christoph Scholz/Flickr

Nicholas Carr is the best-selling author of several books about technology and its consequences. A new, expanded edition of his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, will be published this spring. We asked him to pose four questions about how the Internet will affect our future.

1. The way people use the Internet changed dramatically over the past decade as the smartphone became the personal computer of choice and social media became the main conduit for information of all sorts. Recent research confirms what most of us know from experience: our phones, with their constant updates and notifications, are mesmerizing. They keep us in a more or less permanent state of distraction. One 2017 study led by Adrian Ward, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, showed that even when our phones are turned off, they maintain a grip on our attention and weaken our mental acuity. People who had their switched-off phones in their pockets performed significantly worse on two standardized tests of intelligence than did those who left their phones in a different room. Will we learn, in the coming years, to use our phones and apps more thoughtfully and deliberately, or are we doomed to technological dependency and distraction?

2. Two years ago, news broke that Cambridge Analytica, a UK consulting firm, had extracted personal data from millions of Americans’ Facebook accounts and secretly used the information to aim political ads at individuals. The report stirred outrage. A #DeleteFacebook hashtag went viral, and Facebook’s stock price plummeted. One month later, however, Facebook announced that its membership had actually grown in the wake of the scandal, and the company’s stock market valuation rebounded to a new high. It’s a pattern that repeats itself frequently: disclosure of an online privacy violation prompts a public outcry, which soon fizzles. Instead of curtailing our social media use, we ratchet it up, handing companies such as Facebook and Google ever more intimate information about our lives and habits. Will we ever care enough about online privacy to change our behavior in response to corporate trespasses?

3. The huge volumes of data that circulate on the Internet are used for more than just advertising. They provide the raw material for a new generation of artificial intelligence programs. Using machine-learning algorithms, computers can discern subtle patterns in data and make predictions or other judgments about complex phenomena. Already, companies and governments are using such algorithms to make a raft of important decisions, from determining which news stories people see and selecting which would-be homebuyers get loans to choosing which prisoners get parole. As the technology advances, more decisions that once required human insight will be made by machines. The potential benefits are many, but so are the risks. Where should we draw the line between decisions we hand off to computers and those we keep for ourselves?

4. As more and more control over the nation’s financial, transport, and energy networks moves to “the cloud,” the threat of a debilitating attack on critical national infrastructure through the Internet will escalate. We got a preview of the dark possibilities in the summer of 2017, when the massive “NotPetya” cyberattack, allegedly launched by the Russian military, temporarily crippled the global shipping company Maersk and many other businesses. When will systems critical to the U.S. economy be targeted by a large-scale online assault, and will we be prepared?

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