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Authors: Nicholas Carr

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A Medium Of The Most General Nature

I
n the spring of 1954, as the first digital computers were moving into mass production, the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing killed himself by eating a cyanide-laced apple—a piece of fruit that had been plucked at incalculable cost, the act begs us to conclude, from the tree of knowledge. Turing, who displayed throughout his short life what one biographer calls an “otherworldly innocence,”
1
had during the Second World War played a crucial part in cracking the codes of Enigma, the elaborate typewriter that the Nazis used to encipher and decipher military commands and other sensitive messages. The breaking of Enigma was an epic achievement that helped turn the tide of the war and ensure an Allied victory, though it didn’t save Turing from the humiliation of being arrested, a few years later, for having sex with another man.

Today, Alan Turing is best remembered as the creator of an imaginary computing device that anticipated, and served as a blueprint for, the modern computer. He was just twenty-four, a recently elected fellow at Cambridge University, when he introduced what would come to be called the Turing machine in a 1936 paper entitled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” Turing’s intent in writing the paper was to show that there is no such thing as a perfect system of logic or mathematics—that there will always be some statements that cannot be proven either true or false, that will remain “uncomputable.” To help prove the point, he conjured up a simple, digital calculator able to follow coded instructions and to read, write, and erase symbols. Such a computer, he demonstrated, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. It was a “universal machine.”
2

In a later paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Turing explained how the existence of programmable computers “has the important consequence that, considerations of speed apart, it is unnecessary to design various new machines to do various computing processes. They can all be done with one digital computer, suitably programmed for each case.” What that means, he concluded, is that “all digital computers are in a sense equivalent.”
3
Turing was not the first person to imagine how a programmable computer might work—more than a century earlier, another English mathematician, Charles Babbage, had drawn up plans for an “analytical engine” that would be “a machine of the most general nature”
4
—but Turing seems to have been the first to understand the digital computer’s limitless adaptability.

What he could not have anticipated was the way his universal machine would, just a few decades after his death, become our universal medium. Because the different sorts of information distributed by traditional media—words, numbers, sounds, images, moving pictures—can all be translated into digital code, they can all be “computed.” Everything from Beethoven’s Ninth to a porn flick can be reduced to a string of ones and zeros and processed, transmitted, and displayed or played by a computer. Today, with the Internet, we’re seeing firsthand the extraordinary implications of Turing’s discovery. Constructed of millions of interconnected computers and data banks, the Net is a Turing machine of immeasurable power, and it is, true to form, subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our typewriter and our printing press, our map and our clock, our calculator and our telephone, our post office and our library, our radio and our TV. It’s even taking over the functions of other computers; more and more of our software programs run through the Internet—or “in the cloud,” as the Silicon Valley types say—rather than inside our home computers.

As Turing pointed out, the limiting factor of his universal machine was speed. Even the earliest digital computer could, in theory, do any information-processing job, but a complicated task—rendering a photograph, say—would have taken it far too long, and cost far too much, to be practicable. A guy in a darkroom with trays of chemicals could do the work much more quickly and cheaply. Computing’s speed limits, though, turned out to be only temporary obstacles. Since the first mainframe was assembled in the 1940s, the speed of computers and data networks has increased at a breakneck pace, and the cost of processing and transmitting data has fallen equally rapidly. Over the past three decades, the number of instructions a computer chip can process every second has doubled about every three years, while the cost of processing those instructions has fallen by almost half every year. Overall, the price of a typical computing task has dropped by 99.9 percent since the 1960s.
5
Network bandwidth has expanded at an equally fast clip, with Internet traffic doubling, on average, every year since the World Wide Web was invented.
6
Computer applications that were unimaginable in Turing’s day are now routine.

The way the Web has progressed as a medium replays, with the velocity of a time-lapse film, the entire history of modern media. Hundreds of years have been compressed into a couple of decades. The first information-processing machine that the Net replicated was Gutenberg’s press. Because text is fairly simple to translate into software code and to share over networks—it doesn’t require a lot of memory to store, a lot of bandwidth to transmit, or a lot of processing power to render on a screen—early Web sites were usually constructed entirely of typographical symbols. The very term we came to use to describe what we look at online—
pages
—emphasized the connection with printed documents. Publishers of magazines and newspapers, realizing that large quantities of text could, for the first time in history, be broadcast the way radio and TV programs had always been, were among the first businesses to open online outlets, posting articles, excerpts, and other pieces of writing on their sites. The ease with which words could be transmitted led, as well, to the widespread and extraordinarily rapid adoption of e-mail, rendering the personal letter obsolete.

As the cost of memory and bandwidth fell, it became possible to incorporate photographs and drawings into Web pages. At first, the images, like the text they often accompanied, were in black and white, and their low resolution made them blurry. They looked like the first photos printed in newspapers a hundred years ago. But the capacity of the Net expanded to handle color pictures, and the size and quality of the images increased enormously. Soon, simple animations began to play online, mimicking the herky-jerky motions of the flip books, or kineographs, that were popular at the end of the nineteenth century.

Next, the Web began to take over the work of our traditional sound-processing equipment—radios and phonographs and tape decks. The earliest sounds to be heard online were spoken words, but soon snippets of music, and then entire songs and even symphonies, were streaming through sites, at ever-higher levels of fidelity. The network’s ability to handle audio streams was aided by the development of software algorithms, such as the one used to produce MP3 files, that erase from music and other recordings sounds that are hard for the human ear to hear. The algorithms allowed sound files to be compressed to much smaller sizes with only slight sacrifices in quality. Telephone calls also began to be routed over the fiber-optic cables of the Internet, bypassing traditional phone lines.

Finally, video came online, as the Net subsumed the technologies of cinema and television. Because the transmission and display of moving pictures place great demands on computers and networks, the first online videos played in tiny windows inside browsers. The pictures would often stutter or drop out, and they were usually out of sync with their soundtracks. But here, too, gains came swiftly. Within just a few years, elaborate three-dimensional games were being played online, and companies like Netflix and Apple were sending high-definition movies and TV shows over the network and onto screens in customers’ homes. Even the long-promised “picture phone” is finally becoming a reality, as webcams become a regular feature of computers and Net-connected televisions, and popular Internet telephone services like Skype incorporate video transmissions.

 

THE NET DIFFERS
from most of the mass media it replaces in an obvious and very important way: it’s bidirectional. We can send messages through the network as well as receive them. That’s made the system all the more useful. The ability to exchange information online, to upload as well as download, has turned the Net into a thoroughfare for business and commerce. With a few clicks, people can search virtual catalogues, place orders, track shipments, and update information in corporate databases. But the Net doesn’t just connect us with businesses; it connects us with one another. It’s a personal broadcasting medium as well as a commercial one. Millions of people use it to distribute their own digital creations, in the form of blogs, videos, photos, songs, and podcasts, as well as to critique, edit, or otherwise modify the creations of others. The vast, volunteer-written encyclopedia Wikipedia, the largely amateur-produced YouTube video service, the massive Flickr photo repository, the sprawling Huffington Post blog compendium—all of these popular media services were unimaginable before the Web came along. The interactivity of the medium has also turned it into the world’s meetinghouse, where people gather to chat, gossip, argue, show off, and flirt on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and all sorts of other social (and sometimes antisocial) networks.

As the uses of the Internet have proliferated, the time we devote to the medium has grown apace, even as speedier connections have allowed us to do more during every minute we’re logged on. By 2009, adults in North America were spending an average of twelve hours online a week, double the average in 2005.
7
If you consider only those adults with Internet access, online hours jump considerably, to more than seventeen a week. For younger adults, the figure is higher still, with people in their twenties spending more than nineteen hours a week online.
8
American children between the ages of two and eleven were using the Net about eleven hours a week in 2009, an increase of more than sixty percent since 2004.
9
The typical European adult was online nearly eight hours a week in 2009, up about thirty percent since 2005. Europeans in their twenties were online about twelve hours a week on average.
10
A 2008 international survey of 27,500 adults between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five found that people are spending thirty percent of their leisure time online, with the Chinese being the most intensive surfers, devoting forty-four percent of their off-work hours to the Net.
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These figures don’t include the time people spend using their mobile phones and other handheld computers to exchange text messages, which also continues to increase rapidly. Text messaging now represents one of the most common uses of computers, particularly for the young. By the beginning of 2009, the average American cell phone user was sending or receiving nearly 400 texts a month, more than a fourfold increase from 2006. The average American teen was sending or receiving a mind-boggling 2,272 texts a month.
12
Worldwide, well over two trillion text messages zip between mobile phones every year, far outstripping the number of voice calls.
13
Thanks to our ever-present messaging systems and devices, we “never really have to disconnect,” says Danah Boyd, a social scientist who works for Microsoft.
14

It’s often assumed that the time we devote to the Net comes out of the time we would otherwise spend watching TV. But statistics suggest otherwise. Most studies of media activity indicate that as Net use has gone up, television viewing has either held steady or increased. The Nielsen Company’s long-running media-tracking survey reveals that the time Americans devote to TV viewing has been going up throughout the Web era. The hours we spend in front of the tube rose another two percent between 2008 and 2009, reaching 153 hours a month, the highest level since Nielsen began collecting data in the 1950s (and that doesn’t include the time people spend watching TV shows on their computers).
15
In Europe as well, people continue to watch television as much as they ever have. The average European viewed more than a dozen hours of TV a week in 2009, nearly an hour more than in 2004.
16

A 2006 study by Jupiter Research revealed “a huge overlap” between TV viewing and Web surfing, with forty-two percent of the most avid TV fans (those watching thirty-five or more hours of programming a week) also being among the most intensive users of the Net (those spending thirty or more hours online a week).
17
The growth in our online time has, in other words, expanded the total amount of time we spend in front of screens. According to an extensive 2009 study conducted by Ball State University’s Center for Media Design, most Americans, no matter what their age, spend at least eight and a half hours a day looking at a television, a computer monitor, or the screen of their mobile phone. Frequently, they use two or even all three of the devices simultaneously.
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What does seem to be decreasing as Net use grows is the time we spend reading print publications—particularly newspapers and magazines, but also books. Of the four major categories of personal media, print is now the least used, lagging well behind television, computers, and radio. By 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the time that the average American over the age of fourteen devoted to reading printed works had fallen to 143 minutes a week, a drop of eleven percent since 2004. Young adults between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, who are among the most avid Net users, were reading printed works for a total of just forty-nine minutes a week in 2008, down a precipitous twenty-nine percent from 2004.
19
In a small but telling 2008 study conducted for
Adweek
magazine, four typical Americans—a barber, a chemist, an elementary school principal, and a real estate agent—were shadowed during the course of a day to document their media usage. The people displayed very different habits, but they shared one thing in common, according to the magazine: “None of the four cracked open any print media during their observed hours.”
20
Because of the ubiquity of text on the Net and our phones, we’re almost certainly reading more words today than we did twenty years ago, but we’re devoting much less time to reading words printed on paper.

BOOK: The Shallows
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