It is the connection between memory and creativity, perhaps, which should make us most wary of the web. ‘As our use of the web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory,’ Carr observes. But conscious manipulation of externally stored information is not enough to yield the deepest of creative breakthroughs: this is what the example of Poincaré suggests. Human memory, unlike machine memory, is dynamic. Through some process we only crudely understand – Poincaré himself saw it as the collision and locking together of ideas into stable combinations – novel patterns are unconsciously detected, novel analogies discovered. And this is the process that Google, by seducing us into using it as a memory prosthesis, threatens to subvert.
It’s not that the web is making us less intelligent; if anything, the evidence suggests it sharpens more cognitive skills than it dulls. It’s not that the web is making us less happy, although there are certainly those who, like Carr, feel enslaved by its rhythms and cheated by the quality of its pleasures. It’s that the web may be an enemy of creativity. Which is why Woody Allen might be wise in avoiding it altogether.
By the way, it is customary for reviewers of books like this to note, in a jocular aside, that they interrupted their writing labours many times to update their Facebook page, to fire off text messages, to check their email, to tweet and blog and amuse themselves on the internet trying to find images of cats that look like Hitler. Well, I’m not on Facebook and I don’t know how to tweet. I have an email account with AOL (‘America’s Oldest Luddites’), but there’s rarely anything in my inbox. I’ve never had an iPod or a BlackBerry. I’ve never had a mobile phone of any kind. Like Woody Allen, I’ve avoided the snares of the digital age. And I still can’t get anything done.