Nicholas Carr’s New Book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, should be required reading for anybody who uses a computer. Citing copious research, Carr argues that society’s excessive use of the Internet has literally changed the way we think and process information.
The earlier chapters speculate on how the average brain has changed since the days of our ancestors. Their thinking was profoundly impacted by each new technology that gained mass acceptance: cartography, writing, printed books, and television, for example.
With the development of written language, mankind switched from a society that valued and emphasized oratory and memorization to one that valued reading (and eventually silent reading) and the recording of information on paper. This shift from a memorization culture to a recording culture brought with it profound changes to the human brain, a change that is reflected today by studies that indicate how brain function in children changes when they first learn to write.
The same phenomenon occured with the invention of mapmaking. Spatial information that once had to be stored in our ancestors’ brains — how to get home from a long journey, for example — could now be transferred to paper. The part of our brain that dealt with such spatial issues, then, could be allotted for other memory tasks through the wonders of neuroplasticity. We are today less likely to have innate directional skills because those areas of our brain that once specialized in such concerns now do something else.
The Internet has had the same effect as these earlier innovations, but in a much shorter time. It is, in Carr’s view, a technology of distraction, one that emphasizes breadth of knowledge over depth — hence the book’s title. Reading online is a profoundly different experience than reading on paper, largely because the distractions — hyperlinks, pop-ups, competing windows on the screen — keep us from focusing exclusively on the content. We are always looking forward to the “next thing,” which makes it hard for us to sustain the level of attention necessary to complete, for example, a very long book or to ponder deep philosophical questions. Eventually, our brains become accustomed to such skimming, and “rewire” themselves to become better at it, sometimes at the expense of our long-term concentration.
Carr, who expanded this book from an article he had written called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” first noticed that his concentration was wavering when he was unable to focus sufficiently to read War and Peace. Friends who were teachers told him of students who could not concentrate long enough to finish reading assignments, and of lit majors who felt that reading a precis or summary of a novel was more effective than reading the entire work because the summary allowed them to get to the meat of the piece faster and then move on to other things.
Perhaps the most disquieting part of the book is the chapter on Google, which explains how the company has positioned itself as the largest search engine in the world, and how the program’s logarithms determine what information we see when we conduct a Google search — and what information we don’t. It’s enough to make me want to swear off Google, except that’s a lot like swearing off seeing or hearing.
Ultimately, Carr’s book is not some Chicken Little, the-sky-is-falling tome warning us to stay away from technology. He acknowledges that the Internet is an incredibly helpful invention in any number of human endeavors. But his little tome is a caution, a reminder that as we are using our tools, our tools are using us. Sometimes, we need to step away from computers, smart phones and e-readers and remember to reconnect more with one another — to live in the real world and not a digital simulacrum.