Perhaps you’ve seen the ad campaign for the new search engine, Bing. The basic structure of the ads is formulaic: someone asks a simple question, and the question sets the hearer off on a stream of consciousness, spouting search engine results that have nothing to do with the original question. The campaign is called “Search Overload Syndrome,” and it’s not too far from the reality of what the internet is doing to our brains. Or at least that’s the thesis of Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (minus the reference to the Bing ad campaign).
Carr is no Luddite: though an English major at Dartmouth, he has been riding the computer wave since before it really took off in the mid-80s, and he readily admits his addiction to Blu-ray, Wi-Fi, Netflix, Pandora, and YouTube. Nevertheless, Carr doesn’t let this addiction blind him to the very real downsides to our growing dependence on multimedia technology, particularly the Internet.
As the dust jacket notes, the book is “part intellectual history, part popular science, and part cultural criticism,” and Carr pulls it off with aplomb. Drawing on such diverse sources as Socrates and Plato, Augustine, Nietzsche, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and modern studies on neuroscience, he makes a compelling case that the new technologies have negatively affected our capacity for “deep reading,” and thus for deep thinking. Usually when people debate new technology, be it the radio, the television, or the computer, the point at issue is the content the media provide rather than the medium itself. Carr seeks to redress this deficiency. Carr asks not whether the content available on the internet is good or bad – rather, he asks how the nature of the medium affects the way we think.
The Internet is not the first technology to alter the way we think. Carr points to cartography and clocks as inventions whose effects extended beyond their original purpose. Maps, of course, were originally intended to help people navigate and reach places they had never been before. Once they came into common use, though, they offered human beings a new way to conceptualize the world. A similar change accompanied the invention of the clock, which led society to conceive of time as discrete units and to construct more precise schedules. Examples could be multiplied. Upon abandoning writing by hand for an early version of the typewriter, Nietzsche noted how the device changed his writing style. With each of these changes, there is both loss and gain.
Carr focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on the loss that the Internet has precipitated. In my first post to this blog, I suggested that the Internet generates or reinforces ADD. I made that claim simply based on experience. It would seem that science actually backs this up. According to Carr, studies have shown that the nature of the Net as a multimedia technology actually impedes our ability to memorize and to read carefully. The reason for this is the way our brains work. In a nutshell (and oversimplifying dramatically), Carr describes the Internet as a multimedia “distraction device.” The combination of text, images, video, and audio overstimulates our brains and thus reduces our ability to focus. Moreover, our reliance on technology has impaired our memory, making the act of memorization more rather than less difficult. Unsurprisingly, one of the primary engines driving the explosion in this technology is money. To take the most obvious example, Google has an investment in making us surf the web faster and faster. The more links we click on, the more opportunities Google has to create new ads and thus to make more money.
Again, the book is not an anti-technology screed. Nevertheless, Carr does raise some reasonable cautions about where this technology might lead us, and at what cost the information superhighway comes. He also offers some (to my mind sad) prognostications. Though he doesn’t expect the book to disappear completely, he does see society returning to a more stratified literacy, with only a small elite preserving the ability to read deeply, while society at large continues down the path toward shallow thinking. Whether he is right remains to be seen, of course, but the science would seem to support his hypothesis.
On the whole, The Shallows is a quick and engaging read. Carr has an easygoing style, and he covers a number of fascinating topics: the development of writing and different media, from clay tablets to parchments to the codex; neuroscience; the thoughts of poets and other deep thinkers on the way the brain works. The structure of the book wittily reflects the nature of internet thinking, with digressions periodically disrupting the flow of the argument. More seriously, he cautions us about the reduction of thought to information and data and the potential loss of our capacity for reflection and contemplation. The book helped explain why my students don’t read books (Carr even quotes a Rhodes Scholar from Florida State – a philosophy major, no less – who says that he doesn’t read books!). It also reinforced my decision to keep this book project going and to limit my time on the web. Moral of the story: get off the blog, and go read a book! Your brain will thank you!
Four down, (at least) forty-eight to go.