The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains
© 2010 Nicholas Carr
How many tabs do you have open right now? Neil Postman thought we were undoing ourselves with a distracting and busy fusion of information and entertainment back in the mid-1980s when he penned several works on technology and society. As Nicholas Carr demonstrates in this curious blend of science and cultural criticism, Postman’s fears hadn’t begun to be realized At least since the 1990s, people have referred to the Internet as an information superhighway, but the metaphor is no longer apt; it is inadequate to describe the tide of information that sweeps over us any time we visit a website, and the idea of that tide being directed in a way comparable to a highway is simply false. Websites today brim with energy; they are positively alive with interactive features and an abundance of links to other sections of the site. We do not even need to sit down in front of a desktop computer to be touched by all this activity; it reaches out and grabs at our attention through cellphones, tablets, and now sunshades. We can praise the internet for allowing access to so much information at once, but how are our brains responding to it? Carr argues that while we view the rise of the internet as progressive, in an important way we are reverting.
He builds his argument in three stages; first, introducing readers to the ways that technology can alter our thinking. He uses the rise of print culture as his primary example, demonstrating how it allowed for the growth of a rich intellectual tradition. As we became readers, we became thinkers, spending long hour processing the dense amount of information in a given text, mulling over it in our minds — considering implications and incorporating the ideas into our very minds. Neil Postman covered the cultural aspects of this, but Carr complements it with neurology, catching readers up to speed on neuroplasticity.Our brains never stop changing: throughout our lives, our actions inform our brains where to invest its limited resources; as we practice new skills, like music or using computers, we become better at them. The catch is that those mental resources are limited: as we grow in one area, we will tend to shrink in another. Brainspace dedicated to older skills that we no longer use shrinks. That is the essential problem Carr is concerned with: as we grow accustomed to dealing with the internet’s wealth of bite-sized chunks of information, we’re losing that deep-reading ability. That ability was an anomaly in human history; it allowed us to concentrate and digest fully a given set of information; now, we are regressing, losing that refined focus. In addition, we are growing ever more dependent on the internet to store information, to memorize for us. In regards to trivia, esoteric, or other information which we only need occasionally, this is a bonus; it allows our brain to concentrate on more important matters. But we stand in danger of not being able to rely on ourselves to retain working knowledge; how many of us know our friends’ phone numbers anymore?
Carr is not a pessimist with regards to the internet, but he does believe we may be losing something vital in our zeal to be ever-connected. He closes by advocating for a more moderate approach: by all means, let us use the internet’s interconnectivity to our advantage, but at the same time he urges us to strive to focus on maintaining old skills of memory and reflection.
Carr definitely offers food for thought. Barring some world-changing disaster, the Internet is here to stay. I do not see the trend toward interconnectivity tapering off, let alone stopping. It will continue to change our lives, and as we use it, it will continue to shape our minds and behavior. We should be mindful of the dynamic which exists between us and our tool use, conscience that our brains are being rewired with every use. Ultimately individuals will have to determine how comfortable they are relating to that network. The Shallows is important to consider, though I would recommend Postman’s works for the media-mind connection. There are numerous other works about the role of the internet in our lives which I personally intend on reading, like Sherry Turkel’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powell.