Playing in the Shallows – Just What is the Internet Doing to Our Brains?

I read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr in an old-fashioned format: hardcover book. It wasn’t an accident, either. Carr penned “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” for The Atlantic, and the article generated a good deal of thought and discussion around the house. We tend to be Google-philes and the “gee-whiz” factor of what emanates from the lab keeps one enthusiastic. Carr raised valid concerns, though, and he has expanded them thoughtfully in The Shallows. It is a book that raises important questions and deserves serious consideration. Even at risk of making us “stoopid.”

Carr is a journalist and he writes with that tone and perspective: a man comfortable with research, change, words and drawing information from many different worlds. He pulls us into his story initially with a first person account of the challenges he has faced with ongoing interaction with technology. Most salient, sustained thought just doesn’t happen the way it used to for him. That doesn’t pose much of a problem for a non-thinker, but for someone with Carr’s values and profession, it’s potentially catastrophic. Carr is reasonable certain that his relationship with the internet is the cause. It’s an interruption machine, he tells us. A telling phrase and one that gives pause.

No Luddite, Carr’s exposition is built on a well-written account of what neuroscience can tell us about neuroplasticity, a hot area of research. The brain is constantly rewiring itself and repetitive thinking and emotional actions can literally make for physical changes over the time in the brain’s anatomy. We don’t yet know if this is true for all people, or under what circumstances, but many signs point to a dynamic brain. It’s comforting and disconcerting. It also puts to rest, in a too brief, the nature/nurture debates for the past centuries. Both matter, as do their interaction. They aren’t the right framework, however, to ask the right questions.

Is technology itself the problem? Using the lessons of maps and clocks from history, Carr sees technology as expressions of human will. (And as he gives a nice illustration of Friedrich Nietzsche using his typewriter, I have a hunch that our author was a philosophy major as an undergraduate) Bypassing the irreconcilable conflicts between instrumentalists and determinists, Carr wants us to think about a different question: what is a technology’s influence? And perhaps more subversive, can one opt out?

Moving from technology to language and words, Carr provides a short history of writing. He makes much of the scriptura continua, an earlier form of writing with no spaces between words (or grammar, either). It was a good way of forcing concentration, but it also made sense for a world when people read books aloud. Once reading became “quiet” – and it took many centuries as well as the development of cheap books (printing), our brains slowly rewired themselves to handle reading silently, a “unnatural act.” Here, I think, Carr correctly identifies a deep change in the way people obtain, evaluate and communicate. The proliferation of printing marked a new world. That amazing transformation isn’t Carr’s focus, however, he takes the change as a given and instead wants us to move to contemporary issues.

The internet, a bidirectional medium for the transmission of digital data whose use has grown astronomically and shows no sign of abating, is Carr’s concern. It is useful, helpful, and massively changing the way that we obtain information, interact with each other, and think. And we don’t really have a good idea of the nature of these changes, particularly at broader and more systematic levels. We may recognize a convenient app, but we would we every know if our brain are rewiring? Carr puts it well:

“We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.”

Carr is far from the only one to be sounding a note of alarm, but the point is valid.

Taking a vantage point somewhat above the fray, Carr’s observations collectively point to massive shifts. As internet usage increases, other media contracts, he argues. Newspaper readership is shrinking rapidly and media companies are restructuring their businesses. He sees changes in the ways that we experience performances and in our libraries. All true, I grant, but necessarily a source of concern? Carr’s heart really isn’t in this argument. The book is about shallow thought and he has a different agenda. It’s our brains.

Most worrisome, Carr avers, are the changes in books and reading itself, and what it entails. Sustained reading, that artificial exercise that leads to deeper thoughts, is on the decline. We want fast bits of easily digested information instead of books. Carr is the Erich Schlosser of the internet age and he’s writing about a fast information nation.

The rub is what Carr believes science can tell us about significant internet usage affects upon the brain. The internet is a perfect loop for our neural wiring, a system designed to capture our attention. It encourages a “constant distractedness” prevents us from thinking deeply or creatively. A powerful threat indeed. For while we may be gaining new neural skills, we are also losing old ones. There is research, too, that supports the claim. It has also been demonstrated that people who have the older, linear skill of reading a text and focusing on it, comprehend and remember more than those who work with hypertexts. Use of the net does help is some areas; it hinders us in others. Carr’s underlying message is a plea for linearity.

By now you may have noticed a similar structure to Carr’s arguments. He links A to B and B to C, but if you read closely, A is sometimes a and B may become b, so by the time you give them consideration, we often have A becomes c. Sustained reading of monographs may be decreasing, but overall levels of literacy are increasing. Reading hypertexts is often shallow reading, but we don’t, as a society, ever ask students to read hypertexts with the same attention as we do monographs. And while I’m extremely sympathetic to the demands of 21st century digitized living place upon us, I am not so sure that one can see the signs of societal-wide distractedness that can be placed at the door of the internet. It’s a sophisticated “blame the videogames” or “blame the comic books” or “blame the novel” argument that seems to flourish every few decades.

In the book’s penultimate section, Carr takes aim at the “Church of Google,” which serves, for him, as the embodiment of the business of distraction. Google shapes our relationship with content, he writes, and is driven by boundless expansion and ruthless Taylorism. And it is a fascinating understanding of Taylorism, too – Carr’s Taylorism is devoid of subjectivity, driven solely by what can be measured. Further, Google’s commodification of information, Carr argues, is all about “industrial efficiency.” So much for data-driven decision making. Or open source and sharing. Instead, it’s cold and without a soul or values, save speed and efficiency. It’s a provocative and unusual reading of the company, but well in tune with Carr’s earlier article. The speed of information, the access, the rate of change – all will undermine meditative thought. To anchor the point, Carr trots out Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden and Hawthorne. Much more is needed, and to buttress this relatively weak argument, memory serves as a helpful metaphor. We “outsource” our memory to Google, Carr claims, and without the hard work that is necessary to shift that thought into long-term memory, we become shallow thinkers.

It is not the memory, it is what one does with it. Further, the neuroscientists will tell you that to sear that experience into the memory, nothing works better than emotion. Struggle with a paper or book, engage in a serious dialogue, and the elusive short-term memory will be used and strengthened by the brain.

One can certainly make claims about how a company like Google may be dangerous. How it occupies too important a place in the economy, or why its aims might or might not align with those of our society. Google may be an unreliable bastion in the face of government censorship, for example, and it also can pose threats in peripheral businesses. Google’s hubris can rankle. Also, it’s also unsettling to see change accelerating without any clear indication of destination. But please don’t blame Google for our distraction; that’s a lazy complaint.

Carr ends the book by noting that he’s finding himself spending more and more time online.

I find Carr’s slippery arguments unsatisfying. I believe that his description of Google does not hold up to scrutiny; nor, either, does his underlying claim that sustained reading is under threat. I cannot imagine who was in the public fifty years ago, and was rushing out to buy and read monographs, that is today endlessly distracted. Did we lose middlebrow culture? Have the average Americans lost their ability for sustained thought? Or is it a smaller group of aging intellectuals who are having a harder go of it all?

Yet despite all of these criticisms – and there are more, believe me – I nonetheless find much to contemplate in The Shallows. Deep changes are afoot and the rise of digital culture is a major part of the kaleidoscope.

David Potash

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