“According to an extensive 2009 study conducted by Ball State University’s Center for Media Design, most Americans, no matter what their age, spend at least eight and a half hours a day looking at a television, a computer monitor, or the screen of their mobile phone. Frequently, they use two or even three of the devices simultaneously.”
– Nick Carr (The Shallows) –
(This review originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Thoughtwrestling blog. It was published on June 22, 2010.)
Nick Carr has a worry and it is this: he suspects his use of the Internet over the last twenty years may have altered his brain. Literally. He worries that his attention span has been greatly shortened and he is losing his ability to read and think “deeply.”
He may be right.
It’s the subject of his latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Of course, simply articulating the question prompts many others. One of the first that occurred to me was, if he has lost something is it due to the Internet or to something else, such as the effects of getting older? If he has lost something, what has he gained and how do the two balance out?
He asks questions such as these himself in his book. He begins with a short introduction that refers to Marshall McLuhan and technology and more or less sets the stage for the book that is to follow and its thesis that technology, specifically the Internet, changes us.
History, the brain and neuroplasticity
He then dives into his book, beginning from a personal perspective and drawing on the views of others as he speculates on the impact of current technology.
As the book progresses, he provides a social and cultural history, as well as a biological one (at least as far as the brain goes). He outlines a history of the written word, reading and draws on the studies and findings of scientists regarding how the brain adapts.
For a very long time, the standard view was that the brain was an unchanging thing. It developed through childhood and then was set. Case closed. More recently (historically speaking) that view has changed. The studies and data show the brain does change and continues to change despite age. It is called neuroplasticity.
Depending on stimuli, the brain changes to accommodate. For example, Carr says, “Thanks to the ready adaptability of neurons, the senses of hearing and touch can grow sharper to mitigate the effects of the loss of sight.”
This business of neuroplasticity comes with warning labels, however. As Carr puts it, “Plastic does not mean elastic … Our neural loops don’t snap back to their former state the way a rubber band does; they hold onto their changed state.”
The brain rewiring itself also relates to behaviours that can become pathological, such as in the cases of addiction.
Mr. Gutenberg’s contribution
Carr goes on to discuss Gutenberg and the printing press and the impact that technology had on the world – literally affecting Western thought for centuries … until now. This is part of his argument: certain technologies literally change us, our brains, our society and culture.
The advent of words, for instance, changed how the brain operated because different areas had to interact, areas that previously did not. Books affected us (just as clocks and maps did) not simply because they were books but because they were linear. Page followed page. It was a way of seeing and, more significantly, a way of thinking.
The one aspect of Carr’s book I’m uncomfortable with is what I perceive as a romanticized view of reading and writing. It’s not excessively done but I’m always distrustful of views like that, just as I’m distrustful of views of technology that make it all seem absolutely wonderful. I like Carr’s book partly because he is taking a non-romanticized view of Internet technology. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to do that regarding books.
But that doesn’t negate his argument; it just impedes it a little.
Picking up the thread: the assessment
Everything written above was written when I was mid-way through reading The Shallows. I’ve now finished the book, so I’ll add an additional thought or two beginning with the latter half of the book, which is more interesting and worrisome than the first — and I was really fascinated by the first half.
Later in his book Carr looks at more contemporay issues and developments, including Google, search, artificial intelligence and memory.
Carr has certainly done his homework. He also informs it with a personal interpretation that you may agree with or not. I think that matters less than that we think of the some of the questions he brings up. In that sense, I don’t think this is a good book (which it is); it is an important book. And the questions he asks are tremendously significant.
- If we’re developing artificial intelligence, what exactly is intelligence? Who is defining it?
- Is the frequently used analogy of the brain as computer an accurate one, or is there something more?
- What is memory? Is it just a repository or, as Carr tells us the Roman philosopher Seneca believed, is it, “… as much a crucible as a container?” Is it more than stored data; is it memory with nuance? In other words, data with meaning?
At the risk of sounding sophomoric, the real questions being asked are, “What are we? What is our purpose?”
It was inevitable that I would like this book. It touches on all my favourite topics: reading and writing, technology, the brain and others. Technology does have an impact on us and in The Shallows you get some sense for the extent of that impact as well as its subtleties.
With what we currently know of the brain and neuroplasticity, it seems to follow that how we use the Internet, and the extent to which we do, cannot help but alter us. The questions are whether or not that is a good or bad thing; what is gained and what is lost; have we any choice in the matter; and, how exactly are we being altered?
For Carr, it is at the expense of deep thought.
More broadly, it’s about what we are and who and what are determining that.