Book Review: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
I wanted to read The Shallows because, like the majority of people in my generation (or at least, among those in my generation I talk to), I spend a huge amount of time online or otherwise connected. I was skeptical that being so involved in digital life was making me stupider (as the title implies). Now having read the book, I think that the premise is less about how we’re becoming stupid, although I think Carr does convey that sentiment at points, and more about how technology shapes the way we think. Humans mold themselves to the available tools, rather than the tools to the humans, it seems.
The central thesis of The Shallows seems to be that computers have changed our behavior in a fundamental way. The way that we learn, remember, and retrieve information has been altered thanks to widespread computer use. Or, to quote Nietzche–as Carr does after relaying an anecdote involving Nietzche and a typewriter–, “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” To support this claim, Carr spends the initial portion of the work discussing neuroplasticity and working through a history of other technologies that have changed the way humanity uses their minds. Carr raises the point that studies show that the brain is both able and willing to reallocate neurons to new tasks, if those neurons aren’t being made use of elsewhere. He cites work showing that when someone becomes blind, that person’s brain reconfigures such that the area of the brain formerly given over to visual processing is put to use in auditory processing or other pertinent tasks. In fact, neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone’s (a researcher at Harvard Medical School) opinions are shared. He explains that neuroplasticity is one of the most important traits that humans have evolved. Carr states, “The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring, but that it doesn’t,” i.e. that we’ve made it this far as a species because we can adapt well. My response to the fan fare over neuroplasticity was to wonder why the author seems to be decrying another step in the brain’s inevitable adaptation to our modern computing landscape.
There are a few fascinating examples of technological developments and how they changed humanity. One that I particularly enjoyed was a discussion on clocks and timekeeping. For much of the history of civilization, time was primarily kept only by the rise and fall of the sun, but in the Middle Ages, Christian monks decided that they needed more precision in their schedules, and as such, pushed for superior time keeping technology (superior to sun dials and water clocks). Eventually, every town had a clock and kept time by the bells ringing during the day, but it came to a point when that wasn’t enough either; people wanted absolute time precision. Of course, clocks were developed, soon pocket watches, and all the rest. Now, we think about the whole day in the abstract medium of hours, minutes, and seconds. Having the technology available made people change their habits. Some people saw that keeping accurate time was an improvement, and eventually everyone else standardized too. By presenting these historical anecdotes on technology, Carr draws an analogy between these instances of technology and our current matter: computers. He even states, “In large measure, civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use.”
After discussing technology in general, Carr goes on to discuss writing and reading. When the Greeks first started to use writing, Socrates complained about it, stating that it had some practical benefits, but it would not affect us for the better (sidenote: he then told those damn kids to get off his lawn and turn down that music). Something interesting that I didn’t know (but once I read it, seemed obvious) was that reading was originally only an out loud activity. Silent and solo reading were not things that people thought to do. Even though people started writing things down as an aid to memory or to communicate stories, people still only read in the same way that they had communicated for ages: with spoken word. It wasn’t until the middle ages that people started reading silently and methods of writing text (like using spaces between words) were developed to support silent reading. Carr argues that we are now at a point where reading is a feat of sustained attention and quiet effort. This is where Carr’s complaint about reading on computers comes in. Computers as a medium are inherently distracting due to the way that we navigate the text. Furthermore, “Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It’s tactile as well as visual.” I would be interested to see if there is any research on how the tactile sensation of reading is interpreted for readers of different generations. I feel like, when I close out other distractions, I can read just as well on the computer as I do with a book. I wonder if there is a generational divide in this issue. If the brain has as much plasticity as the reader is lead to believe in earlier chapters, would it not be possible that the brain can learn to get as much out of digital reading as analog reading?
There are a couple chapters in the middle of the book that strike me as rather self-indulgent. Take this statement, for example, “Despite years of hype about electronic books, most people haven’t shown much interest in them. Investing a few hundred dollars in a specialized ‘digital reader’ has seemed silly, given the ease and pleasure of buying and reading old-fashioned books.” Ah, yes, the simple allure of analog books, that ultimate argument against digital reading! You know, based on the ridiculous amount of statistics on this issue, I think I am going to have to disagree that e-books aren’t catching on. Carr also discusses the fact that some people predict social media conversations happening within e-books. One the one hand, I can see that being annoying, but as long as there is the option to disable it, I fail to see the problem. In some texts, I can even see it being beneficial. Readers could start discussions and connect with each other this way. In textbooks or technical books, readers might as each other questions. The future isn’t necessarily horrible, Mr. Carr!
Finally, we get to how the Internet is changing our brains. Inquiring minds want to know: what is the word on this? Carr characterizes the modern Web as a “high speed system for delivering responses and rewards … which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions.” He argues that we keep interneting because it stimulates our brains and bite-sized information chunks make us feel happy; it boils down to basic operant conditioning. Carr also states that the Internet keeps our brains distracted. The brain needs downtime away from highly stimulating environments to do deep thinking and refresh itself, but it’s hard to pull away from the computer because we feel rewarded when we use it. I do agree with this, but I also think there isn’t anyone who really disagrees with this. Even the most internet addicted among us (Redditors?) will agree that spending the entire day online results in feeling kind of bad at the end of it all. Everyone has to learn to moderate their own time online in order to get things done. That’s the nature of modern life. Carr also cites some work on attention and multitasking, making the case–again–that the desultory nature of reading online is making us dumb because we can’t remember anything. There is a case in which people were assigned a reading comprehension task, one with hyperlinks throughout and one without. The people with no hyperlinks understood the story they read on a deeper level because they didn’t get lost on tangents with the hyperlinks. Furthermore, the people who had the hyperlinks remembered less about everything they had read than the no-links group. In a similar study, a researcher found that readers understood less for every additional link in a text. I can see that this is a problem, just from my own experience. I find that if I click on links through a text and read all the links immediately, it is harder to understand what is going on. However, I think this problem can be solved quite simply by opening new links in a tab and reading things all the way through before going onto the next one. So, again, the tone seems somewhat alarmist to me, especially when there are so many easy ways to get around these problems.
Next, Carr considers the effects of “outsourcing” one’s memory to the Web. On this subject, I do agree with the author that this is a dumb idea. Some people take the approach that they don’t really need to remember things because everything is online. Carr brings up some interesting research on this subject, noting that “the very act of recalling a memory appears to restart the entire process of consolidation,” which is to say that when you remember something, your brain strengthens the neural pathways to the memory and you probably deepen your understanding of the issue by thinking about it again, but with new knowledge in your brain. I must agree with this based on my own experience. I find that the more I know, the more I can know. Remembering a lot of things allows more links between information to be formed, thus making me smarter. Treating the mind as an index to things online works in some ways (perhaps for things you want to learn later, or for incidental information), but the best course of action for actually being a more intelligent person is to use your damn memory! I also appreciated the William James quotation in this section, “The art of remembering is the art of thinking.” I like it.
Overall, The Shallows has discussions about some interesting research and I felt that it did make some valid points about the metacognition, but I thought the tone was needlessly alarmist. I don’t think people are becoming more shallow in their thinking as a whole, but I do believe we are in a transitional period in terms of how we view technology and its role in cognition and learning. The technology will change and we will adapt to it. In some ways it will be better, and in some ways it will be worse. Such is humanity. Should you read the book? If you like reading about technology and the brain, yes, you will likely be interested. I particularly enjoyed the beginning of the book because of these topics. The end of the book has some interesting modern research on attention, which I also appreciated. On the whole, I am ambivalent about The Shallows, but I would not say that I regret reading it (in between opening all the hyper links, checking email, and generally going to hell in a hand basket).