This was an assignment for a student-led magazine at my university that was published out of the department’s student union. Unfortunately, this issue (Spring 2012) never saw publication. When I inquired as to the publication date, I was continually told that it had been “pushed back”. Then the editors basically said it wasn’t happening and a new student union board came in. The article was written in December 2011, and the book was published in 2010, and now seems woefully out of date. So, here is an article that should have been published in Spring 2012:
BOOK REVIEW | The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
This book review is supposed to be 750 words long, but will it hold your attention to the end? Perhaps you find yourself glancing across the magazine spread unintentionally, checking your mobile phone, or wondering why you’re reading a print magazine anyway. Instead of reading this you’d probably be browsing online, checking your email, chatting with friends on Skype, or posting on Twitter or Facebook. Or perhaps you encounter an idea or word that you decide to Google the meaning of, and that leads you to a Wikipedia article, which has links to other articles, and you end up spending 30 minutes reading about something unrelated.
These are all indications that Internet technology has altered your brain, as Nicholas Carr suggests in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The book is an expansion of Carr’s cover story for The Atlantic magazine in July/August 2008 titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” exploring the psychology, philosophy, science and history related to Internet technology. The cognitive information overload, instant gratification, and frequent interruptions of the Internet all change the way our brain works. Carr spends very little time extolling the virtues of the Internet but briefly mentions increased communications, shared access to information, and efficiency. Mostly, the book deals with the ‘how’ of how technology is making us stupid and the power it holds over our society.
Carr spends the first half of the book introducing the science and technological discoveries that apply to his argument. Looking at neurological research, we see how scientists started to change their hypothesis of the ‘static’ human brain. Neurologists examined how the brain worked, stored information, and changed according to the actions of the subject. The idea of neuroplasticity—the notion that the brain adjusts its connections and programming with use or disuse—is widely accepted now, and Carr presents several historical and modern studies to set down this concept.
The Shallows then explores the development of writing as well as how maps and clocks completely changed the ecology of the world. Slowly, we trace how writing and scribes led to Gutenberg, the printing press and eventually, the computer and Internet. Carr mentions several articles, scientists, and academics that hypothesized about an interconnected media for sharing and linking ideas. While these papers and studies are interesting this detail felt unnecessary at times. The history of the Internet is not necessary to understand Carr’s argument nor is it necessary to understand how the Internet works today.
When using the Internet, we seem to believe we are absorbing more information than ever before, but can you really remember half of the things you read online yesterday? No, because we are only learning a little bit about a lot of things and not committing them to long-term memory. By skimming, skipping, multi-tasking, and generally being distracted by the Internet’s myriad of functions, we are no longer engaging in deep thought or uninterrupted focus. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” writes Carr, “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
This is where the idea of neuroplasticity becomes extremely important. Scientific research has shown that even five hours of practice at a computer task improves skill, during which the brain adjusts its functions as you learn. However, this rewiring takes place at the expense of other, lesser-used functions within the brain. As we spend less time immersing ourselves reading long articles, or losing ourselves among the pages of a book, we lose the patience and ability to work in this way.
Writing a printed book or article dealing with technology that is constantly changing is a difficult task and The Shallows, published in 2010, is already beginning to show its age, especially with Google-related material.
There is no dispute that technology changes us as individuals and a society and Carr’s argument seems incredibly one-sided despite trying to discuss various viewpoints. The Shallows doesn’t address what prescriptive methods people are using to counter this change in brain wiring, and Carr only briefly mentions his own struggles to overcome distraction when writing the book. Several articles reviewing the book online have mentioned the numerous advances and achievements that technology and the Internet have created. In fact, Jonah Lehrer in the New York Times noted several studies about the brain area that is stimulated by computer use. I found The Shallows to be more compelling when it related directly to the effect hyper-connectedness and the Internet is having on humans, our interactions and our habits. As Carr quotes media scholar John Culkin, “We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.”