“The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it.” – Nicholas Carr
In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr cautions us about the various effects on the human brain, both physical and cognitive, of regular use of the internet. The more we use the internet, the more our neural pathways will adapt to the fast-paced and distracting snippets of information we surf through. As our brains adapt, we begin to think in the same way that information is presented on the net: scattered and unable to focus. We lose our ability to concentrate for any length of time, to contemplate ideas and to read deeply. Carr worries that we could begin to lose part of what makes us human: if our brains only work on a shallow level, our emotions could easily become shallow as well.
Carr uses a combination of historical references and scientific research to take the reader through history with a new perspective. Each major innovation in intellectual technology fundamentally changed the thought patterns – and the brains – of the people using the new technology. When writing was invented, critics cautioned that people would lose the memories that the oral tradition had nurtured. The introduction of spaces between written words and the development of mass-produced books led to a literary tradition and a population of deep readers. Now, the internet is making it harder for people to concentrate while simultaneously addicting them to the global connectivity and bite-sized pieces of information that are causing them the problem in the first place. Gutenberg’s printing press was the most recent leap forward in intellectual technology before the internet, and that was about 500 years ago. The internet has been around for a little more than two decades and has changed our world in fundamental ways. The rate of adoption and the scope of the impact of this digital technology are unprecedented.
Carr paints a chilling picture of the enormous potential in the human brain and what we’re allowing the internet to do with that potential. One of the most startling revelations for me was the experiment done by Gary Small at UCLA on the rate at which our brains adapt to using the internet. Small and his team scanned the brains of two groups of subjects: one group consisted of web-savvy people; the other was made up of people with little experience online. There was a drastic difference in the scans from the two groups with the web-savvy group showing significant brain activity in a particular area where the beginners showed almost none. After only one hour of web use a day for five days, the beginner group showed significant activity in that previously inactive area when the scans were repeated six days later. I find this both amazing and terrifying, which I’m fairly sure is part of Carr’s point.
Talking about the infinite possibilities contained in the human brain makes me feel the same way as talking about the vastness of the universe: insignificant. Nothing about me is remarkable; it’s the brain in my head that lets me be me that’s remarkable.
I enjoyed the way Carr worked through history from the beginning of writing to today’s internet. It is very interesting to learn about these advancements within the context of how they have impacted the brains and behaviour of the people who adopted the new technology. It is also interesting to learn what some of the critics and proponents of technology at the times of these advancements had to say. Some of their predictions seem eerily poignant today. While Plato was all for the adoption of writing things down, Socrates and Thamus thought that widespread writing would lead to “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.” More and more people today view the internet as a way to avoid having to remember things. Why put in the effort when you can just look it up?
This book is easy to read and flows very naturally through the subject matter. I’m glad that Carr didn’t resort to using snippets or factoids in the margins to try to prove his point. He doesn’t pander to those more comfortable with net-speak, and provides an opportunity for the deep reading and contemplation he is trying to save. I was also impressed that the research Carr references comes from studies done all over the world, not just in the United States. Sometimes reading an American book when you’re from somewhere else – like Canada – can make you feel like the book wasn’t intended for you. It seems that Carr truly intended his cautionary message for a global audience.
Carr moved from Boston into the mountains of Colorado and severely limited his internet use while writing this book. I can’t say that I blame him. I’m not in a position to make a move like that, but I’ll certainly be approaching my time online with much greater awareness from now on. Anyone who spends time surfing should at least be aware of the issues raised in The Shallows.
Jillian really succeeds in making the book sound interesting and relevant. We’re all struggling with this sense of divided attention in our near constant Internet use. The review is fairly concise and yet I feel like I have a very good sense of what the book is about. A compelling and well-written review.
– Jeannie Marshall