Needless to say, the printing press only made things worse. In the 17th century, Robert Burton complained, in “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” of the “vast chaos and confusion of books” that make the eyes and fingers ache. By 1890, the problem was the speed of transmission: one eminent physician blamed “the pelting of telegrams” for triggering an outbreak of mental illness. And then came radio and television, which poisoned the mind with passive pleasure. Children, it was said, had stopped reading books. Socrates would be pleased.
In “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” the technology writer Nicholas Carr extends this anxiety to the 21st century. The book begins with a melodramatic flourish, as Carr recounts the pleas of the supercomputer HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The machine is being dismantled, its wires unplugged: “My mind is going,” HAL says. “I can feel it.”
For Carr, the analogy is obvious: The modern mind is like the fictional computer. “I can feel it too,” he writes. “Over the last few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” While HAL was silenced by its human users, Carr argues that we are sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet. As Carr first observed in his much discussed 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” the mere existence of the online world has made it much harder (at least for him) to engage with difficult texts and complex ideas. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” Carr writes, with typical eloquence. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
This is a measured manifesto. Even as Carr bemoans his vanishing attention span, he’s careful to note the usefulness of the Internet, which provides us with access to a near infinitude of information. We might be consigned to the intellectual shallows, but these shallows are as wide as a vast ocean.
Nevertheless, Carr insists that the negative side effects of the Internet outweigh its efficiencies. Consider, for instance, the search engine, which Carr believes has fragmented our knowledge. “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web,” he writes. “We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.” One of Carr’s most convincing pieces of evidence comes from a 2008 study that reviewed 34 million academic articles published between 1945 and 2005. While the digitization of journals made it far easier to find this information, it also coincided with a narrowing of citations, with scholars citing fewer previous articles and focusing more heavily on recent publications. Why is it that in a world in which everything is available we all end up reading the same thing?
But wait: it gets worse. Carr’s most serious charge against the Internet has nothing to do with Google and its endless sprawl of hyperlinks. Instead, he’s horrified by the way computers are destroying our powers of concentration. As the blogger Cory Doctorow, a co-editor of the wildly popular Web site Boing Boing, has observed, the typical electronic screen is an “ecosystem of interruption technologies,” encouraging us to peek at our e-mail in-box, glance at Twitter and waste away the day on eBay. And so we lurch from site to site, if only because we constantly crave the fleeting pleasure of new information. But this isn’t really the fault of the Internet. The online world has merely exposed the feebleness of human attention, which is so weak that even the most minor temptations are all but impossible to resist.
Carr extends these anecdotal observations by linking them to the plasticity of the brain, which is constantly being shaped by experience. While plasticity is generally seen as a positive feature — it keeps the cortex supple — Carr is interested in its dark side. He argues that our mental malleability has turned us into servants of technology, our circuits reprogrammed by our gadgets.
It is here that he starts to run into problems. There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.” One particularly influential study, published in Nature in 2003, demonstrated that after just 10 days of playing Medal of Honor, a violent first-person shooter game, subjects showed dramatic increases in visual attention and memory.
Carr’s argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn’t making us stupid — it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.
This doesn’t mean that the rise of the Internet won’t lead to loss of important mental talents; every technology comes with trade-offs. Look, for instance, at literacy itself: when children learn to decode letters, they usurp large chunks of the visual cortex previously devoted to object recognition. The end result is that literate humans are less able to “read” the details of the natural world.
While Carr tries to ground his argument in the details of modern neuroscience, his most powerful points have nothing do with our plastic cortex. Instead, “The Shallows” is most successful when Carr sticks to cultural criticism, as he documents the losses that accompany the arrival of new technologies. The rise of the written text led to the decline of oral poetry; the invention of movable type wiped out the market for illuminated manuscripts; the television show obliterated the radio play (if hardly radio itself). Similarly, numerous surveys suggest that the Internet has diminished our interest in reading books. Carr quotes Wallace Stevens’s poem “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” in which stillness allows the reader to “become a book.” The incessant noise of the Internet, Carr concludes, has turned the difficult text into an obsolete relic.
Or maybe even these worries are mistaken; it can be hard to predict the future through the haze of nostalgia. In 1916, T. S. Eliot wrote to a friend about his recent experiments with composing poetry on the typewriter. The machine “makes for lucidity,” he said, “but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety.” A few years later, Eliot presented Ezra Pound with a first draft of “The Waste Land.” Some of it had been composed on the typewriter.
In his new book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr has written a Silent Spring for the literary mind. He begins with a feeling shared by many who have spent the last decade online. "I'm not thinking the way I used to think," Carr tells us. "I feel it most strongly when I'm reading." He relates how he gets fidgety with a long text. Like others, he suspects that the Internet has destroyed his ability to read deeply. "My brain," he writes, "wasn't just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it."
As Carr embarks, though, he has a firm grip on his brain, admirably subjecting his hunch to scrutiny. He's self-conscious about its Luddite and alarmist spirit and steps back to take the long view. The Internet, he observes, is "best understood as the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mold the human mind." It's similar to other "intellectual technologies" that have reshaped our activities and culture.
By equating the impact of the Internet with the impact of such things as the printing press, Carr is trying to move the whole "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" argument forward. This Web is seismic. It's definitely changing us somehow. Instead of debating whether it's turning us into distractible oafs or a superintelligent collective, let's first look back into history and see how humans have responded to similar transitions. Then, let's see whether the new tools of neuroscience can detect any effects of our current transition.
The same anxieties that we have about the Internet, the ancient Greeks had about the new technology of writing. In The Republic, Plato has Socrates famously declare that poetry has no place in the perfect state. As Carr explains, this attack may seem a little out-of-nowhere unless you understand that poetry was Plato's stand-in for the oral tradition of Greek thought. Epic poems like The Iliadwere how the Greeks preserved and passed on knowledge from one generation to the next. Plato is arguing that the new technology of writing is superior because it allows for a more ordered and logical transmission of knowledge. Also, you don't have to repeat stuff a hundred times.
Literacy won out, but each new technology gives something and takes something away. The scholar Walter J. Ong looks at oral cultures and sees "verbal performances of high artistic and human worth" that are lost forever in the transition to literacy. But without literacy, he argues, there's no science, no history, no philosophy.
At first, books did not have any spaces between the words, and required a lot of work to understand. They were typically read out loud, and those who could read silently to themselves, like Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, were viewed with amazement. Eventually, punctuation marks and spaces between the words eased the "cognitive burden" of reading. The "deep reader" was born. Readers trained themselves to ignore their surroundings (countering our evolution, which encourages wariness) and to focus on a text. Writers responded to this new reader. "The arguments in books became longer and clearer, as well as more complex and more challenging, as writers strived self-consciously to refine their ideas and logic," Carr explains. Private carrels were built in libraries; reference books sprang up to help the solo reader.
The next earthquake was Gutenberg's printing press. Early booksellers were often seen as agents of Satan, so stunned were people by the sudden appearance of formerly rare and precious volumes. (And at such low prices! Kind of like Amazon.) In a virtuous feedback loop, the public became more literate as more books circulated. The sensitive among us began to complain of information overload. The melancholy Robert Burton had this to say: "We are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning." Yet books were a hit, a convenient way to reference important information and to learn about the latest ideas. Naturally, there was a fair amount of pornography and trashy stuff floating around, too.
The literary mind began its centuries-long rule. Scientists, authors, politicians, crackpots, and poets could all assume the same basic thing: attentive, book-trained minds would be willing and able to follow their complex arguments and plots.
Carr arrives at the Internet era armed with the latest brain science. I think that science makes him a little too confident in assessing our current moment and less willing to look outside the lab for real-world effects. Brain science is like the new freshman quarterback who shows lots of promise. Biologists and neurologists assumed for a long time that the structure of the adult brain never changed. In the late 1960s, Michael Merzenich discovered that a monkey could remap its brain—a result that was later confirmed in humans. The current theory is that our brains are constantly changing in response to everyday experiences and circumstances.
On the one hand, the fact of our "massively plastic" brains should make us optimistic about our ability to adapt in the face of our own technology. We'll take advantage of opportunities (the spurs to thought supplied by literacy) and work around the losses (the ability to concentrate deeply on a task). On the other hand, we can worry that the rewiring now under way might be exacting too steep a price. Is the kind of brain that engages in deep reading and mindful contemplation like a dying salmon swimming upstream with no chance of finding a mate? "When we go online," Carr writes, "we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning."
Carr's argument is based on the work of scientists studying online reading and brain researchers studying memory and attention. One big problem seems to be hyperlinks. The foundation of the Web acts like a road bump in a sentence. A link causes us to stop reading and evaluate whether or not to click on it—activating the decision-making pockets of our mind. Books present a more passive environment, letting the mind concentrate on the words instead of constantly being on the lookout for new, possibly better words. Carr sums it up this way: "Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that's the intellectual environment of the Internet."
So what if we are a little distracted? Maybe the Internet is helping us develop new minds, ones that can quickly process and evaluate information in short, directed bursts of attention. Thinkers like Tyler Cowen have argued along these lines. I may not be able to drink deeply of Proust like I used to, but I collect information from a diverse range of sources and am more informed about the things that I care about than I have ever been before. This is where I salute the genius of Carr's title, The Shallows. It's not that we aren't learning things when we scan our sites and feeds, he argues; it's that we are missing out on making the kind of deeper connections of which we were once more capable. We are splashing about in the shallows.
The problem isn't necessarily that the information online is of poorer quality than the information found in books or conversation. The trouble is that we are consuming it in a state of distraction. Carr quotes the neuroscientist Jordan Grafman: "Does optimizing for multitasking result in better functioning—that is, creativity, inventiveness, productiveness?" The studies show that when we try to do two things at once, the attention given to both activities lessens, and we do each more carelessly. Doing more multitasking doesn't mean getting better at doing two things at once; it means continuing to do many things more poorly.
The literary mind was a mind that could pay attention, and attention turns out to be a cornerstone of memory. With our plastic minds, part of learning is converting our working memory (what you are using to read right now) into long-term memory (what was that Carr book about again?). Carr points to research that suggests it's attention that determines what we remember: "The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory." If we are only paying half-attention, if we are distracted by all of the buzzes and dings on our computers, or if we don't bother to pay attention at all because we can just Google it later, we are losing a chance to build lasting connections in our minds. Connections that might one day mingle and mesh in ways that we don't understand, connections that would allow us to frame the world differently or come up with a new solution.
Carr acknowledges throughout The Shallows that it's neither possible nor preferable to rewind technology. He loves his RSS feed as much as the next guy. But because Carr is someone who grew up in the linear, literary mind-set, he's trying to capture the virtues of our "old brains" before they become even more of a rarity. It's tempting to feel he's worrying too much. You may lose an afternoon to pointless Web surfing, but not an entire mind-set. But here I am, making an extreme argument again, when what Carr is saying is actually quite measured and cautious. The Internet is changing us, changing our culture. Perhaps some of these lab experiments are detecting the initial effects of this change. Maybe we're more distractible, more frenzied, less able to concentrate. Maybe these mental tics are part of the turbulence of the transition, a pocket of air as we soar to ever higher intellectual heights. Maybe they aren't.
Whatever our destination, Carr would have us reserve a place for attentive thinking. For to judge by history, he is being not an alarmist but a realist in pointing out that the literary, attention-capable mind, though it may not quite go the way of the chanting Greek poets, will no longer reign. When that happens, our culture will lose something ineffable. And we're likely to have forgotten what it is or was.
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