On The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Image retrieved from techliberation.com

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains not only confirmed some of my deepest anxieties about the internet, it gave me new ones to consider. Nicholas Carr blends neuroscience, biology, psychology, computer technology, and philosophy into a fascinating account of how the internet age is altering the ways in which we think, read, write, socialize, conceptualize the world, remember our days, and experience our lives. Digressions on the changes wrought by the internet age are supplemented by discussions of memory-formation, the evolution of reading behavior, Google, artificial intelligence, and so much more. Well-rounded and surprisingly entertaining, I finished The Shallows eager to write about all the ideas Carr planted in my mind.

At its essence, Carr’s book suggests that we need to be cognizant of both the good and the bad that a change as vast as the internet guarantees. As he states in the final pages of the book “[w]e shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self.” Though Carr is careful not to outright denounce the internet, his explanation of the changes that have accompanied its expansion certainly lean in favor of the good ole days. The argument is not simply that the internet makes us stupider, shallower, or otherwise stilted, but that it we must pay careful attention to the ways in which it alters our memory, knowledge, wisdom, and attention spans.

The Shallows begins with a discussion of the brain’s plasticity; it’s almost as though the author wants to remind us that the ability of an external technology to reshape our brain chemistry (the argument he proceeds to make) is already well proven. One of the most alarming ways in which our brains are subject to alteration by the internet comes in the form of our attention spans. The internet (and Google in particular) thrive on interruption and distraction – following hyperlinks are a mainstay of internet activity that make it so addictive and useful. Carr devotes a lot of attention to changes in reading behavior as it relates to the internet and e-readers. I was fascinated to learn that, initially after the advent of the written word, people regularly read aloud. This was at once a mainstay of previous oral traditions, a product of how words were written at the time (without any spaces between them, requiring the sounding out of letters in order to ascertain the architecture of words within), and the context within which reading was conducted (from scrolls and parchments, often in public). Once spaces were introduced between words and the portable book took hold, reading became a more solitary and quiet pursuit. Silently reading by ourselves allowed the human race to develop skill as deep readers and thus, deep thinkers. The internet reverses this trend, continually grabbing our attention, then forcing it to be diverted and redirected. Sure, we can peruse many pages this way, but we are less able to ponder, internalize, remember, and learn from each website. And even e-readers, many of which allow readers to link to the internet in the midst of their reading, encourage less deep and uninterrupted reading than a traditional tangible book. Our ability to deeply maintain focus on tasks is compromised and we thrive on a constant influx of stimuli both on- and offline.

This pattern goes hand in hand with the glorification of multitasking. I could digress on this subject for quite some time, but I’ll try to keep this brief. I’m no stranger to multitasking – in fact, I’ve spent much of my lifetime thinking it a skill worth mastering. But recently I’ve come to recognize the evil of doing two things at once – as well as three, four, or even five things at once. Our modern world is so focused upon markers of success, high levels of productivity, and an ability to do it all, that we miss out on the joy every moment, even those consumed by small tasks, can bring.

A high premium is placed upon multitasking in our society; it’s considered an essential skill that the modern woman must perfect to achieve success at home and in the workplace. I regularly try to challenge that notion, to suggest that practicing presence is a more deeply satisfying, albiet less socially-valued talent. It seems to me that simplifying our lives will both contribute to and be made easier by practicing presence. This simplification could occur with tangible items – when we have fewer physical things to attend to, our minds are clearer, we have fewer unnecessary attachments, and more mental space is available to focus our energies elsewhere. It could occur with relationships – practicing true presence with others illuminates our relationships in such a way as to allow us to evaluate them. By focusing on how the people in our life make us feel, we can determine if our friendships need work and if they are worth preserving or even letting go. And in terms of the internet, it could occur with having our hands in fewer social media spots, spending less time on the internet as a means to provide our minds with some calm, or challenging ourselves to read articles in full, rather than allowing hyperlinks to speed us through one page and onto the next. Over time, practicing presence ensures that those things which are most important, whether in the form of relationships, tasks, or experiences, rise to the top while distractions are weeded out. And it guarantees a more full and satisfying life in the form of simple awareness – something we so often fail to achieve in our day to day lives.

Beyond my own digression, I did find it telling that Carr referenced a question proposed during an initial reveal of the “window” system whereby multiple computer applications could be opened in different windows at one time. An audience member queried why someone would want to be distracted by email pop ups and other windows during the course of their work. Many others took this position at the time (during the mid-1970s), but his hesitations seem to have lost favor. Now we allow ourselves to be distracted not just while working on a computer but also while socializing, spending time with our families, exercising, watching movies, etc. And when we are attending to multiple things at once, our mental processes occur on a more shallow level. We operate with less creativity, wisdom, reflection, and mindfulness because no one thing is fully capturing our attention.

I’ve always been adamant that the internet and its ubiquity (especially as we make it more portable via smartphones and tablets) reduces our presence in the real world. An interesting observation of Carr’s pertains to why people, especially teenagers and young adults, are so tied to their internet personas. Their use of social media provides allows them to be immersed in the social world via their profile on a particular site. But beyond allowing them a means of display, social media can be a source of great anxiety due to its fast pace. With a near-constant stream of updates comes the fear of missing out and being left behind. Social media ties us to others but, if not used frequently enough, can also push us out of social groups too.

Others argue that the internet is a huge boon for society by putting all the world’s information at our fingertips. And this is where Carr introduces discussions of memory formation and artificial intelligence. While the internet makes it exceedingly easy to retrieve whatever piece of information we would like, the cacophony of the internet makes it less likely for us to very deeply know, process, and store that information once located. The internet serves as a vast library, but if we rely on it too heavily, our muscles for memory-storing and knowledge generation will likely whither. We have increased access to knowledge but we individually know much less. Wisdom and culture are bound to suffer if we place all of our basic knowledge into the hands of a machine, not blessed with the human capabilities of meditative thinking, learning, and contemplation.

While Carr’s book is ripe with amazing examples of how the internet affects our brains and our lives, I’ll highlight one final fascinating point. Following the advent of digital publication, one would imagine that scholarly articles would have a higher number of citations than their print-only counterparts. After all, information is not only more readily accessible via the web but there is also a higher volume of material available on the internet than in a single library. But a study of citations in scholarly articles across print and digital mediums actually found some counterintuitive results. Digital-age articles not only cited less than print articles, they also utilized a much narrower scope of sources. Because of the ways in which search engines are structured, popularity is favored, providing researchers with easiest access to the most recent and most popular research. The scope of scholarship, in the form of academic publications, has actually been confined by the internet.

If nothing else, The Shallows raises important questions about the way that internet technology alters both our individual lives and our society at large. In Carr’s review of previous technological advances, it becomes clear that what at first was met with hesitation and fear often led to increased efficiency, quality of life, and productivity. But one thing Carr fails to expound upon is the new rate of change. The internet has altered our world in such a dramatic way throughout a relatively limited period of time. The printing press, books, even computers were slower in coming – the internet has taken hold and grown exponentially. Though I’m sure that some of Carr’s worries (and my own) won’t pan out to be as problematic as they currently appear, we cannot ignore the potential dangers that accompany the vast progress of the internet.

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