The Debate Deepens in 'The Shallows'

What's Happening to Our Internet-Saturated Brains?

by Lara Killian

7 July 2010

"We don't see the forest when we search the Web. We don't even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves."
Blah Blah Blah by
Louise Campbell 
cover art

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Nicholas Carr

US: Jun 2010

Readers interested in this subject will also enjoy the PopMatters Topics in Culture series: Pixelated Brains and the New Media

After reading Carr’s notorious 2008 Atlantic magazine article (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”), The Shallows is the book that I expected to follow. It seems odd that The Big Switch (2008) was Carr’s project at the time.

Carr recycles much of his material from the Atlantic article in the introduction to The Shallows, but goes on to develop his ideas and commentary about the changing nature of our interaction with various media in digital formats more fully. In the last two years Carr has become a key voice in this debate, appearing recently in forums ranging from an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered program to an appearance as a keynote speaker at the Special Libraries Association annual conference, just looking at his June 2010 calendar.

For those who enjoyed Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2007), you’ll appreciate Carr’s account of the changing nature of reading and writing (Chapter four, “The Deepening Page”). Carr follows the evolution of materials used for developing modern writing systems through the ages, from stone tablets to papyrus to the printing press. To understand society’s contemporary relationship to the Internet and its many wondrous ways of allowing us to express ourselves, it’s informative to take an historical look at record keeping and traditional forms of communication.

Carr tracks key industrial and conceptual changes in the history of humankind, major shifts in our perception of the universe and our role in it. Laying the groundwork for understanding our relationship with media sharing and online interaction today, Carr takes the reader back in time. A particularly interesting aspect of this trek through history is a look at the development of maps and abstract thinking. As various civilizations became adept at sketching out geographical boundaries, Carr posits that the human mind adapted to more easily process challenging nonlinear concepts.

Carr returns time and again to the assertion that prolonged focus is unnatural for humankind. It makes sense that when we were a more vulnerable part of the food chain, the ability to rapidly shift focus was an asset. Over time it was possible, especially in elite circles, for people to develop the longer attention spans that came to be valued in scholarship and leisure. Until the Internet came along. Thousands of years of dedication to overcoming that natural instinct to constantly shift our attention has been undone in just a decade or so.

The ability to skim text is every bit as important as the ability to read deeply. What is different, and troubling, is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for deeper study, scanning is becoming an end in itself—our preferred way of gathering and making sense of information of all sorts.

Describing the booming expansion of the English language following the introduction of the printing press in the mid-15th century, Carr writes that English grew from a few thousand words to more than a million as books became more widely available. New terms were needed to describe new abstract concepts. On the printed page, writers could put words together in new ways and structure sentences that didn’t mimic spoken rhythm and phrasing. Carr describes readers who became “adept at following fluid, elaborate, and idiosyncratic prose and verse.”

To read and write requires education and repeated practice. As Wolf wrote in 2007, reading is not a natural activity, nor an inherited one. Every single child must be encouraged to develop the neural pathways that help the eye recognize a squiggle as a letter, and a letter as a representation of a sound that makes up part of human communication. To be able to read is, in the basic sense of survival, a luxury rather than a necessity.

The chiming of bells, the tolling of clocks, these constructs that we use to mark how we spend our time, these have changed our relationship with our natural environment forever. New systems of labor and production efficiency have encouraged us to divide up our days according to work and school schedules rather than paying attention to the natural world or listening to our own biological clocks. When we check our Facebook walls for the tenth time in one day, we’re looking for those little nuggets of information that help us feel connected whenever our attention wanders from the task at hand. The natural rhythms of life continue to be disrupted as the brain seeks constant stimulation.

It’s in the second half of The Shallows that Carr brings his focus back to the Internet and how we use new media tools in our quotidian lives: “With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”

It would be difficult to argue that the experience of physically holding a book and turning the pages is the same as working through a digital text, no matter how advanced the e-reader. Equally, the tactile difference between flipping through the newspaper and leafing through a magazine can’t be compared to reading online equivalents. Formats that differ in print look pretty similar in a digital forum. New developments in e-readers are playing with changing our ideas about the interactivity that may be possible with texts, notes Carr. Devices that track most-often highlighted passages or allow simultaneous readers to chat message in the margins are changing the experience of reading.

As soon as you inject a book with links and connect it to the Web—as soon as you “extend” and “enhance” it and make it “dynamic”—you change what it is and you change, as well, the experience of reading it. An e-book is no more a book than an online newspaper is a newspaper.

Likening the multi-tasking brain to a juggler, Carr takes note of a variety of recent studies that set up different tasks for participants in attempts to measure their reading comprehension. Variables include allowing readers to switch back and forth between texts that contradict each other, or to read them in succession. Is loading an academic article with external links to explanations of various concepts and terminology helpful or a hindrance to comprehension?

Hypertext has evolved into hypermedia, and Carr asserts that the more our attention is divided, the more strained our cognitive abilities grow. Do you watch the news these days? Ever get distracted by the neverending ticker stream across the bottom of the screen? Carr mentions a study at Kansas State University where students watched a typical CNN news broadcast. One group watched the news with the usual stream of unrelated information streaming across the screen, while others watched the same broadcast but with the extras stripped out. The latter group remembered a lot more about the news story, and it’s not hard to suppose that it’s likely because they had fewer distractions. A systematic review is needed to pull together all of the information Carr has cherry-picked and include them in a comprehensive examination of all related studies.

With the advent of portable technology and its speedy access to the Internet, our experience of media is forever altered. When we go to a concert or even attend church it’s possible to bring the Web with us: these formerly passive activities of viewing an event are becoming more participatory. In some cases, performers are embracing new social media and ways to connect with their audiences; Carr mentions the New York Philharmonic and other major orchestras who ask audiences to vote for the evening’s encore via text message. Move over, American Idol, texting a TV program is so over.

Carr points out that companies like Google are literally in the business of distracting us. The more we want to check Twitter and Facebook updates, the more advertising money these kinds of companies make. More traffic equals more revenue, and since we only spent on average 19-27 seconds on a webpage (in an international study), keeping readers moving means success for advertisers. “Google wants information to be free because, as the cost of information falls, we all spend more time looking at computer screens and the company’s profits go up.”

To his credit, Carr acknowledges that it’s almost impossible to tell what is really going on in our brains as we shift various parts of our daily routines and modes of communication into online and digital formats. Technology would seem to reward reading in a shallow manner, as we attempt to process simultaneous streams of information. It’s also a given that reading a book from cover to cover doesn’t mean the reader is going to think deeply about its contents.

Actual neurological research is likely to become more intense in this area. Meanwhile, all manner of writers, journalists and tech bloggers are likely to continue to discuss their perceptions of how their own personal mental interactions with text are changing as they do increasing amounts of reading online while running multiple applications simultaneously. We’re like “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to skim through the discussion on revolving around John Brockman’s question of the year, “How is the Internet changing the way you think?” Plus I probably haven’t checked Facebook for all of 15 minutes. Better get to that.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains


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