I wanted to like the Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” a lot more than I did. I was excited that the book started with referencing Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, two intellectuals who I believe deserve much more attention as we grapple with the Internet’s impacts, and by comparing the current shift to the transition from orality to literacy, which I think is the apt comparison.
I think the real story might be a bimodal distribution in which some people benefit greatly from the riches of engaged conversation on the Web while others find themselves subject to even more passive consumption in the mode of television, since, surely, the Internet also delivers that experience.
I am really hoping for more discussions of the shaping power of technology. I’ve heard many people, especially in academia, state that “it’s not the technology, it’s what you do with technology.” I think that is a fallacy
understatement. Especially among academics there is a strong desire not to be seen as adherents of “technodeterminism,” the idea that technology shapes or strongly influences societies. Instead, many academics have adopted what is called a social-constructionist approach that privileges user agency.
I disagree. I do think technologies have strong impacts. While social constructionist view definitely has a point and people are not empty vessels at complete whims of technology, I do agree that, as Carr puts it, every technology carries with it an “intellectual ethic” that exert strong influence on patterns of learning, discussion, debate and knowledge. You simply do not have the same society, same relations of power, and same options after the spread of the printing press and this is clearly true for the Internet. Unfortunately, Carr’s book falls short in analyzing the deep impact the spread of networked information exchange that characterize the web because it leaves out some of its key features out the discussion.
While social constructionist view definitely has a point and people are not empty vessels at complete whims of technology, I do agree that, as Carr puts it, every technology carries with it an “intellectual ethic” that exert strong influence on patterns of learning, discussion, debate and knowledge.
I will summarize key points of Car’s argument, as I understand them, very briefly. Carr argues that uninterrupted and meditative thinking is crucial to worthy intellectual creation, and that books specifically encourage such deep thinking because they are linear and enclosed – you sit down and work through the argument. On the contrary, Carr posits, the Internet as a medium is prone to disruptions, shallow reading, surfing without understanding – it is somewhat a kin to a slot machine that keeps you engaged while essentially wasting your time. He makes a parallel argument that net surfing taxes short term memory (rather than relieving it the way pen and paper do when doing arithmetic, for example) and that discourages the brain from forming synthesized long-term memories which he believes are key to intellectual achievement.
I see three major flaws in the book. One, Carr is fundamentally underplaying the participatory and interactive nature of the Internet and the impact of that on intellectual engagement and deep thought. All evidence suggests that many more people are reading, writing and crucially responding to each other a lot more since the advent of the Internet. That said, it’s possible that the impacts Carr is talking about may be more visible on some portions of the population –especially kids– who may end up spending a lot more hours consuming video and gaming on the Internet, especially if parents let children have their own unmonitored use of computer (similar to allowing a TV in a child’s bedroom). I think the real story might be a bimodal distribution in which some people benefit greatly from the riches of engaged conversation while others find themselves subject to even more passive consumption in the mode of television, since, surely, the Internet also delivers that experience. However, there isn’t that much of that discussion in the book and more examples of people like him who I think are, frankly, the wrong target for this concern. Second, his argument from brain science is very weak. If you don’t disagree that neuroplasticity does not shut down in early childhood and that our brains get better at things they practice a lot, there isn’t much more there. It’s not completely his fault as the science is where it is, but why try to hang so much of the argument there? It isn’t even necessary, in my opinion, to his point. Third, he talks at length about how exteriorizing our memory to computers will come at great cost to us. Carr proceeds to explain how many people (including, famously, Socrates) thought writing and the printing press would do just that (which, indeed, they did), with similar predictions of negative consequences for thinking which did not come true, but this time they will because … and he lost me. The only argument I could see was that the Internet somehow has a different effect on short term memory which causes knowledge not to be transferred to long-term memory. However, everywhere I look, I see people who know a lot more about a broad range of topics and I simply need real evidence for this claim. Such a strong claim needs to be based on empirics based on people, not studies of what mice remember or how we perform very artificial tasks when distracted. I agree that we should study this.
Carr is fundamentally underplaying the participatory and interactive nature of the Internet and the impact of that on intellectual engagement and deep thought. All evidence suggests that more people are reading, writing and crucially responding to each other a lot more since the advent of the Internet.
Primarily, the book has little discussion regarding the engaged, participatory side of the web. As Carr points out, reading a book is so intellectually productive in so far as it forces you to engage the author in your own mind. Indeed, being distracted by irrelevant interruptions while reading a book is likely harmful to such engagement. However, being distracted by barking dogs while reading a book is very different than being distracted by links in the article while reading it on the web. The hyperlinks Carr so laments are not irrelevant distractions; rather, they are invitations to engage the topic further and deeper.
As Carr points out, the best books invite us into a conversation with the author — and the Internet is the superb medium for such conversation! Everywhere on the web, you see sustained exchanges of ideas, information, tidbits, big discussions, informal talk. If anything, the Internet has clearly expanded the number of people who can participate in the kind of intellectual inquiry that used to be the domain of the few. His point is that deciding to click on each link taxes our memory and distracts us. Perhaps. But it also draws us into lively intellectual waters and that is not acknowledged.
Clearly, Carr has a point about the irrelevant distractions and that issue does need to be addressed better, and software will likely be a part of the solution (such as Fred Stutzman’s “Freedom” software suite which alternatively turns of social Internet or all of Internet for prescribed periods of time to guard against distractions). Unfortunately, Carr spends a lot of time attacking the very part of the Internet, its networked, linked and participatory nature that makes it intellectually richer, not poorer.
Which brings me to another common complaint which Carr does not highlight as much but which I have been hearing more often lately. What about all the “crap” on the Internet? The silly cat pictures, the trivial Twitter updates, the banal Facebook postings, the million Youtube videos of pets, kids, household accidents, pranks, etc.? Surely, that is evidence of intellectual decline?
That, my dear friends, is called humanity. That’s what humans do. We are a deeply social species and we engage in “social grooming” all the time, i.e. acts that have no particular informational importance but are about connecting, forming, displaying and strengthening bonds, affirming and challenging status, creating alliances, gossiping, exchanging tidbits about rhythms of life. I personally doubt that there is substantially more social grooming going on today, on average, compared to the pre-Internet era. The only difference is that the Internet makes it visible. What used to be spoken is now written and published potentially for the world to see. That’s it. There isn’t more or less of it. What has happened has resulted in the shuffling of the traditional understandings of private and the public, and as such, it has enormous consequences but it does not signal that we are dumbing down. We were always this dumb.
Further, I believe Carr is misunderstanding the point people make about using the Internet as an “outboard brain” as when he quotes Clive Thompson saying how he has “given up an effort to remember anything,” since he can always retrieve the information online. He quotes a bunch more people saying a similar thing. All the people he quotes in this regard with whom I am familiar are superb intellectuals! I had the opportunity to have a lengthy conversation with Clive Thompson last month and he managed to talk for couple of hours without stopping to look up anything. We had a couple of “oh, yeah, what was the author of that study” moments where we both wanted to dive for a laptop but what Clive and others clearly mean is that it is easier concentrate on developing complex thoughts if one has easy access to broad range of information. Once again, I believe that Carr is taking a feature of the Internet that actually strengthens one’s ability to intellectually deepen and painting it as a force towards the shallows.
In fact, that’s the main weakness of Carr’s book. It is mainly about how intellectuals, like him, are more finding themselves less deeply engaged because of the Internet. Yet, the people he talks about are part of the richest conversations that humanity has ever been able to have in such a broad manner! Imagine how many of us have blogged about Carr’s book. This is a conversation with perhaps thousands, if not tens of thousands of writers and many more readers! What would deep look like to him?
Would having to hold more information in our heads help us develop better arguments and deeper thoughts? By that logic, clearly, pre-writing era should have had more intellectualism. I think Carr needs to separate his argument about “deep reading” from the argument about the benefits of “having to keep more things in one’s memory.” I think the former is a real issue while the latter is not supported by much evidence I can see.
And I’m genuinely curious how many people read this long essay all the way through and how many people just glanced at its length and surrendered to Tweetdeck’s beckoning!
Speaking of evidence, I really was not impressed by the brain studies on mice and monkeys. I don’t doubt that distracted mice have harder time out of mazes. That hardly helps me understand the impact of the Internet. This is not Carr’s fault per se as this is a very difficult topic to study neuro-physiologically but to me, that means, that he should make his case without requiring this line argument. This part reminded me how it has become de rigueur in serious court cases, like capital-murder cases, to mount a phsyical-brain defense as juries seem to be most compassionate to “he had blunt trauma to his head” rather than “he was repeatedly abused by his parents.” As a society, we are least favorable to sociological arguments, slightly more favorable to psychological ones and most enamored of more directly biological stories. (Genes for risk-taking! Brain-food! A disorder for everything!). However, as often is the case, when you see the real level of brain science, you realize that it is not yet very helpful in figuring out complex phenomenon. (I think such science is valuable, fascinating and will likely yield better insights with time but I think we are far away from a point where we can point to brain scans as evidence for anything as complicated as the features of our intellectual milieu).
Let me conclude by saying that the issues he raises –attention in face of distractions, dealing with information in text that do not have traditional boundaries (beginning-middle-end) and sense of enclosure, entrusting more and more of our judgment to automated systems, and in general, the profound shift that is taking place in our intellectual life are very worthy topics. I think Carr deserves credit for his contribution to the conversation. A good polemic is always a worthy spark. I just wish it was a deeper polemic based on broader, more solid evidence that considered all the aspects of intellectual life in the Internet era.
And I’m genuinely curious how many people read this long essay all the way through and how many people just glanced at its length and surrendered to Tweetdeck’s beckoning!
I suspect the number will not be too high but still it will likely be orders of magnitude higher than if I had published this in an academic journal available only in print, left to gather dust in a few libraries, with only proof of its existence a line on my vita…
zeynep, great review!
your point about the bi-modal distribution reminds me of that Epic 2014 video that came out a while back. it begins with “it is the best of times; it is the worst of times”, making the point that for some (the few) the web would be a great resource while for others (the many) it would lead to a general dumbing down. what do you think there is a few/many issue here? what does that bi-modal distribution look like?
This is the best review/critique I’ve yet read of Carr’s book. While I’m usually quick defend the work, your criticisms show signs of such serious reflection that I am effectively disarmed. I think perhaps I’ve become such a fanboy not because I necessarily agree with Carr’s thesis or even his approach, but because I really would like to more intellectual debate about just what we’re gaining and losing as we transition into an era of seemingly ubiquitous Internet access (for some). I’d especially like to read more about McLuhan and how his theories might apply today.
Thank you for continuing to write such an excellent blog!
– Mike English
Nathan, thanks. There is a long tradition of rich-get-richer theories (like the “knowledge gap” theories in the 70s) regarding new inventions but usually those are about how the people who already-connected will capitalize on new technologies and while others are excluded… In this case, it may be more about inner resources (existing intellectual capital) rather than outer resources (your access to the web).
Nice video. (Also nice how you corrected Dickens’ comma splice:-)).
Mike, thank you! I find McLuhan is an uneven intellectual, brilliant here, totally unsubstantiated there. I think the key insight here is that the medium matters, even though it is hard to see this when one is submerged in it. I think the debate Carr started will continue for years. I see a lot of knee-jerk reactions from people who talk about how great the Internet has been for them — which is undoubtedly true but that misses what else might be going on, the same way Carr seems at time to miss the “deepening” aspects of the Net.
Thank you! I’m reading The Shallows right now, and was having many of the same thoughts myself. Specifically, the near total neglect of the positives that are being brought about and driven forward by the networked world we now live in and engage with. I look forward to revisiting this piece when I finish The Shallows. From there I’m moving on to Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus which appears to be the argument from the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Perhaps, as usual, the truth lies somewhere in between! Thanks again!
Thanks for the thoughtful review. I like the way you validate the underlying themes of his work, and agree with your bimodal thesis. The advent of writing in Egypt as Goody documented it in his classic “The Logic of Writing” indicates a similar bi-directional movement: towards greater differentiation of social roles and knowledge along with greater centralization and consolidation. My colleagues and I on the Stanford Study of Writing research team are puzzling out how to think about the impact of the digital media landscape on writing both in and out of school. Thanks again for tweeting out the review.
Congratulations for your deep review of Carr’s book. By the way, I went through all of your sound and extensively developed arguments without being distracted by a concurring TV broadcasting nearby. Distraction shoudn’t be regarded as positive or negative for its own sake, nor should any medium be blamed as more favorable to its occurrence. Your last paragraph perfectly summarizes the whole problem.
As a high school history teacher, I have faced the parents of students who seem to be concerned about the things Nicholas Carr apparently writes about in his book (admittedly, I have not read it, but a number of reviews about it from both sides, which I suppose further disproves his theory). But, what the Internet has done for me is to give my students access to information that they would not have read or seen had this tool not been available to me. It is necessary to teach our students how to use this for their personal improvement, and show them that it can be a great tool/resource for more than just their social lives.
Interesting read. On your final comment I’d like to add that while all people would probably read it, less would find it. The location serves as a filter. Only the most determined reader will find your essay in an academic journal. The internet is everywhere in everyone’s pocket which means everyone has access to complex works. If you blame the internet for making you stupid you might want to consider that you were stupid to start with and that the internet merely highlighted that fact.
I suspect we’re shedding our memories and certain other abilities to make room for new ones. Much like fish shed their fins and scales and replaced them with legs and fur over millions of years. Maybe we’re in a Darwinian revolution more than anything else. Shedding and adding to deal with new challenges of a new world.