What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (a mid-book review)

I am halfway through Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr is the guy who wrote the excellent Atlantic essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” several years ago in which he documented his personal sense that reading online was somehow ruining his familiar mental habits — namely, concentration and focus. “Ruining”, I thought at the time, was an unfairly harsh term. He takes a more nuanced, thoughtful approach to his own experience of reading in the book-length study.

Page 125 of a 224 page book is not the ideal place from which to write a review. That said, I am ready to recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand what is probably happening to us in the age of ubiquitous internet access. Carr’s argument expands on the theme established in his Atlantic essay: the internet is destroying our ability to read deeply and engage with text-based narrative in a linear, hierarchical, rational fashion. Hypertext and multimedia “enhanced” text is changing the experience of reading and rewiring the way our minds are able to read.

The Atlantic essay struck me as alarmist, reactionary even. The Shallows places the new ways of thinking engendered by the internet into the context of other mind-altering technologies that actually changed the way our brains worked: the alphabet, numbers, the map, the clock, the codex. Carr examines how these new technologies of intellect have made entirely new thought processes possible and, thus, altered physical structures in the human mind. These changes play out over the course of millennia but they also play out in the course of a human lifetime. In the case of the internet, these changes may play out in a matter of days or weeks.

There’s a lot of strong scholarship in this book. I will come back for a better review 100 pages from now. For now, I just want to share how impressed I am with Carr’s ability to summarize the history of technological innovation, describe how it works and create a meaningful context that is value-neutral and does not necessarily crown contemporary humans as the apotheosis of what we will become. We are not necessarily destined to remain as we are. We are most likely destined to continue our process of becoming something else. This has happened before. It is going to happen again.

Carr says it better. Here’s a great passage from his chapter on the history of reading aloud vs. reading alone:

Like our forebears during the later years of the Middle Ages, we find ourselves today between two technological worlds. After 550 years, the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges. The shift began during the middle years of the twentieth century, when we started devoting more and more of our time and attention to the cheap, copious, and endlessly entertaining products of the first wave of electric and electronic media: radio, cinema, phonograph, television. But those technologies were always limited by their inability to transmit the written word. They could displace but not replace the book. Culture’s mainstream still ran through the printing press.

Now the mainstream is being diverted, quickly and decisively, into a new channel. The electronic revolution is approaching its culmination as the computer — desktop, laptop, handheld — becomes our constant companion and the Internet becomes our medium of choice for storing, processing, and sharing information in all forms, including text. The new world will remain, of course, a literate world, packed with the familiar symbols of the alphabet. We cannot go back to the lost oral world, any more than we can turn the clock back to a time before the clock existed. “Writing and printing and the computer,” writes Walter Ong, “are all ways of technologizing the word”; and once technologized, the word cannot be de-technologized. But the world of the screen, as we’re already coming to understand, is a much different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted. (77)

This is a very enjoyable, well-researched, well-built study. I just hope there are still people out there able to sit still long enough to enjoy it.

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