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Beautifully written reminder that each medium has its tradeoffs

  • Jun 21, 2010
When I first came across this book I noticed that a lot of my friends on social media were expressing disgust or boredom with the thesis of "Is the Internet frying our brain?" After all, who but a curmudgeon would claim that the most vital and transformative technology of our time might have a dark side? Especially at a time when leading edge educators are working furiously to bring their field up to date by incorporating the best of the latest technology in a way that improves education. Against this background Carr's book seems reminiscent of those poor backward folks who opposed the printing press. As the brilliant and funny curmudgeon Neil Postman once said about himself, Carr is indeed playing the role of the Luddite in some ways. Still, neither Postman nor Carr were trying to dismantle the Internet or just shriek an alarm with their work. They are trying to help us understand something important. With that in mind, let's take a more careful look at this book.

The Shallows is a thoroughly and broadly researched and beautifully written polemic which I found to represent two different things. First, it is a media analysis and culture critique. Second it is a pessimistic theory about the overall effect of web media on our thinking ability over time.

The first aspect will be a delight for those interested in the evolution of human cognition, those fascinated with media effects per se, the traditionally minded book scholars, and assorted geezers. It is a very satisfying cultural media critique very much in the spirit of Marshall Macluhan and Neil Postman even though it lacks Macluhan's showmanship or Postman's remarkable ever-present humor. It was this aspect made the book a worthwhile reminder for me, introduced me to some fascinating recent cognitive science work supporting the view that different media encourage different ways of thinking, and helped tie together a number of broad ideas for me regarding the evolution of human cognition and the influence of the tools we use.

The second aspect, for the more technically psychologically minded, and the more alarmist and pessimistic part, is a clever argument for competing and mutually destructive habits of attention allocation: (1) the nimble web browsing mind that constantly reserves attention and working memory for making navigational decisions and is exposed to massive amounts of information, and (2) the sustained attention ability that we learn with great effort over time for the purpose of reading and reflective thinking.

The second aspect is the one that most of the articles and marketing have been pushing, a thesis I'll call "Help! The Internet is Frying My Brain!"

Carr argues that the nimble web mind better exploits our more natural "bottom-up" or stimulus driven attention mechanisms, which is why we find it so powerful. He also argues that the undistracted reflective mind is far less natural but has unique advantages for human cognition. So it is worth retaining, he argues, _and_ we need to keep working deliberately at it in order to retain it. That alone would be an important point. Thus far, I think the attention argument is completely consistent with the media critique, and supports it. None of this so far says that our brain is being fried by the Internet.

Now comes the trickier part, and the part of Carr's thesis that to me is most controversial, the two ways of using attention may not only compete but may actually be mutually destructive. Carr offers his own experience and that of several other serious book readers to show that they are having increasing trouble reading for prolonged periods. Carr says that there is neuroscience data showing that this may be the result of web reading rather than just advancing age or other less ominous explanations.

This "fried brain" thesis is the part that is either revolutionary, or becomes the fatal flaw in The Shallows, depending on whether or not it is true. So is it true? Does Carr persuade us that not only are we thinking differently with different media (a very strong case I think) but that the Internet is frying our brains?

Today we remember the iconic wise curmudgeon, Socrates, only through his students. That's because old Soc didn't believe in writing. It seems he was a great proponent of contemplative thought and taught that contemplation depends heavily on memory. He thought it would seriously hurt people's memory to rely too much on writing things down. His criticism seems perverse today, even as we remember Soc fondly for his deep reflection and his provocative teaching methods. That's the historical role into which Nicholas Carr has cast himself, the media critic who invokes wisdom and reflection and plays them against seemingly unstoppable cultural trends towards greater convenience, efficiency, and information distribution.

Carr is the guy who wants to warn us about the hazards of writing on our memory. About the damage that the printing press will do to culture. About how TV will change us for the worse. And now about how the Internet will shift our values, instill bad habits, hurt our reading and thinking skills, and even destroy our powers of sustained concentration.

Socrates wasn't entirely wrong even though he bucked a trend that in retrospect was downright silly to oppose. People who don't specifically practice remembering things and instead devote everything to writing do find that they have weaker memories. That's the reason for all those memory courses, the best of which essentially just teach the same methods socrates would have used. The widespread distribution of news did have negative consequences in terms of reinforcing bias and propaganda on a massive scale.

There are some adverse consequences of all the TV watching we do. However none of these things has had the dire consequences that culture critics predicted, we have adapted in turn in some way to each of them, more or less successfully.

So Carr isn't entirely wrong about the tradeoffs involved in using modern technologies. He is not a "Luddite" and he does make a number of valid points.

Carr is not telling us to dismantle the Internet. He fully recognizes the value of technology. He is rather playing Socrates to the modern students. Most people, desperately trying to keep up with the amazing new technologies and learn new ways of getting better information with them will ignore Carr's message pretty much out of hand. "Carr is the only one affected negatively by the Internet, the rest of us are thriving."

Those folks who ignore culture critics out of hand are taking for granted the skills and expertise that many people have cultivated through sheer effort using sustained concentration. They are buying into the attractive fashionable modern viewpoint that just being exposed to a lot of information via technology will make you smart. The majority of people, the ones who go along with that implicit confusion of information and personal knowledge, will indeed lose some of the things we take for granted today. I think Carr is right about that, and that is the most profound message in this book. LISTEN TO IT. Even if you think, with good reason, that it is silly to imagine that using search engines and hyperlinks will hurt your concentration.

Still, the message that the Internet will make us stupid isn't quite right. Writing didn't entirely destroy our memory, it just shifted the habits we need to cultivate to preserve it. It seems like the wisest among us will recognize the value that culture critics like Carr have always had, they will appreciate the detail and care that good media critics like Carr put into their warnings, and they will remember the real tradeoffs between different kinds of media and take responsibility for the cultivation of their own minds.

Just as wise modern students still practice the methods used by Socrates, they will still learn to read and think deeply using books or the electronic equivalent, the wisest will still turn off the TV and other distractions when sustained concentration is called for, and they will understand the difference between various conditions and different kinds of media in general and will use each to its best advantage.

So long as we aren't stupid enough to stop cultivating our individual minds regardless of technology changes, media itself will not make us stupid. Listen to Carr's message, learn it, and then apply it to your use of technology. It's easy to dismiss the claim that the Internet will somehow fry your brain. It's another matter entirely to dismiss the value of cultivating your mind through personal reflection.

Related background reading:

On the evolution of cognition and symbolic thought (and secondarily, the role of reading):
A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness
The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain

On reading and the brain:
Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

On the role of tools in cognition:
Adaptive Thinking: Rationality in the Real World (Evolution and Cognition Series)

On the role of media technology in culture:
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

On the trend to rising IQ scores in modern times:
What Is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect

On the practical limitations of human working memory:
Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long
The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory

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More The Shallows: What the Interne... reviews
review by . August 16, 2010
This is a provocative and very important book. Its genesis was the author noticed his inability to focus and not be distracted as he used the Internet more and more. As befits the author of Does It Matter? and The Big Switch , he looked at the impact on many technologies on thinking/the brain along with the commentators of the time. This included the advent of clocks, writing (clay to parchment) , printing press , telephone, phonograph and now the World Wide Web. Along the way he talks about the …
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Todd I. Stark ()
Member Since: Aug 26, 2010
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Carr—author of The Big Switch (2007) and the much-discussed Atlantic Monthly story “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—is an astute critic of the information technology revolution. Here he looks to neurological science to gauge the organic impact of computers, citing fascinating experiments that contrast the neural pathways built by reading books versus those forged by surfing the hypnotic Internet, where portals lead us on from one text, image, or video to another while we’re being bombarded by messages, alerts, and feeds. This glimmering realm of interruption and distraction impedes the sort of comprehension and retention “deep reading” engenders, Carr explains. And not only are we reconfiguring our brains, we are also forging a “new intellectual ethic,” an arresting observation Carr expands on while discussing Google’s gargantuan book digitization project. What are the consequences of new habits of mind that abandon sustained immersion and concentration for darting about, snagging bits of information? What is gained and what is lost? Carr’s fresh, lucid, and engaging assessment of our infatuation with the Web is provocative and revelatory. --Donna Seaman
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ISBN-10: 0393072223
ISBN-13: 978-0393072228
Author: Nicholas Carr
Genre: Health, Mind & Body, Science
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
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