[updated on 12 May: I was in a bit of a bad mood when I wrote the original version of this review, and I think I got a bit too snarky at points. This obviously irritated a few people (see comments below), and probably made it more difficult to understand what I was saying. I've updated this to remove the snark, and clarify a few things that were missing from the original review. My apologies to those who found the original irritating; hopefully this version will be less so.]
Scattered. When I talk with friends about their lives these days, I often hear that word. They feel like there’s far too many things vying for their attention, too much information to absorb, too many things to keep track of. They wonder what happened to all that time that our labor-saving devices were supposed to reclaim for us. But more importantly, they worry about how their constant flitting from one thing to another is altering the ability to concentrate, to focus on one thing for an extended period of time. They are concerned that the manifold distractions that seem to multiply like furry tribbles are keeping them from contemplating and reflecting on what really matters most in life.
Similar concerns underlie Nicholas Carr‘s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Carr states in the introduction that over the last few years, he had noticed that he was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on one particular thing for any length of time. It was much harder for him to sit down and get lost in a book, or to follow an extended argument in an academic paper. Instead, he gravitated towards the short snippets of information he received via his various information technologies: emails, blog posts, web pages, tweets and the like. Although he was getting older, he suspected that the real cause of his increasingly scattered mind was those chaotic and insistent flows of information, so he set out to research what neuroscience has discovered about the ways information technologies effect our brains.
Carr’s book is essentially an attempt to put some scientific muscle behind one of Marshall McLuhan‘s most provocative statements: “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios and patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance” (Understanding Media, 31). Carr argues that these changes in “sense ratios and patters of perception” are actually material, structural changes that occur within the brain, changes that affect the way our brains work, and the kinds of tasks we are able to do.
It turns out that our brains have a certain degree of “plasticity.” That is, our brains are constantly changing, physically reacting to the stimuli we receive, the tasks we do often, and the tools we use to do those tasks. Like water carving out a channel, neural pathways that fire often become stronger and more conductive over time, making it easier for us to leverage that part of our brain in the future. Sometimes this even causes a physical enlargement of our brain cells. For example, Carr discusses how cabbies in London have a measurably larger posterior hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for storing and manipulating spatial information.
But this plasticity can also have a “dark side,” Carr asserts. If we spend more and more time consuming small bits of disconnected information, our brains will physically restructure to optimize for that kind of thinking, and thus we will lose our ability to perform what he calls “deep reading.” Such a loss, Carr declares, will be detrimental not only to our creative engagement with the world, but also our general cultural wisdom.
Carr does an excellent job reviewing the scientific evidence for neuroplasticity, leaving little doubt that the things we use to convey information shape the physical makeup of our brains. He also stresses that these changes happen very rapidly, regardless of age or prior education/experience. He highlights a study in which the brain patterns of those who had not previously used the Internet began to resemble long-time users after just six days of exposure (121). In the afterword, he also makes it clear that generational differences, or the kind of education one has had, should make no difference:
I’ve always been suspicious of those who seek to describe the effects of digital media in generational terms, drawing sharp contrasts between young ‘Internet natives’ and old ‘Internet immigrants.’ Such distinctions strike me as misleading, if not specious. If you look at statistics on Web use over the past two decades, you see that the average adult has spent more time online than the average kid (226-7).
In many ways, we really shouldn’t be all that surprised that our brains physically change to accommodate new tools. Each new technology requires some getting used to, and over time we develop new skills and abilities that we didn’t have before. The question is, however, do these physical changes actually affect the way we think and behave? If so, do they do so deterministically? If six days of exposure to the world wide web were enough to make the study subjects’ brain patterns look like long-term users, does that mean that those subjects would now start to think and act just like those long-term users as well?
Carr seems to answer this in the affirmative, but I think this is where his book is the weakest. Although he includes a paragraph to acknowledge that technological determinism is problematic, he nevertheless argues like a determinist throughout the rest of the book. His basic premise seems to be that reading books always creates a linear, logical, focused, detached mind, while using the Internet (in any shape or form) always creates a non-linear, reactionary, distracted, tribal mind. This assertion, of course, is based on similar ones made by McLuhan and Ong, but I’ve always been rather suspicious of it. In addition to being a bit insulting to pre-literate societies and those who don’t typically read books, I think it also suffers from a lack of necessary distinctions.
Carr echoes the media studies claim that reading printed books always results in the same kind of psychological and cultural effects, regardless of the content of those books. He notes that “Whether a person is immersed in a bodice ripper or a Psalter, the synaptic effects are the same” (72). The implication is that synaptic effects result in psychological and behavioral effects as well, so he would expect that someone who reads mostly escapist fiction, or even pornography, should end up with the same sort of mind as someone who reads mostly philosophy. Carr takes this even further, however, and says that these same changes happen very quickly and regardless of age or previous education or experience. The implication is that if you stop reading printed books and only read on the web, you will quickly become a distracted, shallow thinker.
I remain unconvinced by this argument for a few reasons. First, Carr seems to be lumping a wide array of information technologies into what he calls “the Internet.” He makes no distinctions between demand-pull media (such as web pages and ftp file downloads) and instant-push media (such as SMS text messaging or Twitter); instead he just declares that all of it is designed to convey a constant, unstoppable stream of distractions. He also discusses eBook readers without making any distinctions between genre; escapist fiction might work perfectly fine as an eBook, while other genres might not.
Second, Carr also seems to be assuming that all people gain wisdom and creatively engage with the world in the same way. Recall that his argument hinges on the idea that physical changes to the brain will result in particular psychological effects, regardless of age or prior education/experience, and this, he warns, will result in a loss of cultural wisdom and a decline in creativity. But I have known many people that I would not hesitate to call ‘wise’ who no longer read books at all. Instead, their wisdom is of a different kind, and comes from a long and persistent engagement with the material world: gardening, farming, fishing, etc. To say that wisdom comes only from reading printed books seems to me to be a bit problematic.
Third, I find his claims about a loss of creativity to be a bit surreal given the explosion of creativity enabled by digital tools and social media. Yes, much of it is inane and derivative, but one must also consider the degree to which these tools have also enabled talented artists to make new kinds of work, and get that work in front of more people. One might try to argue that on the whole, average cultural creativity is declining, but I think that would require some harder data, and I don’t think Carr provided them.
Lastly, my own experience with the book also raises questions about his thesis. I’ve used a computer since 1980, have programmed them for a living for many years, and have spent quite a lot of time on the Internet. Yet I was able to sit down and read Carr’s book over the course of a few days. I followed his argument closely, engaged critically with his claims, and creatively wrote a review of it on this blog. If, as he claims, the Internet will quickly turn me into a shallow and uncreative thinker, regardless of my age or previous experience/education, how was all of this possible?
Despite these shortcomings, Carr’s book will no doubt remain an enduring fixture in the debates surrounding the Internet, mobile communications, and social networking. Those interested in the topic will no doubt want to become familiar with the book, which is very easy to do, as Carr’s writing style is easy to read and very approachable.