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BOOK REVIEW: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
By Nicholas Carr, W.W. Norton & Company, Hardcover, 2010, 276 Pages, $26.95
From the start of “The Shallows” it is clear author Nicholas Carr is a man who spends a lot of time in front of computer screens: “The Web’s been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. ...I do most of my banking and a lot of my shopping online. I use my browser to pay my bills, schedule my appointments, book flights and hotel rooms, renew my driver’s license, send invitations and greeting cards.”
Despite his almost giddy delight over the obvious benefits of speed and interconnectivity offered by the net, Carr is forced to acknowledge that the effects of computers on humans are not all good. For example, many of the computer users he interviews note a marked decrease in their ability to concentrate, a fact that leaves many of them seemingly bewildered: “I was a lit major in college and used to be [a] voracious reader,” writes one. “What happened?” Another states: “I can’t read ‘War and Peace’ anymore. ... I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” The author’s observations of the changes in himself are equally disquieting. “The boons are real. But they come at a price. ... What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m on line or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a sea of swiftly moving particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface on a jet ski.”
Carr is an experienced journalist who has penned many articles on the social, economic and business implications of technology. In “Shallows” he pulls together years of research and study about computers and the Internet to explore the effect mankind’s latest technological wonder has on humans. First the author traces a brief history of man’s adoption of new technology. To this he includes writings from a broad range of philosophers—from Socrates to Marshall McLuhan—who comment on the deep and profound cultural changes that result from those technologies. He quotes Francis Bacon, who waxed eloquent on the invention of movable type saying that it had “changed the face and condition of things all over the world ... so that no empire or sect or star seems to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs.”
The history and philosophy sections of the book make for fascinating reading. But it is the chapters that deal with the science of the brain where “Shallows” really shines. Citing numerous modern scientific studies in brain structure, chemistry and synaptic response, Carr argues convincingly that computers and the Internet are not just changing the way we view the world, they are actually affecting the very structure of our brains. As the printed word becomes displaced by computer screens full of glowing computer text, hyperlinks and pop-up ads, the connections in our brains that allow us to engage in deep concentration and quiet contemplation grow shakier and more tenuous. In Carr’s words: “The circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.”
In terms of social commentary, “Shallows” is definitely a wake-up call. And while the tone of the book is never shrill, the essential irony of releasing a hardcover book that bemoans the demise of the printed word does leave Carr sounding at times like a minister who rails against the evils of drink while his flock is busy setting up a still in the back of the church. As the author points out, however, we should not make light of the changes in society and the human brain that computers and the Internet will inevitably engender. “As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”
Perhaps the most damning part of Carr’s evaluation of the Internet is his own admission that despite his love of computers, in order to finish writing “Shallows,” he had to move to the mountains of Colorado and basically cut himself off completely from the distractions of the Web.
For those who seek a thoughtful examination of just what effect the brave new world of the Internet is having upon us humans, “Shallows” delivers admirably. Carr’s research is comprehensive, his arguments compelling and his writing entertaining. Make no mistake, however, this is not a book that you can skim like you would an Internet article. The science and philosophy within its pages require some slow and careful thought but the effort is well worth it.
So, for all you computer addicts out there—particularly those of you reading this on the Web—before your mind turns into total mush, do yourself a favor. Turn off your computer, put down your Kindle or your iPad, walk to your local bookstore and buy a real copy of “The Shallows.”
While you’re at it, why not pull out a buck and buy a real copy of Real Change, too?
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