CarShal 11-02-012

The Shallows

What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains


Nicholas Carr

W. W. Norton & Company, 2010, 276 pp.  ISBN 978-0-393-07222-8



Carr is the author of The Big Switch.  He has written for various periodicals.  "When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning." (116)  The Net is rapidly and profoundly altering our brain.


Marshall McLuhan understood that the technology of a medium disappears behind the content.  But the content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.  If we use a popular medium enough, it molds what we see and how we see it--and eventually, it changes us as individuals and as a society.  (3) 


The media aren't just channels of information.  They shape the process of thought.  And the Net is chipping away my capacity of concentration and contemplation.  "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." (7) 


What we are trading away is our 0ld linear thought process.  For the last five centuries the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society.  Now we take in information in short, disjointed, overlapping bursts, the faster the better. 


Research has shown that our brains are constantly changing in response to our experiences and our behavior, reworking their circuitry.  "As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.  …it can end up locking us into rigid behaviors.  The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they've formed."  (34)  Many addictions are reinforced by the strengthening of plastic pathways in the brain.  The brain can build new or stronger circuits through physical or mental practice.  "If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them; the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead." (35, quoting Jeffery Schwartz)  "The mental skills we sacrifice may be as valuable, or even more valuable, than the ones we gain." (34) 


"The brain--and the mind to which it gives rise--is forever a work in progress. That's true not just for each of us as individuals.  It's true for all of us as a species." (38) 


Maps changed our way of thinking.  "The map is a medium that not only stores and transmits information but also embodies a particular mode of seeing and thinking.  As mapmaking progressed, the spread of maps also disseminated the mapmaker's distinctive way of perceiving and making sense of the world.  The more frequently and intensively people used maps, the more their minds came to understand reality in the maps' terms." (41)  The map advanced the evolution of abstract thinking throughout society.  And what the map did for space, the mechanical clock did for time. (41)  The reminder of time became the prod and key to personal achievement and productivity.  The mechanical clock changed the way we saw ourselves and the way we thought.  (43) 


Our technologies extend our physical strength, dexterity, or resilience, the range or sensibility of our senses, or our mental powers.  Our intellectual technologies have the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think, promoting new ways of thinking.     


Technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning." (47, quoting Langdon Winner)  "Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to.  Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools' requirements." (47)  All technologies through history that have influenced how we use information and engage our senses have shaped the physical structure and workings of the human mind.  Through what we do and how we do it--moment by moment, day by day, consciously or unconsciously--we alter the chemical flows in our synapses and change our brains." (49) 


"The accomplished reader develops specialized brain regions geared to the rapid deciphering of text." (63)  Our natural predisposition is to be distracted.  The normal path of history is not linear.  Brains had to be trained to follow linear thought and follow complex arguments.  "Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions.  That … is the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading.  It was the technology of the book that made this…possible." (65)    "The broader culture began to mold itself, in ways both subtle and obvious, around the practice of silent book reading.  The nature of education and scholarship changed…." (66)  "As the book came to be the primary means of exchanging knowledge and insight, its intellectual ethic became the foundation of our culture."  "When transcribed to a page, a stream of consciousness becomes literary and linear." (78) 


"After 550 years, the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges."  "Now the mainstream is being diverted, quickly and decisively, into a new channel."  "The world of the screen…is a very 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) 


The Net is subsuming our other technologies.  It is "becoming our typewriter and our printing press, our map and our clock, our calculator and our telephone, our post office and our library, our radio and our TV." (83)  We never really have to disconnect.  TV watching has not declined but we are devoting much less time to reading words printed on paper.  The old technologies become a cultural dead end.  The new technologies govern production and consumption, guide people's behavior and shape their perceptions. (89)  Changes in the form change how we use, experience and understand the content. 


"We don't see the forest when we search the Web.  We don't even see the trees.  We see twigs and leaves."  (91)  The Net fragments content and disrupts our concentration.  "We are plunged into an ecosystem of interruption technologies." (91) 


Many producers are chopping up their products to fit the shorter attention spans, unbundling content.  We favor the short and pithy.  TV shows and movies are trying to become more web-like. 


"A growing number of American churches are encouraging parishioners to bring laptops and smart phones to services in order to exchange inspirational messages through Twitter and other microbloggging services." (97) "The predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys, not the turning of pages." (97)


The author says people haven't shown much interest in electronic books (100)   - which shows you how long it takes to publish a book.  Amazon announced in the last few days that electronic book sales have surpassed paper books sales.  Dlm


"As soon as you 'extend' and 'enhance' a book, make it 'dynamic'--you change what it is and you change, as well, the experience of reading it."  Soon we may all read books like we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.  (103) 


Young readers are abandoning traditional novels because the sentences are too difficult and the stories aren't familiar to them.  (105)  Authors will face growing pressures to tailor their words to search engines.  "The practice of deep reading that became popular in the wake of Gutenberg's invention, in which 'the quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind,' will continue to fade…." (108) 


The Net is the latest in a series of tools that have helped mold the human mind. "When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning." (116)  The Net delivers sensory and cognitive stimuli--repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive that rapidly alters the brain circuits.  It also provides a high-speed system for delivering response and reward--positive reinforcements.  (117)  "The real world recedes as we process the flood of symbols and stimuli coming through our devices." (118)  "The Net's cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively." (119)  The Net is rapidly and profoundly altering our brain.

"Research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links." (127)


"The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention." (131)  "Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious." (132)  "The near-continuous stream of new information pumped out by the Web also plays to our natural tendency to 'vastly overvalue what happens to us right now….'" (134)


Most Web pages are viewed for less than 20 seconds.  The switch from reading to power-browsing is happening very quickly and it represents a deeper change in our thinking.  The digital environment encourages people to explore broadly but at a superficial level.  Patience with reading long documents is decreasing.  There is a compelling urge to skip ahead.  Skimming is becoming the dominant mode of reading.  Of course there are compensations, positive aspects of this.  Every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others. 


One researcher says that the more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.  Learning to multitask is learning to be skillful at a superficial level.  "Multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy.  Everything distracts them." (142, quoting Clifford Nass)


Google and other internet companies place much stress on the efficiency of information exchange, which is in tension with contemplation and introspection.  Relevant content is replacing the slow excavation of meaning.  The well-rounded mind needs time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation.  But we're moving toward perpetual locomotion.  Information overload has become a permanent affliction.  We cope by increasing our scanning and skimming.  More information is available than ever before but we don't have time to make use of it with any depth of reflection. 


We are tending to rely on digitized information for memory, a novel idea possible only in our time.  "But the growing body of evidence makes clear that the memory inside our heads is the product of an extraordinarily complex natural process that is, at every instant, exquisitely tuned to the unique environment in which each of us lives and the unique pattern of experiences that each of us goes through." (180)  Biological memory is not just defined bits of digital data.  "The process of long-term memory creation in the human brain is one of the incredible processes which is so clearly different than 'artificial brains' like those in a computer.  While an artificial brain absorbs information and immediately saves it in its memory, the human brain continues to process information long after it is received, and the quality of memories depends on how the information is processed." (191, quoting Kobi Rosenblum)  Biological memory is alive, in a perpetual state of renewal.  "Evidence suggests, moreover, that as we build up our personal store of memories, our minds become sharper.  The very act of remembering…appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future.  With each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence." (192)  By contrast, the Web is a technology of forgetfulness.


The key to memory is attentiveness, requiring mental concentration, repetition or intense engagement.  The information must be deeply processed.  But many of us are finding it hard to concentrate.  "The offloading of memory to external data banks … threatens the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we all share." (196)  "To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation.  Outsource memory, and culture withers." (197)


What makes us most human is what is least computable about us, our capacity for thinking, emotion, and empathy.  The danger is that we'll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the qualities that separate us from machines, particularly wisdom.  "Every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities.  The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function." (209)  The ability to write in cursive script is disappearing altogether.  We can go further in a car, but we lose the walker's intimate connection to the land.  "The price we pay to assume technology's power is alienation.  The toll can be particularly high with our intellectual technologies.  The tools of the mind amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities--those for reason, perception, memory, emotion." (211)  "We shouldn't allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we've numbed an essential part of our self." (212)  We may be experiencing a slow erosion of our humanness and out humanity.  "It's not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind.  It's also empathy and compassion." (220)       



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