The internet has been the defining technology of my generation. We grew up without it, but were the last generation to do so. It is now ubiquitous, deeply embedded in the way that we work, rest and play. It has revolutionised communication, business, entertainment, education, and much else besides. It has brought unimaginable benefits, but no technology is neutral. A technology as pervasive as the internet is going to have profound implications for how and what we think, how we understand ourselves and the world around us.
That’s Nicholas Carr’s central premise, and he begins his wise and engaging book by explaining why technology changes the way we think – neuroplasticity. Our brains are not hardwired. They constantly make new connections that reinforce and ease certain patterns of thought. That’s why practice makes perfect and habits form. “The brain” says Carr, “and the mind to which it gives rise – is forever a work in progress.” As the brain adapts and creates new pathways, those new connections become the preferred ones and other modes of thinking get harder.
Any new technology will thus influence not just what we think, but how we think. Carr traces the history of written language, looks at how the map enabled new forms of thinking about space, and how the clock changed the way people thought about time. It had always been “a continuous, cyclical flow”, until the clock gave us the idea that time could be divided into chunks which could be measured, spent, saved or wasted.
The book then settles on what Carr sees as the dominant thinking technology of the last few hundred years – the book itself. We get a history of the book, how it evolved from tablets and scrolls, and how written language evolved into its modern readable forms. “A long sequence of printed pages assembled between a pair of stiff covers has proven to be a remarkably robust technology, remaining useful and popular for half a millennium” says Carr, to the satisfaction of bibliophile readers.
The invention of books, and then the printing press, made reading into our primary medium for communicating and sharing ideas. But reading is something we have to train our brains to do, and it naturally encourages a certain type of thinking that is quiet, linear, and personal. “To read a book was to practice and unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a static, single object.”
The book is not going to be the dominant form of idea transmission any more. Our thinking, our public debate, our culture, is and will increasingly be online. What does that mean? It means it will be faster, and more fluid. The process of publishing a book demands a kind of perfectionism and finality, whereas the internet is easily revised, always in draft. It means our thinking is likely to be broad and shallow. The internet encourages browsing. We are likely to draw from multiple sources of information, flitting from one thing to another: “skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading.”
The plus side for our brains is that “certain cognitive skills are strengthened, sometimes substantially, by our use of computers and the internet.” We learn to analyse competing claims on our attention quickly, we process information and make decisions quicker. The internet makes us better at multitasking.
The downside is that multitasking has been shown to be an obstacle to thinking “deeply and creatively”. We are less deliberative, critical, less imaginative and reflective. The internet encourages fast information processing. “The net is making us smarter” as Carr puts it, “only if we define intelligence by the net’s own standards.”
All of this is observable. The book is full of studies and tests that prove it, but Carr started looking into it because he was aware of the changes in himself. He was more easily distracted, found it hard to concentrate, and was more impatient. I picked up the book myself because I’ve recognised similar changes in myself, and have made deliberate efforts to use the web less frequently and more purposefully.
Our response can’t be a rejection of the web – it has far too many benefits for us to want to live without it. Carr himself is an avid web user, although he admits that he had to deliberately downsize to a slow and creaky dial-up connection in order to finish the book. The internet is an exciting technology that buzzes with potential for good. But we shouldn’t be naïve. Each of us needs to be aware of how it affects us, and make our own compromises. We also need to keep an eye on how we use the internet as a culture. There are sections on book learning and screen learning that teachers ought to be aware of when using the internet in the classroom, for example.
There’s far more in the book than I can mention here – reflections on Google, Taylorism, memory, and why humans are not like machines. Respect is also due for the way Carr explains some quite complicated neuroscience in accessible terms, weaving together psychology, history and cultural studies. The book sits well in the lineage of Lewis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. Like their books, this is one that changes the way you think about something, and that prompts long term reflection. Ironically enough, it makes The Shallows one of the most profound books I’ve read for some time.