Socrates started what may have been the first technology scare. In the "Phaedrus," he lamented the invention of books, which “create forgetfulness” in the soul. Instead of remembering for themselves, Socrates warned, new readers were blindly trusting in “external written characters.” The library was ruining the mind.
Needless to say, the printing press only made things worse. In the 17th century, Robert Burton complained, in "The Anatomy of Melancholy,” of the “vast chaos and confusion of books” that make the eyes and fingers ache. By 1890, the problem was the speed of transmission: one eminent physician blamed “the pelting of telegrams” for triggering an outbreak of mental illness. And then came radio and television, which poisoned the mind with passive pleasure. Children, it was said, had stopped reading books. Socrates would be pleased.
In “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” (published in 2010), the technology writer Nicholas Carr extends this anxiety to the 21st century. The book begins with a melodramatic flourish, as Carr recounts the pleas of the supercomputer HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The machine is being dismantled, its wires unplugged: “My mind is going,” HAL says. “I can feel it.”
For Carr, the analogy is obvious: The modern mind is like the fictional computer. “I can feel it too,” he writes. “Over the last few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” While HAL was silenced by its human users, Carr argues that we are sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet.
As Carr first observed in his much discussed 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” the mere existence of the online world has made it much harder to engage with difficult texts and complex ideas. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” Carr writes, with typical eloquence. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
This is a measured manifesto. Even as Carr bemoans his vanishing attention span, he’s careful to note the usefulness of the Internet, which provides us with access to a near infinitude of information. We might be consigned to the intellectual shallows, but these shallows are as wide as a vast ocean.
Nevertheless, Carr insists that the negative side effects of the Internet outweigh its efficiencies. Consider, for instance, the search engine, which Carr believes has fragmented our knowledge. “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web,” he writes. “We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.” One of Carr’s most convincing pieces of evidence comes from a 2008 study that reviewed 34 million academic articles published between 1945 and 2005. While the digitization of journals made it far easier to find this information, it also coincided with a narrowing of citations, with scholars citing fewer previous articles and focusing more heavily on recent publications. Why is it that in a world in which everything is available we all end up reading the same thing?
But wait: it gets worse. Carr’s most serious charge against the Internet has nothing to do with Google and its endless sprawl of hyperlinks. Instead, he’s horrified by the way computers are destroying our powers of concentration. As the blogger Cory Doctorow, a co-editor of the wildly popular Web site Boing Boing, has observed, the typical electronic screen is an “ecosystem of interruption technologies,” encouraging us to peek at our e-mail in-box, glance at Twitter and waste away the day on eBay. And so we lurch from site to site, if only because we constantly crave the fleeting pleasure of new information. But this isn’t really the fault of the Internet. The online world has merely exposed the feebleness of human attention, which is so weak that even the most minor temptations are all but impossible to resist.
Carr extends these anecdotal observations by linking them to the plasticity of the brain, which is constantly being shaped by experience. While plasticity is generally seen as a positive feature — it keeps the cortex supple — Carr is interested in its dark side. He argues that our mental malleability has turned us into servants of technology, our circuits reprogrammed by our gadgets.
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It is here that he starts to run into problems. There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.”
Carr’s argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn’t making us stupid — it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.
This doesn’t mean that the rise of the Internet won’t lead to loss of important mental talents; every technology comes with trade-offs. Look, for instance, at literacy itself: when children learn to decode letters, they usurp large chunks of the visual cortex previously devoted to object recognition. The end result is that literate humans are less able to “read” the details of the natural world.
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While Carr tries to ground his argument in the details of modern neuroscience, his most powerful points have nothing do with our plastic cortex. Instead, “The Shallows” is most successful when Carr sticks to cultural criticism, as he documents the losses that accompany the arrival of new technologies. The rise of the written text led to the decline of oral poetry; the invention of movable type wiped out the market for illuminated manuscripts; the television show obliterated the radio play (if hardly radio itself). Similarly, numerous surveys suggest that the Internet has diminished our interest in reading books.
Computers and the Internet may make us smarter in some ways, as neuroscience finds, but baby boomers who grew up with three channels and rabbit ears are the last generation to have been formed primarily by books requiring lengthy, focused attention, as well as the experiential learning that comes from engaging one’s imagination rather than navigating someone else’s often-bizarre, interactive digital fictions. The incessant noise of the Internet, Carr concludes, has turned the difficult text into an obsolete relic. Or maybe these worries are mistaken, and books are just being replaced by audiobooks. It can be hard to predict the future through the haze of nostalgia, but time will tell.
This article was published by The New York Times on June 3, 2010
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