Last year’s beach read was Nick Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. It was an opportune moment to consider the arguments made in his fascinating book, since I happened to be unplugged from the Internet and away from my computer and smartphone at the time.
The Shallows is a more thoughtful version of his provocative earlier article in The Atlantic called Is Google Making us Stupid? But both make the same point: the widespread adoption of new information technology is changing not only the way we live and work, but also how we think.
At first, this doesn’t seem like a controversial claim. The tools we use shape how we interact with the world and influence our view of it. Distances that seem impossibly far away on foot seem trivial with a car or airplane. The spread of cheap artificial lighting has changed the way we perceive the day and night. But the Shallows makes a bolder claim: That use of these tools does more than influence our thoughts and actions — it physically rewires our brains so that we think and behave differently.
The author discusses several recent studies that show that people using web search engines, feed readers, real-time streams, text messaging, and other modern technologies gather and process information in fundamentally different ways than people relying on more traditional sources. They skim and surf across a sea of different media and source materials, accumulating a broad but shallow knowledge of many diverse topics. They become somewhat better at multitasking and switching contexts but less able to concentrate on tasks requiring deep thought. Is this a good thing?
We tend to assume that technology and progress go hand-in-hand, and that greater access to information will lead to better outcomes and higher productivity. We’ve been putting computers in schools, wiring classrooms to the Internet, boosting e-books and e-reader technology, and rewriting the rules for media and journalism. All this technology is fundamentally reshaping the way we find and share information.
Though Nick Carr is a tech enthusiast and information junkie himself, he’s skeptical that we’re really doing ourselves any favors by enthusiastically jumping in with both feet. But he’s careful not to condemn these new tools, either.
Some of my favorite parts of The Shallows discuss how some previous information technologies also had a dramatic effect on the way people lived, worked, and thought. Many of these earlier innovations were also regarded skeptically or actively resisted.
For example, Socrates thought that the written word would mean the end of rational argument. And the printing press was initially banned outright in many countries. It can take a long time for society to come to grips with changes in information technology, and we’re just beginning the Internet age.
But while previous generations moaned about the sheer volume of printed works or recorded music, the amount of information available to us today is enormous and growing exponentially. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the massive warehouses of data at our disposal, or feel lost or adrift in a sea of random bits. Even though we’ve faced technological revolutions before, the scale of this one is unprecedented.
Having had a year to think about the issues Nick Carr raised in The Shallows, I think he’s absolutely right to point out some of the potential pitfalls of these new technologies. But we still don’t know enough to judge whether on balance they will improve society or diminish it. And we’ll likely find ways to mitigate some of the less desirable consequences.
There’s a great historical anecdote in The Shallows that talks about how one monk in the Middle Ages eventually hit upon the trick of reading silently. Not only could he read more quickly, but he could also read more often because he wouldn’t disturb anyone. While some thought him odd, the innovation slowly began to spread across Europe. We’ll likely discover similar tricks to improve the usefulness of these new tools and minimize their annoyances.
Whether you’re a skeptic of Internet culture or an enthusiast, and regardless of whether you read it in old-fashioned print or indulge in the irony of reading it on your Kindle, The Shallows will make you think about when, how and why you use these new tools.
And that is definitely a good thing.