Tuesday, June 18 2024


Nicholas Carr: The Shallows. What the Internet Is Doing to Our
Brains,

Norton, New York 2010

The book’s subtitle perfectly captures its aim: to explore how the
Internet is influencing our long-term thinking, i.e., what side effects
are generated from the increasing use of Internet and therefore the
logic of the network. Carr tries to specifically address a problem that
more frequently arises with the expansion of the Internet, following an
idea of McLuhan: “The effects of technology do not occur at the level
of opinions or concepts”, rather, they alter “patterns of perception
steadily and without any resistance” (p. 3).

If the logic of the Web implies a non-linear multi-functionality, if
the logic of the Internet is more connected with storage and
distribution of vast amounts of information than with the assessment
and quality of this information, if the accessibility and potential
connection with a growing number of people becomes an absolute value,
if the time we spend on-line starts to take over important aspects of
our day, if the permanent on-line connection leads to a unidirectional
cultivation of our intelligence … How is all that weighing upon our
intellectual capabilities?

Carr is not a university professor, but he is an expert in social and
economic implications of the Internet, former editor of the Harvard Business Review and consultant of Mercer Management
Consulting, as well as author of two other books on the influence of
the Internet.

Ten chapters of The Shallows. What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains deal
with the issue from a broad perspective, taking into account a wide
variety of research, from neuroscience to computer science and
psychology. In the first four chapters (“Hal and me”; “The Vital
Paths”; “Tools of the Mind”; “The Deeping Page”), the author tries to
explain that, according to major medical studies, the human mind is not
static, rather over the course of a person’s life it is able to be
enriched with the addition of new intellectual habits, change its way
of reasoning, or become impoverished. At the same time, from the
biological standpoint, it is capable of creating new neural
connections, using (depending on the work or vital activity) certain
parts or potential parts of the brain, while leaving out others.

In the past, the discovery and diffusion of new media has not only led
to the arrival of an instrument of knowledge, but this instrument has
led to major breakthroughs. The invention of printing press and the
subsequent circulation of books, he argues, has enriched humanity, has
led to a greater capacity to concentrate, a greater logical analysis; a
wider dissemination of science, culture, entertainment; above all, a
new way of thinking, of confronting the world, of advancing science; a
new way of using the memory. The advent of new media such as
newspapers, radio or television, have not replaced the book, but have
influenced the way of analyzing the world in the organization of life,
fun, even work. From their start and in their development, each of the
new means of communication has generated certain expectations, and has
established new relationships with the already existing media, thereby
producing a kind of innovative and creative synergy. Once they have
been socially incorporated, these new types of media generate
intellectual habits and different lifestyles, which are also influenced
by other developments in the field of electricity, automobiles,
electronics….

After a first part focused on the social impact generated by some
technological advancements, Carr dedicates the four successive chapters
(“The Deepening Page”, “A Medium of the Most General Nature”, “The Very
Image of a Book”) to explore how a new medium, Internet, is not only a
means, an instrument, but an engine of social and cultural change. The
author notes that technological development and diffusion of Internet
due to its great practicality, has created dramatic changes in people’s
lives – in the way of doing work, how they interact and share
knowledge. The present enthusiasm over permanent technological
advances, however, prevents the awareness that technology may enrich or
impoverish depending on how it is used. Besides the fact that it widens
our scope of action, we are beginning to realize that the younger
generations, educated and immersed in the network, have a lower
concentration, are better prepared for multi-functional activities that
require quick actions and surface analysis, develop a mindset related
to digital displays and the ability to interact instantaneously with
other references or sources of information.

This method of “on-line” reasoning is different from the traditional
way of reasoning, where the weight of logical argumentation and logical
linear developments favor the creation of one’s mindset. On-line
reasoning seems to be exercising the short-term memory and developing a
kind of non-linear thinking, because it is relies on a system of input
and output to complete and contrast what you read, see or hear. This
generates potential interruptions, the need to assess each of the new
possibilities available and decide how to respond to them (images,
sounds, links, sms, announcements regarding new information or updates
of Web pages …). All this causes a frequent distraction or
interruption in the thought process, which is part of the system
because some companies make their profits based on these “digressions”.
What counts is how many ads or how many links are clicked on, not the
depth of thought that goes into the creation of certain sites. It is a
disconcerting reality that there are managers of computer companies who
believe that machines will render books useless and will become an
indispensable complement of the human mind.

The logic of Internet search engines, the role of memory in
intellectual tasks performed with computers, and some human aspects of
the relationship with machines, are the topics discussed in the last
three chapters (“The Church of Google”, “Search and Memory”, “A Thing
Like Me”). Carr argues that the system created by Google sets aside
human aspects that are very important for intellectual work. The
quality of selected Web links, Carr argues, cannot be measured by
mathematical algorithms. This is why he doesn’t agree with the
absolutist tendency of the authors who think that the development of
software systems will lead to the replacement of people by machines in
a vast range of human tasks and the logic of search engines like Google
will become the dominant system in most areas of social life. Carr
holds that a system that aggressive would end up automating
intellectual activities and would impoverish one’s creativity and
capacity to reflect. The medium has an influence on the message, not
only in its form, but in its content. This is evident in the success of
Japanese novels that have been written in the language of sms mobile
phones. The medium is not only a means; rather, it gives an essential
part of form of the message, and at the same time, develops certain
intellectual skills, influencing the way of thinking. Walter J. Ong
expresses this concept, as quoted in the book, when he says:
“Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior
transformations of consciousness, and never more than when affecting
the word” (p. 51).

The author defends the uniqueness of human memory, which cannot be
reduced to quantitative categories or physical space that contains
amounts of information. Human memory is much more complex than that of
computers, not only for how it operates from the biological standpoint,
for the amount or type of information that is stored, but because it is
linked to the existence of people, they are an important part of human
experiences and a source of creativity. The ability to have network
access to anything that may need to be saved is an exercise of a kind
of mechanical memory, very useful for certain tasks, but incapable of
replacing personal past experiences that help develop value judgments
and views on the own existence and life choices.

In his last chapter the author explains that part of the attraction of
computers is that when we interact with them, they reflect a sort of
human dimension, that of their designers. This technological attraction
of a means designed to serve its users can generate the effect of the
means taking certain decisions for them, ending up imprisoning the
humanity of those who use and impose a certain logic and precise way of
doing that is very effective for certain activities but not others. The
path that is apparently easier and more direct is not always the most
convenient way to arrive at a destination.

Carr is not against the Internet or other technological advances that
have generated a great number of opportunities to enhance and share
knowledge, streamline activities and interact with people (e-mail,
blogs, alerts and hyperlinks, twitter …). He declares himself
dependent on all this and says it is not possible to go back, but also
warns about the long-term effects that generate excessive activity and
a decreased capacity to reflect, or the lack of exercising certain
mental capacities. He agrees with Weizenbaum’s theory that the key to
incorporate new media without losing capabilities is not to entrust
machines” the tasks that demand wisdom”(p.224), even though it seems to
require less effort. Once the machines are delegated these tasks is
very difficult to go back and retrieve them.

Among the limitations of this book, it could be said that, to defend
his own positions or refute contrary stances, he cites many authors,
university professors or directors of research projects, blogs,
surveys, business managers, general and specialized magazines, which
sometimes results in a blurred reasoning, especially because you have
the impression that all these sources, being very heterogeneous, are
treated in the same way. On the other hand, there are many specific
references to particular historical events, literary works, and
scientific studies, but some important ideas and background information
are pushed to second place, even though the author repeats them
throughout the book from different perspectives. In this sense, the
first part, which is more historical, is perhaps too long in proportion
to the whole text.

Carr actually makes no new discovery, but he supports a strong case for
understanding that the effects of the Internet are much deeper than it
appears. He has the courage to go against the tide. From the effects
that begin to show in a person’s capacity to learn, he affirms that an
absolutist and aggressive conception of current technology, can
impoverish the human race.

The book seems very interesting for those who study family issues and
education related to the Internet. The ideas contained therein value
the anthropological depth of the person, while giving emphasis to the
biological and neuronal dimensions of the human brain. Carr takes some
remarkable ideas and quotations from literary authors and professors of
communication, such as important studies of university research centers
that basically describe the material and spiritual duality of the
person, even though they don’t explicitly say so. Deep down, the author
is aware that technological advances have a price, and he asks “what is
the price we are paying for Internet?” If you delegate activities that
are properly human to technology, the price is too high and will cause
an intellectual impoverishment.

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