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

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

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.