Nicholas Carr; The Shallows
Norton and Co. 2009
Struggling to read a book? Is your concentration broken easily? Do you even read books anymore? No? Well it ain’t your fault it’s the internet stupid!
That the internet is to blame for the contemporary challenges obstructing the kind of mindful contemplation needed for deep thought processes is the case put forward by Carr- and it is, by all accounts, a cogent, damning case indeed. The premise; that our obsessive use of the internet is not just changing the way we think but also changing the very structure of our brains.
Carr, using a variety of anecdotal evidence alongside scientific discourse shows what damage to our minds has already been done and its all due to excessive internet use. The kind of deep, meditative thinking used to read novels ( which we used to possess) is being replaced by a scatter-brained, multitasking version of thought. It’s shallow, meaningless and virus-like in its bombardment of our respective hippocampuses. Brought about through changes in the neuroplasticity of our brain’s circuitry- where a horde of competing and superficial thoughts battle for prominence- our brain is literally re-wiring itself in response to the internet’s inherent qualities of fast-paced, often moronic, instantaneousness.
The internet may have made finding information easier and we may no longer need to delve deep into the archives to find instant gratification for what we’re looking for but, as Carr persuasively attests, a by-product of the internet’s quantum tentacles sucking on all forms of information is that we no longer use the internet to specifically find anything. Or at least, anything of meaning.
We log on but our brain’s can never truly log off. We enter a world of screaming, competing information and we end up skimming everything rather than excavating deep for meaning. It’s all cosmetic, there’s no deep thinking going on at all Carr argues. The internet is a portal to another world and one where our brain’s journey into comes at a high price- the capacity to think deeply ( even our mind’s capacity for truly human thought) is a tragic casualty.
Where Carr is most persuasive in his attack on the quick-fire, surface-level style of thinking that the internet promotes is in placing the internet in a historical context. The computer is seen as the latest, though uniquely different, technological tool in a line stretching back to the sundial in the Agora and the Gutenberg Press. Technology changes our minds, Carr concludes, but the changes wrought about by the internet bring forward an almost inescapable torrent of change and one we can not but submit too. We can never go back to a pre-internet age, Carr asserts, and in this he is both correct and sharply prescient.
Carr is best when showing the extent of our reliance on the internet and also the modus operandi of our mind’s functioning whilst ‘logged on’. The network of seamless tags, hyperlinks and categories, the difficulties of remaining on any one webpage for more than a minute or two, the skimming of text online- all combine to produce a ‘shallows’ where the mind floats on a nothingness of content, deprived of the deep waters of human memory and empathy. Carr would agree with Seneca; to be everywhere is to be nowhere.
Carr laments the passing of a pre-internet age, claiming that each new era brings forward the memory of that last but that the internet represents a clean break form human experience. Carr warns of the inherent dangers involved in our full-throttle plunge into the cyber-world of the computer. The stakes could not be higher, Carr forwarns, claiming that the very essence of humanity could be lost in whirlpool of neon-lit, html-based hieroglyphics.
Superb and breathtaking in its ramifications, Carr is one of the world’s top thinkers writing about the consequences of our computer-based, information age. Part scare-mongering (though powerfully persuasive in its conclusions), part intellectual history of human thought and part discourse on technology’s impact on Western culture, the Shallows is an entertaining and disturbing book which everybody should read.