The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Thoughtful Luddism

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<i>The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains</i> by Nicholas Carr

(Editor’s Warning: Reading This Book Review May Rewire your Neurons)

I take it on faith that the virtual world, no matter how dazzling it can be, will never supplant the real. Take sex, for example: At the end of the day, it would be delusional to believe that online pornography, no matter how fascinating and titillating, could ever be the equivalent of real sex.

Still, I worry that I’ll end up on the same losing side as the Luddites, because we are remarkably quick to give up time spent with real communities for time spent in so-called ‘online communities.’ A lot of our real friends get less of our time than our Facebook friends. While it’s always been difficult to engage in real conversations with people about emotionally charged moral or political issues, it’s sure easy to leave witty, caustic comments at the bottom of an editorial comments page. It’s a no-brainer to me that when we choose to privilege the virtual over the real, we’re betting on the wrong horse. (Even saying that, I can hear the technophiles whispering their scorn for Luddite detractors like me.)

First, then, let’s clear up a basic misconception about the Luddites: they were never against technology. “‘Luddite’ has come to mean an almost childish and certainly naïve opposition to technology,” wrote Neil Postman. “But the historical Luddites were neither childish nor naïve.” The Luddites were wholeheartedly for meaningful community and its workers. The Luddites of the late-18th early-19th century broke into textile factories and smashed the mechanical looms not because they didn’t like machines, but because they saw that the mechanization and industrialization of the textile industry posed a catastrophic threat to their work, family, community and culture. Luddites knew good and well how, by saying ‘yes’ to the elaborate promises of growth and efficiency that accompanied mechanization, they would also be waving goodbye to an entire way of life. Their thoughtful destructiveness was an effort to guard and nurture the things they loved most. But the Luddites were eventually routed by the military, bent on protecting private property rather than defending the genuine interests of the public. The Luddites ultimately lost their battle in defense of small, humanizing, community-minded business and trade. The grand promises of innovation prevailed, and the march—or steam-roller—of progress rolled on.

Maybe self-identified “anarcho-primitivists” like John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen would claim to be against technology. But among the thoughtful Luddites I know, not one of them is authentically against technology in toto, because being against technology is nearly impossible. Even the pencil I used to write the first draft of this review is a technology, and a highly advanced one at that. Written language, the postal system, lined paper, nail clippers, corrective lenses, mathematics, birth control—technologies, every one of them, highly advanced and vital to everyday life for most of us.

But thoughtful Luddism poses critical questions about high-tech gadgets and the pulsing heart of all things high-tech, including the Internet. The fundamental question boils down to this: For all that we’re gaining in connectivity, digital access, storage capacity, and processing power, what are we, at the same moment, losing?

That’s the question behind Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Carr has been writing about technology for more than a decade, and this is his third book on technology. He earned a lot of attention for a piece in The Atlantic in 2008, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Shallows is basically a book-length version of this piece.

Carr opens by recalling his suspicion that screen-time was messing with his ability to think. “Over the last few years,” writes Carr, “I’ve had the uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.” For all the power the Internet put at his fingertips, he felt he was letting go of something important.

From the industrial revolution until just a few decades ago, scientists pretty much agreed that an adult human brain was basically a fixed entity. “Like a steam engine or an electric dynamo, the nervous system was made up of many parts,” writes Carr. “The parts could not change, in shape or function, because that would lead, immediately and inexorably, to the breakdown of the machine.” In the 1950s, scientists started using computer metaphors to talk about human brains—the nervous system is ‘circuitry,’ and humans are ‘hardwired’ for certain kinds of behavior. Scientists learned enough about the brain to see the analogy to computers, and the mechanical metaphor came to define our understanding of what the brain is and does.

But as researchers developed newer, more accurate ways to map brain functioning, neuroscientists in the 1970s and 1980s started to perform experiments that proved the brain was actually remarkably plastic. “The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring, but that it doesn’t,” says Carr. “Our neurons are always breaking down old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created.” It turns out that the adult brain is an old dog capable of learning a whole new set of tricks.

Jump ahead to the age of the Internet, and neuroscientists use even more advanced soft-tissue diagnostic technologies to look at what screen time is doing to our brains. They’ve found that using the Internet fundamentally alters how our brains work. The cognitive and sensory stimuli of the Internet—repetitive, interactive and addictive—are exactly the things “that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in the brain circuits and functions. The Net,” says Carr, “is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing our attention.” It “seizes our attention only to scatter it.” The way we think is changing because the actual structure of our brains is changing.

Not surprisingly, younger brains are more susceptible to this “rewiring” than are curmudgeonly old brains. (Like mine.) Tweeting, Facebooking, texting (the average American teen gets around 3,000 text messages per month), online gaming, Internet “research,” mindlessly surfing the web—all of these serve to make kids’ brains work in certain ways, precluding, or at least challenging, other longstanding ways that brains would otherwise function. Also, as we get sucked deeper and deeper into the great, dazzling, shiny Internet whirlpool, it’s not just the young who lose their minds to the wires and screens. “The Net is making us smarter,” writes Carr, “only if we define intelligence by the Net’s own standards. If we take a broader and more traditional view of intelligence … we have to come to a different and considerably darker conclusion.” Bit by bit, we are slowly being re-made in the image of our machines.

The research Carr highlights shows that the brain, much like the other parts of our body, changes as we use it. Just as practicing the piano helps teach fingers to respond to the notation on a page of music, so the click-click-click of the mouse helps teach brains how to process visual and intellectual stimuli. Practice really does make perfect, even if what we’re practicing is how to atomize our attention. Every minute spent updating a Facebook page or downloading a Netflix movie takes another minute away from somewhere else—face-to-face conversation, cooking a meal from scratch, running, praying, practicing the guitar, working out a serious political argument and other everyday activities. The implications of substituting online, virtual practices for real human activities grow more serious the deeper you look—democracy, community, religion, family, education and other institutions require time and sustained effort.

Technology has become ideology. We’re up to our eyeballs in the stuff, and as is often the case with whatever immediately surrounds us, it’s difficult to actually see. New technology, especially the Internet, is ubiquitous, and it changes like lightning. Trying to make sense of it can be like trying to draw a detailed landscape while looking out the window of a fast-moving train. Yet everyday life depends so fully on the Internet that even the fierce technology critic Albert Borgmann says it has become irresponsible not to be connected to the Internet. (I can’t tell if it’s ironic, paradoxical or simply hypocritical that yours truly, a self-described Luddite and moderate technophobe, reviews here a scathing critique of the power of the Internet for Paste, an online magazine.)

Clearly, even us Luddites hitch rides on the techno-train, and because none of us can stop the train to get a clear view, Carr’s book is essential. It lays out a sweeping portrait of the thing we’re moving too quickly to see. It’s easy for someone like me to piece together opinions or carve rhetorically charged rants about the deleterious effects of our growing technological dependency. In contrast, Carr’s book bursts with research—from neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and sociologists—and careful analysis. And anxious as Carr might be about what the Internet is doing to our brains, his writing isn’t shrill or self-righteous. It’s intelligent, deeply researched, articulate and, much to my dismay, most likely prophetic: “The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers … is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines.”

The Shallows offers precisely the sort of stuff that keeps a Luddite like me up at night, fretting over where we’re at and where we’re headed. The older I get, the more complex the world appears to be. Politics, community, conversation, parenthood, compassion, reading, art, music, literature, faith, love—these things require patience, discipline, fortitude and practice. Are these fostered by staring at a computer screen? Screen time takes us away from the essential things that make us human and makes it harder for our brains to meaningfully engage with them when we do find the time.

With the Internet, we’ve got a glamorous and entertaining tool on our hands, one that’s impressive and genuinely useful in so many ways. But it may well turn out to be like the apple that Digory picked from the garden in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew: We shall find our heart’s desire, and find despair.

Kurt Armstrong is the Reviews Editor at Geez magazine, and the author of Why Love Will Always Be A Poor Investment (Wipf & Stock.)