The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr (2010)

Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. The paradox of neuroplasticity, observes Doidge, is that, for all the mental flexibility it grants us, it can end up locking us into “rigid behaviors.” The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain, Doidge writes, “we long to keep it activated.” That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away (p 34).

the-shallows-nicholas-carrIn The Shallows, Nicholas Carr uses Marshall McLuhan phrase ‘the medium is the message’ to springboard into discussing how the Internet – not the content found within – is changing our brains. He walks readers through three major technical advances that reshaped the human brain.

The first is map making. When people moved beyond what they could see to plot abstractly, it reshaped the brain, giving “man a new and more comprehending mind, better able to understand the unseen forces that shape his surroundings and his existance” (p 41).

What the map did for space, the clock did for time. Man’s mind was further reshaped to measure and divide, to organize their days into segments, to be scientific.

Finally, the Internet (surfing, browsing, scanning, viewing, listening, contributing, etc.) is fundamentally reshaping the way our brains work.

It’s not that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli — repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive — that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions. With the  exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use. At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the book (p 116).

That our brains are being rewired, I can’t argue with. But how are these changes effecting us? Carr takes a balanced approach to discussing this change. One one hand, it bolsters certain areas of the brain – visual acuity and abstact puzzle solving.

Conversely, our stored personal knowledge and our ability to think deeply and creatively are suffering. Carr points out our rewired brains allow for superficial learning – scanning instead of reading and comprehending – and are constantly meandering at unimportant interruptions instead of staying focused.

Those who proclaim the superiority of the Web, says Carr, “provide the intellectual cover that allows thoughtful people to slip comfortably into the permanent state of distractedness that defines the online life” (p 112). Early thoughts on hypertext linking believed it would “overthrow the patriarchal authority of the author and shift power to the reader. It would be a technology of liberation (p 126). However,

Even though the World Wide Web has made hypertext commonplace, indeed ubiquitous, research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links (p 127).

In the chapter titled “The Church of Google,” Carr highlights the company’s singleminded efficiency (sacrificing even copyright law to achieve a goal), its data mining and analyzing, and its determination to dominate. If Daniel Pink is correct, his arguements in A Whole New Mind (read my review) point toward a future where efficiency is no longer enough to succeed. Logic-oriented tasks will be outsourced to Asia or replaced by automation while creative thinkers (right brainers) will be able to see the big picture and tackle novel ideas.

Even considering all the good Google has accomplished, it pales in comparison to the human brain. To assume, as Ray Kurzweil did at the Mid-Atlantic Libraries Future Conference (read about his presentation), that the human mind can be reversed enginered seems hubristic and I’m more than skeptical. How can a computer make the seemingly unrelated connections the mind makes, sparking new thoughts, ideas, and images?

From a Librarians persepctive, even as a search engine, Google is ineffective, skipping over the vetted information in databases. Even Carr, who talks about skimming information (and he’s clearly more concerned with the medium), doesn’t address the veracity of the information. To predict computers or artifical intellegence will replace or augment the human brain seems impossible. For a cautionary tale on this very topic, read Feed by M.T. Anderson. Then watch The Greatest Movie Ever Sold and remember someone is ALWAYS trying to sell you something.


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