book review blogs
If you're reading this, you spend time on the Internet. Like me, you might even be an addict. Ever wonder about consequences, other than carpal tunnel syndrome and eye strain? Read on...
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The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
By Nicholas Carr
W.W. Norton & Co, 2010
In a waiting room last week, I happened on a National Geographic story about how much market gardeners in Iceland are enjoying global warming. I didn’t get to finish the story, so I don’t know whether they saw any downside to their warmer climate. But what I did read sounded familiar—I’ve heard others in the chilly zones tout the advantages of climate change, ignoring the droughts and floods and weird weather systems elsewhere.
Is Internet use the new global warming? Could be, if this book by Nicholas Carr is any indication.
Carr’s thesis is that extensive browsing, tweeting, and link-clicking is changing our brains both functionally and physically, reawakening our earliest talents as hunter-gatherers but killing off the gains we’ve made as deep thinkers. He quotes some analysts—the “yay, it’s getting warmer” crowd—who think this is just another step in our evolution. That point of view gains support from the tale of Socrates, who decried the advent of writing as a blow against our ability to remember without taking notes. It’s hard to argue that writing and reading have been anything but good for us, so maybe this is another case where we should just relax and see where evolution takes us.
Carr doesn’t think so. “We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self,” he writes.
Whichever side you’re on, this book is fascinating. Starting with the 1964 publication of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Carr traces the past half century’s astonishing explosion of electronic communication, dwelling particularly on the advent of Google. We’ve heard much of this before, of course, but not always coupled with current research on the ways our brain adapts to new tasks.
If we repeat a task often enough, apparently, our brains not only adjust the behavior of our existing synapses but actually build new architecture, abandoning the old digs for the new.
London cab drivers studied in the late 1990s had larger than normal posterior hippocampuses (hippocampi?). That part of the brain “plays a key role in storing and manipulating spatial representations of a person’s surroundings,” Carr tells us—in other words, knowing the fastest route from Bloomsbury to the City enhances part of your brain. The cabbies’ anterior hippocampuses had shrunk to accommodate the neighboring expansion, reducing their abilities in other memorization tasks.
The biggest difference between reading a book and reading on line is probably the hyperlinks. The act of deciding whether to click that link, and then the process of following it, reading what it offers, and making our way back to our original document, changes the act of reading into something else. We are problem-solving, using hand-to-eye coordination, sharpening our reflexes, processing visual cues, increasing the capacity of our short-term memory. But we’re not “deep reading,” a process that makes us calmly deliberative and helps to build our long-term memory.
The social implications, Carr says, could be massive. For example, becoming less deliberative may make us more likely to go with the status quo rather than engaging in original lines of thought. Shallower, shorter-term thoughts may even hamper our higher emotions, such as empathy and compassion.
Engagingly, Carr does not set himself up as our model. He starts out by describing his own evolution into a truly impressive Internet user, on here constantly for research, blogging, even drivers’ license renewal. Worried about his inability to concentrate, he moved to Colorado and cut most of his Net use in order to write this book. When the book was almost done, he started reconnecting again and even discovered new stuff he could do on line. “I have to confess: It’s cool. I’m not sure I could live without it.”
Reluctantly, I have to agree. The past couple of evenings I read a book instead of watching a movie or TV show on line. As I write this, the modem’s turned off. But I found that I missed the conviviality of spending my evening with my partner rather than alone in a book. And of course I’m about to turn the modem on to post this review.
Plus, I’d like to finish that story in National Geographic. The issue’s probably at the library, but it’s December and it’s chilly out. What do you bet it’s on line somewhere?