Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

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...

Oh, and click the icon for more reviews. If your brain can handle it.

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?


Sarahlynn said...

This is definitely something I worry about. I do LOTS on-line: blogging, tweeting, Facebook, email, shopping, research, news-gathering, weather-checking, etc. I would be miserable without the internet.

At the same time, I think we as a society are losing our ability to concentrate and focus. I think it's SO RUDE when someone I'm with checks her Blackberry or posts a Facebook update in the middle of a conversation.

I refuse to carry a smart phone and I keep my laptop on a desk in a side room. I enjoy periods of being disconnected!

Ellen Booraem said...

Living in the boonies, cell phone coverage is still spotty around here, so we don't quite have the moves down, thank god. I keep a tracphone in my purse in case I'm running late or get stranded, but otherwise I never turn it on.

On the other hand, being in the boonies means that we do A LOT on line. And we only get one TV channel (and that only in the winter,when there are no leaves on the trees), so we use the laptop for entertainment. After reading this book, I'm going to be a little more aware of how much time I spend on there.

And I'm definitely turning the modem off when I'm writing. It's terrible--the minute it gets difficult, off I go and check email!

Anonymous said...

I think like everything you have to figure out how it best works for you - embrace the internet and the techie pieces that fit and ignore the ones that don't. I've noticed that not as many people come by and comment on my blog as before - it's easier to click like on Facebook. I did get fed up with FB and deleted my account.

Ellen Booraem said...

I'm still on Facebook and Twitter, but I struggle to post anything on there. And I'm the world's worst blogger--trying once again to be better. It all takes so much TIME, and I'd rather be writing or reading.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This scares the bejesus out of me.

Sarah Laurence said...

Scary theory but not surprising. I limit blog time to once weekly and don’t do twitter or Facebook (I will if a book gets published.) Like Sarahlynn, I don’t have a smart phone. My cell phone is usually off or forgotten. When I write, I don’t answer the phone (unless it’s the kids at school) and I log off email. I check email morning, lunch and evening –that’s plenty. Every evening before bed I go offline to read a book to unwind.

Excellent review and discussion!

Ellen Booraem said...

I think this author's point is simply that we should be aware of how much time we spend on line. So you're in good shape, Sarah!

And I just realized I neglected to say that research indicates the "damage" (if that's what it is) is reversable. OUr brains apparently keep learning from what we teach them. That's encouraging, anyway.

Stacy said...

Interesting. I'm a bit of an internet addict and go a little crazy when I don't have access.

I do think time spent online does effect my attention span for the worst, but I feel like it expands my world too. I've met online friends from around the world, learned about things and places I wouldn't hear about otherwise.

Great book choice for a review.