Nicholas Carr: I worry but The Shallows is Not Anti-Net

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Professor Joe Harris kindly introduced to me a book by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and I flipped open during a few hours of break in between exams. 9778945And I began devouring it. Because once started reading, I couldn’t stop. Upon finishing it, although I wasn’t entirely convinced by all the assertions Carr sets forth, the book has many powerful cases and well-crafted passages that it is worthwhile to share with other readers.

Nicholas Carr is the writer of the famous controversial Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid and the former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review. His arguments through chapters, though covering a range of online experience-related themes, is not too difficult to summarize into one main focus: the fact that we are spending a big amount of time online jeopardizes us to think deeply, to read intensively, and to remember things – it is not just the content we encounter via the Net poses threat, but, more importantly, is the side effect from the medium through which these contents are transmitted and consumed; more so, Carr says the change is not limited to a deleterious effect on the way we think, but impacts the neural structures in our brains that enable thinking.

What made this book unique is the two notions he puts forward: the loss of “deep reading” (5) and “neuroplasticity” (34)- the discovery that the brain is not hard-wired during childhood, but constantly forms new connections as we acquire new skills, or let old ones lapse.

For the first notion, deep reading, Carr argues that the always-on, clicking-in multitasking online mode is rotting our brains, or at least, rewiring our cognition and “patterns of perception” (3) beyond a function of a tool, which people have believed technology to be. He remarks his concentration in reading “starts to drift after a page or two” and his brain begins “looking for something else to do” (5). The deep reading, the way of immersing oneself into a book and fully engaging with all the twists and turns that used to come naturally, now has become a struggle. He worries that the calm, focused, undistracted linear mind “is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster the better” (10).

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It is worrisome that the volume of information which we are able to access along with associated practices of multitasking and skimming are resulting in “a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gathers in the electronic data forest” (138). While it is safe to rebuttal that skimming and browsing literary pieces is highly necessary, Carr tightly follows up his standpoint, saying “there’s nothing wrong with browsing and scanning,” but what is different is that “skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for deeper study, scanning becomes an end in itself — our preferred way of gathering and making sense of information of all sorts.” (138)

The second notion, neuroplasticity, is building on the scientific researchers’ work such as Michael Greenberg and Alvaro Pascual- Leone upon which Carr argues that maps, clocks, written words, books and other tools human has used is to “support or extend his nervous system” (46) while the impact of intellectual technologies does much more beyond stretching the processing ability of human’s mind as map or clock did upon their invention. Carr’s opinion expressed eloquently in the text:

It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s 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.

The Shallow is however not an anti-technology rant or “a manifesto for Luddites,”  for Nicholas Carr is worrying how much the Net has washed off our undisrupted attention and he is raising up caution to the public that the Net has caused alternations in human brain circuits and functions. Granted Nicholas Carr is wedging through the pessimistic side on Internet and I can also sense the wrapping up of the book exerts a tone that is not uplifting, we at least equipped with better understanding that the Internet enhances certain cognitive skills and deactivates others. For interesting and thought-provoking readings, there are a few resources worth checking out–

Nicholas Carr blog homepage: http://www.nicholascarr.com/ ;

the article he published in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/;

Interview with Bigthink: http://bigthink.com/videos/big-think-interview-with-nicholas-carr

 

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2 thoughts on “Nicholas Carr: I worry but The Shallows is Not Anti-Net”

  1. I’m glad you like the book, Bel! I find Carr’s ambivalence more thought-provoking than Bauerlein’s sour polemics.

    I’m not so convinced by Carr’s theories of brain rewiring. Here he seems to me the flipside of Davidson They both believe we are being neurologically reset, but where she enthuses, he despairs. I’m not sure that anything different is really happening at the level of neurochemistry.

    But I do think that Carr points to some real problems with digital culture, and especially with what you deem its “obsessive” side. For that, his work is very valuable.

    Joe

  2. Bel–I’m happy your wrote on Carr, since your post nicely speaks to some of the issues that my own raises via Thompson. I always found Carr’s meditations on deep-reading (or the loss thereof) to be particularly interesting, but also the most difficult to substantiate. Carr says in the article you cite above, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” I, like Thompson, think it’s not quite so simple–after all, if our brains can be “rewired” to “zip along,” what’s to say that their inherent plasticity could not work to readjust itself to deep reading (or simply exert the effort to do so)?

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