The Shallows

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, Norton, $26.99

The subtitle of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains leads one to expect a polemic in the tradition of those published in the 1950s about how rock ’n’ roll was corrupting the nation’s youth; or in the 1970s about how television was turning kids into idiots; or in the 1990s about the sociopathology of rap music. But this is no such book. It is a patient and rewarding popularisation of some of the research being done at the frontiers of brain science. Carr has lately found it harder to concentrate on the serious reading he used to love. He is taken aback by the number of smart people who no longer read books. He puts the blame on the mental habits we have all learnt on the internet.

As Carr reminds us, thinkers from Plato to Marshall McLuhan understood that our tools affect our thoughts. The invention of clocks changed our conception of time. Space has looked different since we invented the map. When failing vision forced Friedrich Nietzsche to take up typing instead of writing longhand, his prose style changed radically. Our tools and our skills change us because using them forms new connections in the brain. We have come to understand just how adaptable the brain is. Literate people’s brains look different from those of the illiterate. Scans taken in the 1990s showed that the typical London cab driver – who must acquire and retain “the knowledge” of all the streets in his enormous city – has a dramatically enlarged posterior hippocampus (the part of the brain where such information is stored and used).

This “plasticity”, as neurologists call it, sounds like good news. Discovering the right stimulus or tool might open up some new “circuit” that will allow us to read foreign languages more easily or learn calculus. But changes in our brains can just as easily shunt neurological traffic towards worthless things: an addiction, for instance, or an idiotic video game.

That is more or less what is happening, according to Carr. Books, he says, “are in their cultural twilight”. People spend 30 per cent of their leisure time online. In the early days of the internet, it was natural to think – or hope – that the hours required for this new pursuit would come out of television viewing. That did not happen. TV is holding steady. It is reading that is being pushed out. What is the neurological consequence?

The web strengthens what Carr calls “primitive” mental functions (quick decision-making and problem-solving) over intellectual ones that were associated with reading (language, memory and visual processing). The shift can be measured on brain scans. The internet encourages distraction, interruption, dipping into one thing and sampling another. Through positive reinforcement and interactivity, the net, Carr says, “turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment”. Perhaps his most disturbing insight is that this distractibility is closer to the basic animal instincts of humans than to the focused, meditative, lost-to-the-world concentration that the reader practices. Our half-millennium of book-based culture is a historical anomaly, he seems to believe. The internet will sweep it away because the internet is more “natural” than the book.

Carr sees some interactions of computer and book as beneficial. The scanning of old works by Google is a boon to the extent that it makes hard-to-find texts more available. He doubts, though, that reading can be “enhanced” by hyperlinks, interactivity, embedded videos and other innovations. The resulting activity may be entertaining, but it will be something different from reading. A person’s working memory cannot hold too many pieces of information at the same time. On experiment after experiment, in context after context, psychologists have found that people who read old-fashioned text understand it better, and more profoundly, than people who read the same material “enhanced” with links. The same goes for understanding a newscast “crawl”.

Born in 1959, Carr straddles the book-dominated and web-dominated worlds and is at home in both. Members of his generation, he believes, have lived their lives as a “two-act play,” consisting of an analogue youth and a digital adulthood. You could conclude that when the people educated after, say, 1990 die, there will be, in the strictest sense, no literary culture left to speak of. Mild-mannered, never polemical, with nothing of the Luddite about him, Carr makes his points with a lot of apt citations and wide-ranging erudition. Either he is very well read or he is a hell of a Googler.

The writer is an FT columnist

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