The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, by Nicholas Carr, Atlantic Books RRP£17.99, 276 pages
Just over two years ago Nicholas Carr wrote an article for The Atlantic magazine in which he voiced a suspicion that the internet was chipping away at his ability to concentrate. The article, with its snappy title “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, hit a nerve around the world. The Shallows is his attempt to buttress and refine that thesis with evidence from history and new scientific research.
The internet, Carr argues, has grown into a giant distraction machine. Its garish lights and near limitless selection are playing havoc with our ability to see anything through to the end. This is unfortunate, he says, because advances in neuroscience suggest that our brains are more malleable than we thought – rather than finished objects, they’re “works in progress” which are moulded by external stimuli.
Carr writes fluidly and patiently for the general reader, and he’s at his best when digressing into the history of technology. New technological instruments, he points out, tend to change human society so profoundly that it’s easy to forget that we lived without them. The mechanical clock, for example, played a crucial role in propelling humanity out of the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment. It gave us the means to divide the day into different pieces, and greatly improved our ability to get things done. Reading, too, is a strangely unnatural development; to successfully immerse ourselves in a good book demands our sustained, undivided attention to a single static object, and doing so has changed us in unexpected ways.
Following the media guru Marshall McLuhan, Carr argues that the content of any medium often blinds us to how simply having it around changes our behaviour. Reading privately under candlelight tore asunder the oral tradition, for example, and replaced it with a book culture. It liberated writers, he says, as much as readers. Since writers no longer had to dictate their work to a professional scribe, writing not only became more solitary – it also became more adventurous and subversive.
It’s this same book culture which Carr believes is now under threat. The internet has become a kind of voracious, all-purpose medium into which our traditional media are granulated into digital information and fed. So powerful has it become that it tends to re-create older media in its own image – to break them up into searchable chunks and illuminate them with attention-grabbing hyperlinks. This “crazy quilt” of web content, he claims, encourages us to skitter across the surface of culture rather than to devote sustained consideration to any one thing. The result is that our attention can’t help but be more finely grained.
Carr has written a reliable survey of the recent research into brain, memory and attention span, but the problem is that there’s nothing conclusive about any of it. If the internet is rotting our brains, it’s too early to tell. Pay it all your attention and the internet’s continuous gush of information encourages you to divide that attention up and respond immediately to different incoming stimuli. Spend all your time batting e-mails back and forth or surfing around on hypertext and you’re going to be caught in the headlights of the perpetual present. Carr is right to be sceptical of the claims of internet gurus, but his cultural pessimism only holds true if we mimic the rhythms of the technology rather than mould it to our own purposes.
Leaning towards a kind of technological determinism, his arguments, like those of McLuhan before him, often miss how machines are themselves mediated by context, culture and ideas. We don’t need to spend our time hopping from one link to another, or checking our e-mail and jumping whenever one arrives. It’s not just gimmicky soundbites and wordbites that we’re after, but longer reads than many of our newspapers and magazines can give us; what’s likely to grow up is a greater diversity in the size and duration of the media content we want to consume. There’ll still be a home for books and long articles, but the internet is likely to precipitate the retreat of bookish types to places where they can read what they want and talk among themselves; that’s a cultural development as much as a technological one.
In any case, the success of self-contained media applications on iPhones, Kindles and iPads hint that large numbers of us are fed up with reading matter peppered with hyperlinks and would prefer something simpler and more luxurious – a gorgeously presented, gently illuminated text. Like the traditional image of the candle-lit reader, the most distinctive contribution to the reading experience made by the iPad might well be its generous back light.
James Harkin is a social forecaster, and the author of ‘Cyburbia’ (Little, Brown)