Yesterday I read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read, and Remember. Frankly, I was prepared to severely dislike it-- his first book, Does IT Matter? drove me around the bend-- but I was a lot more sympathetic to this effort.
The Shallows' main argument is easy enough to summarize: all the time we're spending online is making it harder for us to think deeply, to read intensively, and to remember things. These three changes reinforce each other: the kind of reading Carr talks about is intellectually strenuous; memory turns out to be an important resource for deeper cognitive functions; and our ability to think is implicated in memory and attention. And losing the cognitive abilities we used to develop by reading novels-- the sine qua non of deep thinking-- is a big loss indeed: "The linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science and society," Carr contends. "It may soon be yesterday's mind."
If this sounds familiar, it should: in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as personal computing and the Internet were just taking off, and people like George Landow and Jay David Bolter were arguing that hypertext was wrapping the world in a web of poststructuralism (I wrote a long essay on that literature, and won't rehearse it here), the culture wars arguments over canonical books, the value of the liberal arts, etc. expanded from the seminar room and required courses list to the Internet. Carr rehearses some of the older arguments, and also notes that printed media have been both economically undercut by the Internet, and increasingly have imitated the Web: the 50,000 word articles on zinc that The New Yorker used to run have been replaced with short essays by Gladwell or Gopnik. So the old world of letters is being crushed from without and within.
What's new about Carr's argument is his invocation of neuroplasticity-- 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. Building on the work of people like Maryann Wolf, Paul Saenger, he argues that maps, clocks, the written word, the book, and other "tools man has used to support or extend his nervous system... have shaped the physical structures and workings of the human mind" for thousands of years. Reading-- especially silent reading-- has been particularly important, for in the process of developing "the discipline to follow a line of argument or narrative through a succession of printed pages," readers "became more contemplative, reflective, and imaginative."
Then comes his central argument:
If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. 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.... [Its]... the single most powerful mind-altering technology... since the book.
The Net (not the Internet, but a kind of general universe of encounters with non-printed, and usually blinking, objects) manages to do this because it
delivers are steady stream of inputs to our visual, somatosensory, and auditory cortices.... The Net engages all of our senses... and it engages them simultaneously.... [This] cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back our again.
Or, as he puts it in a nice turn of phrase, "The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it."
So much for reading and attention. The last nail in the cognitive coffin, as it were, is that all this distracted-by-popups, hyperlink-following, super-efficient and superficial surfing, erodes our ability to remember things. Our willingness to offload memory onto computers (when's the last time you memorized a cellphone number?) seems efficient and good, but it's based on a misconception about human memory: our brains don't have finite storage, and not using our memories impoverishes our ability to remember and think deeply.
Carr admits that there are a few things that people seem to be better at now-- spatial reasoning seems to be going up, and the studies of IQ rise are suggestive that, even if we're not getting dramatically more intelligent (at least in the ways IQ tests measure intelligence), we're not getting dramatically dumber, yet-- but he's far from willing to say that the trade-offs are worth it.
Like I said, I was prepared to be very critical of The Shallows, but I found myself kind of disarmed by the first chapter, in which Carr admits that after years of working with computers, he worried he was getting dumber: "What the Net seems to be doing," Carr observes of himself, "is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation." I can sympathize, and I know lots of people feel the same way. This may account for the bleak tone of the book: there's no uplifting end, no suggestion to get out into the sunshine and sit under a tree with Pride and Prejudice, nothing like that: the battle, it seems, is already lost. Of all the things one can object to in the book, this is the one really worth fighting over. Pessimism, no less than the techno-slick optimism of someone like Cory Doctorow or George Landow, normalizes our current technologies, and concedes that the way things are are the way they have to be: between the logic of companies' efforts to make search more effective or find ways to make books more engaging, and our simian attraction to blinky distracting things, The Shallows would have us believe, we're already lost. I don't think that's the case at all.