Navigating the shallows

June 13, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Nicholas Carr; $33.50 cloth 978-0-393-07222-8, 276 pp., W.W. Norton & Company.

In the Foreword to his 1985 polemic Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, cultural critic Neil Postman quotes Aldous Huxley’s remark in Brave New World Revisited that “the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.'” Postman died in 2003, just before Web 2.0 became the apotheosis of mankind’s almost obsessive desire for distraction. According to Jesse Alpert and Nissan Hajaj, software engineers with Google, that company’s tracking statistics indicated that as of July 25, 2008 there were more than one trillion discrete URLs on the World Wide Web. The Website Domain Tools states that today there are 120,043,671 registered domain names. The social Web is flourishing, from the almost quaintly antiquated MySpace to Facebook and Twitter, to more specialized social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Goodreads. New e-mail competes for our attention with the latest YouTube video, Google alerts, and RSS feeds. The Net offers access to a kind of Borgesian library of seemingly infinite information, all of it only a click away.

This technological cornucopia comes with a price, however. In a recent New York Times article, Matt Richtel points to the downside of information glut and constantly divided attention that too much time spent online promotes: “Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.” The Net’s constant encouragement to refresh that Twitter page, to check for new e-mail, to download a song or a video, or to converse with a buddy over Skype or instant messaging is liable to have an effect on the way humans think and interact. “This,” says Richtel, “is your brain on computers.”

What is ironic about Richtel’s argument is that the online version of his article is peppered with hyperlinks, each of which prods a reader to navigate away from the piece and engage with ancillary material: an abstract about dopamine, a slide show, an interactive game that (again, ironically) tests the degree to which a person can filter out distractions. Richtel’s article is fairly long, but the links embedded within it operate counter to the impulse to immerse oneself deeply in the content; rather, they break the blocks of text into discrete units and offer potential sidetracks for a reader’s attention.

These hypertextual sidetracks may go largely unremarked or unnoticed, but they affect a reader’s experience in ways that are not entirely beneficial. In his lucid and persuasive new book, technology writer Nicholas Carr refers to a study conducted by Erping Zhu to determine the effect that hyperlinks have on a reader’s comprehension:

She had groups of people read the same piece of online writing, but she varied the number of links included in the passage. She then tested the readers’ comprehension by asking them to write a summary of what they had read and complete a multiple-choice test. She found that comprehension declined as the number of links increased. Readers were forced to devote more and more of their attention and brain power to evaluating the links and deciding whether to click on them. That left less attention and fewer cognitive resources to devote to understanding what they were reading.

Elsewhere, Carr points out that although links act as the online equivalent of citations and notes in books and academic articles, they nevertheless alter our reading experience by encouraging us to disengage with a single text and jump from one text to another. “Hyperlinks,” Carr writes, “are designed to grab our attention. Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause.”

Of course, hyperlinks are only one of the Net’s elements of distraction, and arguably one of the most benign. Writer Cory Doctorow refers to the Internet as an “ecosystem of interruption technologies”; such an ecosystem, Carr argues, is antithetical to the kind of careful attention and deep, sustained thought that has been responsible for most of civilization’s great advances to date.

Invoking Marshall McLuhan, Carr takes issue with the tech evangelists who assume that the Internet is a morally neutral technology, insisting instead that the tools we use have the power to change us and are therefore fraught with ethical considerations. “Our conventional response to all media,” McLuhan wrote, “namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.” Postman echoes McLuhan in his assertion that media technologies are inseparable from the ideology that undergirds them:

[W]hat is happening in America is not the design of an articulated ideology. No Mein Kampf or Communist Manifesto announced its coming. It comes as the unintended consequence of a dramatic change in our modes of public conversation. But it is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology.

Carr has assimilated that point thoroughly and argues that the ideology of the Internet, which privileges efficiency over deliberation and concentration, marks the advent of a “new intellectual ethic,” one that is actually having physiological effects on the way our brains are wired.

Beginning his book with an examination of recent advances in neuroscience, which have highlighted the plasticity of the human brain, Carr goes on to illustrate the ways in which the Internet fosters a kind of mental hyperactivity that has deleterious effects on our memory and our ability to comprehend a complex or nuanced argument. No brooding Cassandra, Carr acknowledges the power of the Net as a research tool and the extent to which it has enriched our lives, but warns, “The mental skills we sacrifice may be as valuable, or even more valuable than the ones we gain. When it comes to the quality of our thought, our neurons and synapses are entirely indifferent. The possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains.”

The intellectual decay that the Internet promotes is tied into its mechanisms for distraction, and the concomitant tendency toward brevity, speed, and simplicity. Carr quotes digital maven Clay Shirky as saying that the demise of deep reading is not something to be mourned because it was never that great in the first place: “‘No one reads War and Peace,’ [Shirky] wrote, singling out Tolstoy’s epic as the quintessence of high literary achievement. ‘It’s too long, and not so interesting.'” The brain that has had its synapses rerouted by prolonged exposure to the rapidity and heterogeneousness of the Internet will likely agree with Shirky that Tolstoy’s novel is “too long, and not so interesting.” This is indicative, Carr asserts, of someone who lacks “the time, the interest, or the facility to inhabit a literary work,” a characterization that applies well to heavy users of digital media online.

Dedicated Netizens will no doubt take umbrage with Carr’s ideas, but he marshals a great deal of evidence to back up his assertions, and his key thesis – that the intellectual ethic of the Internet is pushing us toward a new mode of thought that is actually reflective of the technology itself, and that this may not be an entirely positive development – seems irrefutable. “McLuhan’s point,” Carr writes, “was that an honest appraisal of any new technology, or of progress in general, requires a sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained. 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.”

If Carr is to be faulted at all, it would be in the relative lack of prescriptive solutions to our current technological dilemma; on the final page of the book, all the author can manage to offer up is the (perhaps vain) “hope that we won’t go gently into the future our computer engineers and software programmers are scripting for us.” But The Shallows is more of a warning bell than anything else, a clarion call to remain cognizant of the way our technology shapes us and to stay vigilant so that we don’t lose more than we gain by adopting it. In arguing for the merits of quiet contemplation and serious thought as against the fragmented, distracted intellectual currency of the Internet, Carr is swimming against the prevailing cultural tide. But his plea that we not sacrifice wisdom on the altar of efficiency is one that needs to be heard. If we’re lucky, it’s not too late to turn back the tide.