The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
Denver Seminary student Michael Stark reviews Carr's book, The Shallows.
Nicholas Carr. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 280 pages. Hardcover, $15.48. ISBN 0393339750
Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is an exploration and examination of the internet’s damage to the human brain. What is refreshing about Carr’s book is that he remains fair throughout the book. He does not write 200-plus pages of scathing retorts against the computer or the internet. Rather, he provides a balance between approval and critique. Carr praises the benefits of efficiency and the quickness that the internet provides. However, the core of the book examines the consequences and ramifications that result because of the supposed benefits.
Carr, a former computer enthusiast, found himself becoming increasingly distracted the more he used the internet. As he began to research the computer, he found that the technology itself was affecting his writing methodology. This was no new consequence of technology. After Friederich Nietzsche began using the typewriter he discovered that writing equipment takes part in the forming of thoughts. Carr’s Nietzsche example plays a core role in his thesis. Historically, the brain has not been considered “plastic” insofar as outside forces cannot influence its function. However, as research developed over the past several years the brain has been found to “reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions” (p. 27). Genes and experiences do not concretely determine each person’s way of thinking. Thinking changes as one develops. This change is influenced by the tools that society uses to make life more “efficient.”
Because the brain can change its functions, forces external to the brain can manipulate it. There are some benefits of this. One can learn to rigorously read and study if one has not done so in the past. Yet, the brain’s reprogramming can be an indictment of a society that relies far too heavily on technology, mainly the internet. Internet usage can provide the brain stimuli that is pleasing, yet damaging to the mind.
Paradoxically, the brain’s neuroplasticity determines behavioral repetition. Neuroplacicity, a topic researched by biologist J.Z. Young, is the term used for the brain’s ability to change as it experiences different situations. That is, when the physical brain and the mind find something appealing, they crave the experience again. When the synapses fire in such as way that is enticing to the brain, the chemical responses want the person to repeat the action which produced the excitement. This is evident in substance abusers. When one uses a drug, the effect on the brain is euphoric. Once the high (or low) diminishes, the brain again desires the experience. Unfortunately, the quickness and image-based role of the internet largely has the same result, albeit in a less lethal way.
Prior to any technological developments in history, cultures primarily retained and stored knowledge orally. Knowledge was limited to the capacity of what the human memory could withstand. This is contrasted with contemporary culture that has information readily available via the internet. Whereas memory and knowledge was needed to preserve societies, neither are utilized as the technology we possess can “do it for us.” The internet, like any other technology, has an intellectual ethic. An intellectual ethic is any assumption of how the mind functions and what corresponding role the specific technology has in affecting the mind. Carr states that the intellectual ethic is hardly an afterthought in the mind of the technological inventor. I do not wish to dispute this but I want to transfer this ignorance to the technological user as well. With the emphasis on quickness and efficiency that America extends, the internet is used as a tool that only perpetuates the fast-paced society. One does not recognize the ramifications of a large amount of internet usage.
One of the many indictments of the internet is the distractedness that it promotes and encourages. There are many facets of the internet to dissect; however, I will focus on the movement towards digital books and away from the tactile pages. If one locks oneself into a room with only a book, there is a lack of distractions. One is alone with one’s own thoughts and the book. While the page on paper and the page on a screen seem to lack a noticeable difference, there is a number of distinctions that a reader should take notice of. One of the more important differences is the hyperlink. Whereas a footnote would make a reference to another work, a hyperlink directs and encourages the reader to navigate the attention from the page to another piece of information. This may seem helpful, but this encourages distraction and moves one away from deep, rigorous study and reading.
Newspapers are a near total casualty of the internet. Instead of a holistic approach to reporting found in newspapers, news is now fragmented and forced to be viewed on the internet. With a newspaper, one can get the summary of an entire event without technological distractions and multiple hyperlinks for different aspects of the same story. Entertainment forms are now utilized to report news. When one visits a major news website, one is not met with reliable text written in paragraph form. Instead, what confronts the reader is fragmented, single sentence-paragraphs that which are not the focal point. The annoyance of crawling news feeds, video clips that start automatically and sidebar “highlights” plague the webpage. Instead of an attentive attitude, a disorientation of the mind results. Culture has embraced and heightened the movement towards unmindful distraction. Books “are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence” (p. 102). Society should lament the loss of text of paper.
The internet distraction has also physically affected the way one reads. Rather than reading in a linear fashion as one is supposed to do with books, the new norm of reading is actually not reading at all. Rather, people “skim” the text. In a recent study, people who use the internet in great amounts read the text in the form of a backwards “F.” That is, people glance at a screen downward and then skim a few lines to the right. This is then repeated. Knowledge cannot be acquired in this form. Information nuggets are all that can be expected. Even then, one may not retain the information because memory capacity has deflated and attention itself is not on the words.
The internet has taken over society. One can watch movies and live sporting events online, download music and books, socially “connect” with other people through social networks, get instant news, pay bills and do research online. More dangerously, one can do all the above things instantaneously and simultaneously – hence, even more distraction. One cannot attentively focus on one particular task. Multitasking has become streamlined.
Most lamentably, the higher the frequency in which one uses the internet, the more one becomes inept at reading scholarly works and one’s own memory diminishes. Information is manipulated to what the internet itself defines as intelligence. What this implies is the quicker one acquires information, the better. Instead, what should be the focal point is the depth of knowledge received and retained.
Carr’s thesis and research should concern Christians regarding Christianity’s current trend of conforming to technological developments. Christians are far from immune from the affects of the internet. Students now conduct research via Google and Wikipedia instead of through books. This coincides with multitasking, research with instant messaging, research while using social networks, research with watching films online, etc. Such distractions do not emphasize, or even recognize, the minute amount of information is being retained. The Christian brain succumbs to the same distractions that the secular world embraces. Sadly, this is done unmindfully in the name of efficiency.
Christians are called to engage their mind. This means that one should embrace study and critical thinking. If Christians are consistently using the internet for entertainment and other endeavors, then their minds are being scattered and distracted with whatever the internet brings forth. Further, the internet provides distractions that do not embrace a life of prayer and silence. Silence is far from golden in a society that constantly needs amusement. It is no wonder Christians cannot pray in depth and at length. Prayer does not come with instant messages or status updates. God’s voice is not limited to 140 character Twitter feeds. But with society craving these empty, trivial updates, Christians often lack the attention and reverence for God in prayer and silence.
One key job of the Christian is to engage the mind. Christianity need not reject all technology. Yet, Christians must be aware of intellectual ethics. The frequency and content of internet usage must be scrutinized and evaluated to better promote a Christian life of thinking. The point is simple. If the internet is distracting Christians so much that a fruitful life of prayer and thought is impossible, then the internet has done its job and the individual has abandoned theirs.
Michael D. Stark