The Shallows, What the Internet Is Doing with Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr has written a fascinating book on the effect of the internet on lives and, in particular, our way of thinking.  The author’s thesis is that modern technology, especially the internet, is rerouting our brains (p. 77), changing the way we think (p. 18) and the way we read (p. 90), is designed to divide our attention (pp. 115-116, 136-143, 194) train us to multitask (pp. 113-114), and “pay attention to crap” (pp. 142).  Carr contends that net reading is, by design, distracting and superficial; it seizes our attention only to scatter it (pp. 115, 118).  Thus large chunks of information is gained at the expense of concentration, contemplation (p. 5), and linear thinking (p. 10).  Google, for example wants to digitize all information including books (pp. 152, 163), but has designed its system such that the reader moves from site to site quickly.   The more clicks the better.  “The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought.  Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction” (p. 157). The Shallows  confirms Marshall McLuhan’s now popular observation, “The medium is the message” (p. 2).  That is, the internet is not just another way of gathering information, reading, or being entertained.  It has become the message and is rapidly changing everything.

A most interesting part of Carr’s evidence comes from scientific research regarding the brain. Many studies have been done, often in response to medical issues caused by injury, disease, and deformities, that have revealed the plasticity of the brain (pp. 24-38). Scientists have observed the brain adjusting to defects and injuries in remarkable and beneficial ways.  Observed also is the ability to train ourselves to be sick, alterations in the brain circuitry and function due to addictive drugs, and intellectual decay through mental laziness or indifference (p. 35).  If the brain can actually change in these ways, then it’s obvious that it will be affected by constant exposure to the internet and other distractive technology. Basically we are being trained to be distracted, to lack concentration, to be shallow and superficial in our thinking, to lose our ability to reason deeply.  Our brains are now on high alert and struggle with calmness, rest and leisure (pp. 5-10, 77, 90, 115-118, 123, 127-134, 140-143, 166-168, 194, 221).  With all the complexity of the brain, how strange that the author nevertheless embraces evolution (pp. 49-51).

Another valuable feature of the book is tracing technology advances throughout time (pp. 17-24).  This includes the history of writing and books (pp. 52-77) memory is evolving role as technology advanced (pp. 54-57), and Gutenberg’s press resulting in the expansion of reading as well as the multiplication of words (pp. 68-75). Of interest are the  pioneers of the modern computer and internet, such as Lee de Forest and his audion (pp. 78-80), Alan Turing who wrote the blueprint for the modern computer in 1936 (p. 80), the “prophecy” by futurist Edward Bellamy of “indispensables” in 1889 which is the harbinger of the modern I-Phone (p.109), the founding of the web in 1990, Apple in 1977, Google in 1996 (pp. 9, 154), and the invention of ELIZA software which served as a Rogerian therapist in 1966 (pp. 202-208).

Carr documents both the value and dangers that technology and the internet have brought to the modern world.  He sees no turning back and no real solution to our dilemma. Technology is addictive and virtually indispensable in our culture.  The closest he gets to a remedy is to turn to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Sleepy Hollow to recommend that in our distracted technological age we need to return often to Sleepy Hollow where we can rest our brains, think more leisurely and deeply, and contemplate more slowly (pp. 166-168, 220).

I found The Shallows most insightful.  Only two criticisms would I register.  First, being a purely secular book, God and Scripture are absent and evolution accepted, but that is to be expected from an author who does not know the Lord.  Secondly, the book was written in 2010 and in some ways is already out of date.  Nevertheless, for anyone interested in how technology is changing us, and in particular changing our ways of thinking, this is a helpful and interesting read.

The Shallows, What the Internet Is Doing with Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011) 280 pp., $15.95 paperback

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

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