'The Shallows': Is the Internet changing the way we think?
In "The Shallows," Nicholas Carr posits that the Internet is making the human brain more prone to surf broadly and less capable of sustaining concentrated thought or analysis. Carr discusses his book Monday at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
Nicholas CarrThe author of "The Shallows" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Co-sponsored by Town Hall and the University Book Store. Tickets are $5 at www.brownpapertickets.com, 800-838-3006 and available at the door.
In 1455, Johannes Gutenberg produced the first major book published with a movable-type printing press, an enormously significant advancement that marked the beginning of widespread publication of books.
As books proliferated, some observers attacked the whole idea of such mass distribution of information. English writer Barnaby Rich complained in 1600 that one "of the great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world."
Change a couple of words and he could have been talking about the Internet, Twitter, blogs and Facebook updates.
In "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" (Norton, 276 pp., $26.99), Nicholas Carr asks a similar question: What is the Internet and its irresistible invitation to surf broadly but to read superficially doing to our ability to analyze complex problems? Or, as he asked in his article in The Atlantic in 2008, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"
Drawing from neuroscience, history and social-science research, Carr reviews evidence that learning how to solve a problem, how to play a piece of music or how to speak a language physically changes the brain. It's a mistake, he argues, to think of the brain as a hard drive that stores information; it's far more than that and changes dynamically as it processes information, altering itself as it confronts challenges — for better or worse.
Reading a book, he notes, is vastly different from reading hyperlinked Internet text. Reading a book is solitary, requiring deep thought, analysis of the text and sustaining a narrative thread for the duration. By contrast, Internet reading invites shallow skimming for relevant passages, incessant clicking to hyperlinked articles and reliance on Google's search algorithms to determine relevance. But Google determines "relevance" by, among other things, popularity (the number of other sites linking to the text) and how recently the site was updated. That is hardly a proxy for authoritativeness, reliability or trustworthiness.
Carr argues that the result is an emerging nation of shallow and impatient readers, who are constantly bombarded with breaking news updates, tweets, Facebook updates and a barrage of e-mail, invited to surf links without stopping to analyze the substance of what they are reading. This, he argues, has a lasting impact, making us unable to sustain concentrated thought or analysis.
Carr's argument is thought- provoking but a bit breathless. As Rich's critique of the humble book illustrates, it isn't difficult to find the same arguments advanced throughout history in the face of change. Books — lauded by Carr — were once derided as flooding the world with idle thoughts and ideas. Magazines and newspapers were, similarly, blamed for their hasty delivery of the latest news. But somehow each generation managed the change and, in retrospect, it would be difficult to argue with a straight face that the world is the worse for it.
Carr's contention that the Internet is different is, ultimately, unpersuasive. Even for those of us old enough actually to remember a world before the Internet, it's difficult to imagine a world without it. The pace of information delivery has accelerated beyond a doubt, but that's hardly a bad thing. Book sales may be fading but Kindle sales are soaring. Somehow, humanity has endured the technological siege throughout history. Neither books, newspapers, nor Google are likely to make us stupid. Overreacting to change might.
Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.