Thinking About “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”

I finally finished reading the “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas G. Carr. I had the opportunity to hear him speak in person at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco in June, 2010.  He was being interviewed by Peter Norvig, who is the Director of Research at Google.  The choice of interviewer was no doubt inspired by Nicholas Carr’s article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I also had it autographed by the author, which always makes for a fun addition to my collection.

I would definitely say that I have a mixed opinion of the book. I thought it was interesting and definitely valuable in that it made me stop and think about how I interact with the Internet, and how my use of it is affecting my ability to concentrate. I definitely find it easier to read from print than from a screen, and I notice that I do skim when reading online. Interestingly enough, this seems to be the way that I, and probably many others, traditionally read hard-print newspapers and magazines. One thing I noticed with the Internet is that it I am constantly tempted to click on something else. However, is this due to the design of the Internet, or is it due to something within me that says, “maybe this link has something more interesting (and hence more gratifying) than what I’m looking at right now?” In other words, is it the nature of the Internet, or is it an anxious, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” mentality? Or could it be, as Mr. Carr states in his book, that the structure of the Internet is re-wiring my brain as I use it? Or perhaps, the Internet’s structure hooks into the lower-functioning part of the brain that is geared to respond to stimuli.  In other words, the Internet – or to be more precise, use of the Internet – triggers a primal response in humans that is not useful in the Information Age.

Knowing that the Internet provides what feels like instantaneous access to nearly unlimited amounts of information affects my ability to concentrate beyond the presence of multiple links vying for my attention.  Just the awareness that I can access information so easily makes me more likely to do so and navigate away from what I’m working on.  If I’m reading something online, or doing something such as writing this post (for example) and an idea pops into my head, the fact that I can look up the idea in another tab on my browser without losing my place on what I’m supposedly working on, makes it easier for me to just “pop away for a second” with the idea that I will return to the main task at hand momentarily.  However, the new thing I am looking up will eventually lead to something else, which in turn leads to yet another thing, and I soon find myself a number of degrees away from where I started.

This is an example of Mr. Carr’s assessment that multitasking and information overload have the tendency to short-circuit our brains and attention spans. It’s funny that “multi-tasking” is considered to be a desirable quality for people to have in today’s workforce, and is definitely an example of how we take our cues for what is considered to be desirable behavior from the technologies we create (another example would be someone who is praised for having a “photographic memory”). However, multitasking is stressful.  The human body and mind were not designed to deal with the level of constant informational input that is the norm of the modern world.  Having to think about and respond to too many things at the same time leads to burnout. Furthermore, the more things a person has to try to concentrate on at any one time, the less attention is given to any one of those things. Individual tasks are not given the full attention that may be necessary.  I personally feel that the increase in labor-saving devices that allow us to perform an ever greater number of tasks in a given amount of time, have conditioned us to accept that just because we are able to do so, it is therefore to be expected as the norm.  The presence of computer apps raises the level of work we are expected to do exponentially.

A key part of the book that I disagreed with was its overall tone, which is that all of this is a juggernaut that we are powerless to stop, and that will inevitably have permanent detrimental effects on our abilities to think deeply, and by extension, our culture. Two things that the author leaves out of the book are the idea of human agency, and possible solutions.

Machines do not have a sense of agency, at least of this writing, and speculating that they may someday is moot, as we truly cannot know with 100% certainty what the future will bring. However, humans are able to take conscious action, including taking a broad look at a situation in order to see if any action needs to be taken in response and to plan accordingly. We are able to look at the Internet (as Mr. Carr has done), assess the situation, see if there is a problem, and take steps to address it if there is a problem. By not even addressing this capability, I feel that Mr. Carr falls into the unconscious the trap of modeling our behavior after machines.

As for possible solutions, in my mind this is where the roles of education in general, and information literacy in particular, come into play. Education is based on the idea that we are able to guide the development of growing minds in a particular direction. If we want to make sure that young people and others develop critical thinking skills, including the ability to concentrate on problem solving, we need to make sure that it is included in school curricula and other programs. Information literacy is included in this as it is a way of developing users’ ability to use agency and conscious decision-making, so that they are not “slaves to the machine”. Indeed, initiatives in this direction have already begun.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has developed what they call a “Framework for 21st Century Learning” which seeks to integrate technology skills with traditional skills in the K-12 education sphere.  They are seeking to situate technology as a tool that supports traditional learning, and actually list critical thinking and problem solving as important skills that need to be taught from an early age.  To me this represents an understanding that technology is at its core a set of tools that assist people with the tasks we want to perform.  We have the ability to choose what role we want technology to play in our lives.

All in all, despite these criticisms, I find the book extremely valuable, for the sole reason that Mr. Carr has taken the time to bring the effect of the Internet on our ability to think and concentrate to our attention. I definitely found myself re-examining the way I interact with the Internet and other technology, and am definitely more conscious of the way I do so than I was before I read this book. I would definitely recommend this book to others with the caveat that those who read it do not consider the stating of the problem as the end of the conversation, but only the beginning.

Note: this is an expanded version of a comment that I posted on a discussion of the book that is currently being hosted on LISNews.org.  I encourage everyone to visit the site and participate in the discussion. If for some reason you’re reading the current post sometime in the future, please take the time to read what other people have had to say about the book. People who are interested in this topic may also want to view the Frontline episode, “Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier”.