The internet is changing our brains. It’s not just changing how we get and share information and ideas, it is literally changing the wiring upstairs. This central idea of The Shallows has serious implications for individuals and society, which ought to be addressed. I welcome Nicholas Carr’s invitation to look beyond the highly touted advantages of digital communication to what we are losing and how we and our history as a species is being changed. As a budding historian and teacher, I welcome the opportunity to reflect on the implications for scholarship and education. I think it’s worth considering where things are going and where they could go if we are not to accept a sense of digital determinism.
Stopping a Train?
Rapidly advancing digital technology, characterizing our current age, is a tricky topic because it seems unstoppable regardless of what we think of it. In this way, it seems a lot like gentrification: changes brought about may look appealing on the surface (e.g. turning shabby parts of town into spiffy hotspots with improved amenities), but serious loss is happening underneath (e.g. poor folks who cannot afford rising rents or property taxes are squeezed out of places they called home). Once the neighborhood starts on that path of change, minor tweaking may be possible but reversing or stopping it seems impossible. Carr doesn’t see his examination as a futile exercise, but you won’t find easy or numerous solutions in his work. Don’t expect too much from me either, dear reader!
Gains and Losses
The ability of large numbers of people to quickly and conveniently access and search huge amounts of information are probably the most obvious gains of digital technologies like the internet. However, the price we pay is that the short, disjointed, fast-moving nature of the medium diminishes our capacities for concentration and contemplation. Carr is particularly concerned with “deep reading,” which is what happens when one is immersed in the static pages of a book, but impossible to do online because of all the items that can lead us down various rabbit holes from enticing hyperlinks to pop-up windows. Carr sees these as distractions that clutter the mind rather than enhancements to a meaningful experience.
The Media We Shape Shapes Us
Carr gives us an interesting intellectual history, recounting the ways human beings shared information leading up to our current age. He does not take the typical view of most contemporary Americans that we are always progressing as we move into the future. He sees advantages to each medium from each age. He imagines that the days of the oral tradition must have been especially sensual as individuals would have to tell their stories with the detail of a tour guide. He lauds the value of memory that the ancient Greeks needed to develop philosophy and myth. The initial act of reading, when spaces where not conventionally put between words, may frustrate us today, but pages were meant to be read aloud and required an especially active use of the brain. The way literate humans recorded their ideas influenced their ideas and their expression. Nietzsche and T.S. Eliot commented on how typewriters made them think and compose differently. The creators of these various media over the centuries did not intend to shape the brain in the ways they did, but that was the impact. Human brains, which are highly plastic and not machine-like, wire themselves to integrate these media and tools.
Implications for Scholarship
Carr’s chapter on “the Church of Google” brings in many important considerations for the future (and present) of scholarship. He throws a bone to Google, noting that its powerful search engine has saved the enormous and un-centralized internet from being a Tower of Babel. Certainly, the internet and search tools like Google are nothing short of revolutionary for scholars whose work is primarily about information and ideas. However, Carr has lots of fire for the company and its drivers, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The dominance of Google has made it incredibly, and dangerously, powerful. As a human rights-loving person, I too am always cautious of those with absolute or concentrated power. Carr hates that Google seems to have missed both the beauty of the book and the beauty and value of the human mind. Rather than temples of knowledge and learning, Carr believes Google approaches libraries as data mines which are to be stripped. Books become sources for snippets, which are obviously great because, heck, why waste time reading a book when you can read a poignant morsel and save yourself time to be thoroughly distracted by all the other items on your computer screen? What happens to history when people stop reading larger works and jump around to snippets? What snippet(s) can help a senator or a voter understand the historical context of what is going on in Syria today? Our understanding of the Middle East has never been more important than it has been in recent decades. And that knowledge is hard to boil down into snippets. But then again, are US citizens and politicians reading books on such subjects anyway? (Cringe!)
Carr takes on Taylorism, underlying Google’s philosophy, squarely. Sure, a Taylorist approach may lead to greater efficiency and prosperity, but it can also sap individual initiative, creativity, judgment and conscious craft. Historians must not become over-reliant on digital technology. For example, we should not fall into the trap of looking only at sources or commentaries that pop up the most in searches simply because they are the most referenced or according to another algorithm. And we must give ourselves time to marinate in our material to allow our conscious and unconscious minds to play with material. This is how insight comes about.
Implications for Teaching
Students read differently today, according to Carr. Used to looking at computer screens full of links and objects, their eyes jump around even on the printed page. I want my students to be able to use computers with fluency and I’d like them to know deep reading. Reading comprehension, concentration and analytical skills and writing are essential skills that are important for individuals to participate in a vibrant democracy and perform sophisticated jobs. As a humanist, I think these are important skills that allow us to realize the gift that is our amazing mind. It will require intentional and smart planning on the part of educators to use both new and old media to help students fully cultivate their minds.
Can We Find a Balance?
One gets the sense from time to time that Carr is a Luddite, pouting behind a typewriter or notepad about the losses today’s dominant digital media and tools have caused. However, he describes himself as a digital junkie in recovery. He once wanted to have all the latest gadgets, then he began noticing changes in his mental functioning. He describes the semi-digital hiatus he took to write his book, fighting temptations to jump online to check his emails and surf the internet. His position is that we need books AND the internet, but the dominance of the digital world makes it difficult to strike the right balance.
Can Future Media Integrate the Best of the Past?
I probably celebrate digital media more than Carr, but I almost regret that I don’t have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), which I imagine would be the only way I could keep up with all the digital information and new technologies flying around. I am also more open to seeing value in the new forms of expression that new tools shape. For example, more succinct writings by T.S. Eliot and Nietzsche, shaped by use of typewriters may not necessarily have been bad for their writing. And while Japanese mobile phone novels may not be great works of literature couldn’t the same be said for older works created by quills on parchment? Do they have value as entertainment anyway? Carr stops short of exploring how new media and technologies could be designed to incorporate the advantages of older media. I read Carr’s book on my Kindle. I experience deep-reading on my Kindle, perhaps because the screen is not over-stimulating with backlighting (instead using a wonderful e-ink technology), links and other objects beyond the text. I was able to download his book in seconds at a cheaper price than buying the book in print and I could underline passages as I went along. Carr gives an example of an experiment done with groups who use user-friendly software and those who use less helpful software. Those who use the less user-friendly software have to develop their own skills better by necessity. Couldn’t this idea be replicated for a variety of situations to help increase concentration? It is currently beyond my imagination, but could it be possible to use new media and technologies to help a person reduce mental clutter and enhance contemplation? Perhaps we will see movements emerge like those which started to collect vinyl records because they enjoyed the imperfections and added texture of analogue audio media. No doubt, these individuals own iPods and not just turntables. Perhaps new social movements will emerge that can create a critical mass to challenge and motivate us to strike a better balance between older and newer technologies.
(To support your deep reading of this blog post, I offer only one link: The Shallows).