The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicolas Carr
This is one of those nonfiction books that is kind of depressing because it describes so well something that’s huge and scary and seemingly out of our control. Carr crafts a convincing argument about the effect that the internet is having on our modes of thinking. He goes deep into the science of neuroplasticity to establish his claim that our brains can change. Then he retells the history of written language, especially the printing press, focusing on the way human habits, education, and thought patterns adapted to new technology. The reason Carr has to go through all that is because he’s arguing that though the internet and the printing press both changed us, the particular changes wrought by the WWW are detrimental to individuals and to human culture and society. Heavy stuff. He talks a lot about the philosophy of efficiency behind Google and why efficiency isn’t necessarily a benign goal in thinking because the process is what matters. As a teacher, I think I can agree with that.
The most frustrating thing about this book was the lack of a concrete solution to the problem that Carr describes so meticulously. He seems to suggest unplugging periodically, and slowing down the pace of web surfing, checking email less frequently. After I read the passionate argument about the evil of Google and the importance of analog modes of thought, these small steps seemed too little, too late, too individual and piecemeal.
Personally, I know I should make some changes in this regard. I am not sure that the way I read online is good for me or my brain or my time management. I know that I don’t really need to follow every single link that my facebook friends post, but I do anyway, for precisely the reasons Carr explains: because the internet is like crack and I’m an addict. Moderating some of these habits would be a good idea and would save me a ton of time.
The way I read offline is probably influenced by the brain training I’ve received in front of my computer, and is also not optimal. I have noticed that it’s harder for me to immerse myself in a long narrative than it was 15 years ago. Part of it is the way that I’ve become used to constant amusement, to rarely having a moment when I’m not reading something or listening to an audiobook, whether I’m driving, shopping, or doing chores. I’ll plug in my earbuds if I have to walk to the other end of my 1200-square-foot house. It’s kind of ridiculous. Because of this habit, I read in a very fragmented way, switching between several books at once. This is mostly from necessity, because I read on at least 4 formats (print, kindle, audio CD, handheld audio) and not all books are available in all formats. I can only listen to CDs in my car, and not all books have audio CDs, and not all audiobooks are available on my kindle, etc. If I could stick with one book across all these platforms without losing my place, I would, but it’s not feasible (not yet anyway). This way of reading is not good, and I’m probably not comprehending to the best of my ability because of all of these interruptions (many of which I cause myself).
Besides lower comprehension, there’s another, perhaps greater issue as well. The price of never being bored is that I don’t ever have a moment alone in my own head. My head seems like a boring place, but that’s probably because I don’t give anything interesting the time it would need to grow there. Carr talks a lot about the habit of being reflective; this is something I value highly as well, but something I’m not good at and don’t enjoy. Or, maybe more accurately, for me writing facilitates reflection, and I find reflection without writing difficult and rarely have the patience for it. If I try to reflect without a pen in my hand or fingers on a keyboard, either I get bored instantly or I get twitchy because I come up with something I want to write down. As an aspiring writer, I’m not sure if this is a real problem or not. Anyway, Carr got me thinking about the internet’s effect on my brain and that’s probably a good thing, because the last thing I want my brain to be is shallow.