Book Review: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (2011)

In the mid-2000s, Nicholas Carr noticed in himself a gradually decreasing capacity for long periods of concentration. Intuitively, he felt that this change must be related to his rapidly increasing Internet use over the last few years. While his technology use – like all of ours – had evolved over the decades, Carr is a journalist, and he realized the Internet had effectively displaced his use of all other media formats. He hypothesized that his Internet use was changing the way he thinks.

The Shallows is Carr’s attempt to understand exactly what the Internet was doing to his thinking, and whether society is losing something through the transition to the Internet as the all-encompassing media format. Carr develops the argument that while new media formats carry new types of content, it is narrow-minded to judge the media format’s merits purely through these new types of content. Carr argues that new media formats can change the way we think, and part of the way in which they change our thoughts is through actual growth and atrophy of different parts of our brain. According to Carr, the Internet affects the brain directly, and this needs to be part of the calculus when we judge its merits.

In some sense, the Internet is an incessant war between our brains and the thousands of Internet firms, bloggers, viral videos, news websites, and social media platforms vieing for attention. Skilled Internet use requires us to constantly make quick, fleeting decisions to ignore some of these attention seekers and to grant some our attention. So, it’s not surprising that skilled Internet users also exhibit greater hand-eye coordination, which can be helpful for some athletic skills. However, when we want to do intellectual work, we need to use our brains much differently than when we’re on the Internet. If we want to understand the nuanced argument in a dense book, we need to be able to block out all other distractions and focus on what’s in front of us. This is why it can be so much harder to read a book on the Internet or on your computer as compared to on paper, or on an Internet-less e-reader. There’s no other pulls on your attention; it’s just you and the book.

Carr thinks it gets even worse. Not only is it harder to concentrate while on the Internet, Carr suggests typical levels of Internet use induce changes to the brain which put in a distracted state even when we’re not on the Internet. As Carr repeatedly says, the brain is plastic through its synapses: the connections between neurons. As we repeat activities, the links between these neurons get stronger, and the links between unused neurons grow weaker. The mechanisms inducing changes in the brain through Internet use are not particular to the Internet. If you spend all day, every day, filling out coloring books – that will have an effect on your brain. However, relative to other media formats, it is very cheap for Internet media firms to conduct explicit A/B tests to discover the optimally addictive user interface. This competition in addictive innovation results in a race to the bottom, where the victim is our capacity to think.

I’m not a neuroscientist, so it’s hard for me to evaluate the “Internet changes the brain” hypothesis. It sounds right, but I got the sense that there has been relatively little basic research done so far on the effects of the Internet on the brain. The studies that Carr brought up to support his points in discussing the Internet’s direct effects on the brain were more circumstantial than direct. They would not persuade anyone who did not already believe that the Internet was adversely, directly affecting the brain. The argument that the Internet changes our brains is inductive; we know in other contexts that the adult brain is always changing in response to stimuli, so it make sense that when we use a new technology for hours a day, it’s likely to also be changing our brains. That’s not to say a largely inductive argument can’t be a good one, but there are definitely more precise measurements yet to be done on the Internet’s effects on the brain.

I wanted to read this book because I have a similar intuition to Carr about the Internet’s effect on the brain. My concentration ability has diminished relative to when I was younger, and I’ve hypothesized that this was due in part to my Internet use. So, at one level, it’s comforting to see that I’m not the only one with this hypothesis. However, I think this is additionally a useful book to read for the Internet addict, because it deepens your understanding of the ways in which Internet use may affect the brain. The deepened understanding has made me more motivated to fighting my Internet addiction, and I suspect it would have a similar effect on others as well.

One aspect of the book I enjoyed was Carr’s digressions into other media and communication technologies, and how they may have also affected the way we think. One of the earliest examples Carr discusses is Friedrich Nietzsche, who purchases a typewriter in desperation to be able to continue working despite his ailing health. The typewriter saves his ability to work, but his friend noticed that Nietzsche’s writing had become tighter and more forceful since beginning to use the typewriter. Nietzsche replied “You are right – our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”. The topic of whether the typewriter changed people’s thinking could be a book of its own. However, it’s a good example of how the discussion we’re beginning to have about how the Internet is changing our brains echoes discussions in previous communication technology transformations.

I also read this book, because I wanted to develop more informed design choices for this website and Chomper. Reading this book didn’t give me much insight on Chomper design decisions. However, it did make me recognize some desires I have for this website. Eventually, I want to offer users the option of reading the website without links or formatting, and additionally, allow to them to export articles easily as PDF, ePub, or AZW. These might be relatively difficult features to implement – I’m not sure yet. However, what’s easy to do to start is to be sparing of my use of links within an article – to only use links when absolutely necessary. Besides, it’s a weak signal that you’re on a trashy website when the article has a link every other word.

The Shallows is not an instruction manual for defeating your problems with technology. You won’t learn about Internet blockers, mental exercises, or wacky commitment mechanisms. However, you will become fearful about what your internet use has done to your brain, and you will strengthen your resolve to use digital technology consciously. So, go read The Shallows.

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