“When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” So writes, Nicholas Carr, in his Pulitzer-prize nominated and New York Times bestselling book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2011, Norton).
We all know the Internet has brought many advantages, not the least of which is access to wide array of information, connecting ideas and people from around the world. Probably we’ve all felt the effects of the increased distractions it offers from its unceasing delivery of email, social media, news and advertising morsels. It’s easy to lose ourselves on the Web as we surf from page to page responding to one click-bait after another. To be sure, the Web is a source of vast information that can help us achieve our goals and dreams. But it can also be a major source of diversion from those same goals.
I know this. I respect its power to seduce me into going where I had not intended or staying longer than I wanted to. I guard myself to be purposeful in its use. But until I read Carr’s book, I hadn’t contemplated his thesis that all this “screen time” is actually rewiring my brain.
Carr writes, “With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”
Mind altering? Those are strong words. In a sense, everything is mind altering in that we are always learning and our brains are always remapping, forming new neural pathways to connect new ideas and store memories. Scientists refer to this constant re-circuiting as neuroplasticity.
But Carr has something deeper in mind, and in The Shallows he takes us through the history of language development and dissemination, from the earliest construction of alphabets, to the invention of the printing press and typewriter. Each has had an effect on the way we process information. But none has quite had the confluence of factors to significantly alter our ability to think deeply and creatively. Until now.
Carr draws upon a plethora of studies from brain science to make his case: “The Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alternations in brain circuits and functions.”
And these alterations have consequences. Carr observes, “Our use of the Internet involves many paradoxes, but the one that promises to have the greatest long-term influence over how we think is this one: the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it.”
When we come upon hyperlinks, we evaluate (often unconsciously) if we should click on it. The result is that our attention shifts, if only momentary, from interpretation to judgment. That shift, repeated over and over again, taxes our brains and diminishes our learning. According to Carr, “research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.”
And even the way we read online differs significantly than the way we might engage with a tangible book. Online we are more likely to scan, viewing successively less information as we proceed down the page. A book is a more immersive experience where, absent the links, we are more likely to contemplate and ruminate on its message.
What does all this mean? Carr writes, “the constant shifting of our attention when we’re online may make our brains more nimble when it comes to multitasking, but improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively.”
Without a doubt this book has caused me to think more deeply about my own use of the Internet. His follow-on work, The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us, is an equally thought-provoking book about the effects of automation.
Were I to get all my friends to extract themselves long enough from the Internet, I would have them read the one or both, for the future of their own creative spirit, and mine, is at stake.
Comment below: If you’ve read The Shallows, what’s your take?
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