“Shaping and Being Shaped”
A Review of
What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
By Nicholas Carr.
Reviewed by Jonathan Schindler.
What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
By Nicholas Carr.
Hardback: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr fittingly quotes John Culkin: “We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us” (210). Culkin’s observation and Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” provide the thesis for The Shallows: The Internet is changing us for the worse.
Carr’s argument begins with anecdotal evidence. After frequent Internet use, he suspected that his mind was changing. He could no longer read lengthy articles and books with the same attention he was once able to devote. Was the Internet really causing this?
Carr provides several neurological studies and historical examples to prove the first part of his thesis. The neurological studies were especially fascinating, illustrating “neuroplasticity,” our brain’s ability to adapt to new situations and stimuli. (For example, people who have lost use of one of their senses often have their other senses heightened. The brain rewires itself, forming new connections, so that what was formerly used for the now-dormant sense can be used to boost the other, still-operating senses.) Another aspect of neuroplasticity is that the more an action is performed, the more connections between neurons are formed, and the skill is solidified. Repeated actions form habits, basically. From these more modern studies, Carr moves on to historical examples (the map, clock, and book, as well as others) in which new technologies changed behavior and the way people thought. He paraphrases Marshall McLuhan in saying that “technologies numb the very faculties they amplify. . . . alienation is an inevitable by-product of the use of technology” (212). By becoming used to a tool that makes things easier, we risk losing the skills and relationship with the work that we had before the tool.
The more generic arm of his thesis defended, Carr proceeds to his main topic of discussion: how the Internet as a tool shapes us. He examines several aspects of the Internet and our interactions with it, from the “juggler’s brain” the Internet encourages, to Google’s design, to how the Internet affects memory, to ultimately how the Internet shapes our humanity. He describes several studies that should make technology users question their habits. For example, in “The Juggler’s Brain,” Carr cites studies that prove our ability to multitask is largely a myth. In addition, frequently clicking hyperlinks and interspersed multimedia have been shown to increase distraction and lower comprehension, rather than forge connections between texts. In “The Church of Google,” Carr reveals that getting users to click hyperlinks is Google’s primary directive. The more a user navigates from page to page, the more revenue Google generates. But if every element of Google designs is intended to make users click hyperlinks, and clicking hyperlinks increases distraction, what does this mean for users caught in the middle?
The first part of Carr’s argument is compelling (even if it has been better expounded elsewhere). Without question the Internet is changing our brains, as all tools do. The question is, is Carr’s conclusion—that the Internet is making us shallower thinkers—accurate? Here there is much disagreement. There are some who agree with Carr wholeheartedly, from personal experience or from seeing those bred on the Internet now grown up. There are others on the complete opposite end of the spectrum who praise the Internet for the amount of information available and the speed at which it can be accessed. If the Internet is changing us, says this group, it is surely for the better. I fall somewhere in between.
As an editor, I have no choice but to be thankful for the Internet. I hear stories of what fact-checking used to be like without it, and I am daily grateful for Google Books, which allows me to almost instantaneously check the wording of quoted sources. Using Google Reader, I am able to stay abreast of industry trends quickly and easily. I prefer using my printed Chicago Manual of Style, but I can’t always find what I need in the index; a quick search on the CMS Web site has saved me many times from self-doubt.
But my gratefulness is not unalloyed. I also realize that the Internet is a vast place, full of distractions, where one can easily lose one’s way down hundreds of hyperlinked rabbit holes. How many times have I sat down at the computer for one task, only to emerge minutes (hours?) later with that task uncompleted? How often has the desire to remain “connected” to friends whose lives would not otherwise intersect with mine weakened my connection to those who are immediately proximate? How many times have I tried to use the Internet as a tool in my work only to find that “multitasking” means halfhearted-tasking? And how many times have I distractedly sat down to read a book, only to realize that the Internet was also an option available to me?
The spiritual ramifications are also worth investigating. The Internet is a boon to laypeople who want to study the Bible. Sites like The Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Bible Gateway, and NLT Interlinear provide a wealth of tools that anyone with a computer is able to access. William Tyndale’s vision of a ploughboy knowing the Scriptures as well as a priest seems within grasp. Of course, “every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities” (209). If the Internet scatters our attention, prayer is made that much more difficult. Carr also mentions studies which have shown that empathy and compassion are related to a calm, attentive mind (220), which the Internet does not encourage.
One of the chapters in the book that especially struck home with me is “Search, Memory.” Some have suggested that the Internet is our communal memory and that humans should outsource our memory to machines, since human memory is “faulty” compared to machines’. (Indeed, in one of my education classes in college, we were taught not to have our students memorize facts, but to tell them where to find facts. I once attended a productivity seminar where the watchword was “get it out of your head.”) I have already heard this argument in my own generation with regard to Scripture memorization. But memory is one of the key ways that God speaks to us through Scripture. The Lord over and over commands his people to remember so that they will obey (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:4-9), and his punishments are often tied to forgetting (e.g., Isaiah 17:9-11; Jeremiah 13:25; Ezekiel 23:35). It may be more expedient to have Scripture at our fingertips, but the internal dialogue, the meditation, of Scripture best occurs through carrying it within. Even while not consciously meditating on it, the brain continues to digest it.
I don’t think Carr would advocate a wholesale abandonment of the medium. The Internet, for better or worse, seems to be with us to stay, and it has many benefits as well as pitfalls. I am thankful for what it provides, so long as I am aware of the influence it exerts over me. Most people won’t agree with everything in The Shallows, but it is a thought-provoking and valuable book that should encourage conscientious Christians to evaluate how this powerful tool may be shaping their minds—for good or ill.