The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

The Shallows

“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance” (Carr 3).

When Nicholas Carr quotes Marshall McLuhan in the prologue of his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, he introduces the key premise that media not only alters perception, but works on the nervous system itself. From this premise, Carr unfolds his arguments about both the power and subtlety of technology and its prevalent use. Every new medium changes us, even as we engage it. This book will cause educators to pause—even as we become a culture of digital natives—to reassess our strategies, long-term outcomes, principles, and perceptions regarding what it means to be human, and what it means to teach with wisdom.

Carr arranges his text across key themes. He discusses the history of brain research, the history of technology, and the ethics of knowledge, and interfaces these with current culture to probe what this may mean to us as Internet users in the future. The first six chapters of the book are totally devoted to intellectual history. The remaining chapters focus on the object of the Internet to seize our attention only to scatter it.

As Carr iterates his wells of knowledge, he accentuates how the Internet is changing us and affecting our ability to read and think deeply. In his metaphorical craft (which is prolific), Carr states: “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (7). This is said in a context where Carr himself is finding it harder to concentrate and attend to long pieces of reading and writing. He muses that “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster the better” (10). As Neil Postman noted in his book Technopoly, “technology giveth and technology taketh away.” Now, eighteen years later, Carr is telling us the same thing. It would appear either we did not learn the first time, that learning this requires repetition, or that a new audience may need to hear this call again.

When culture drives change in the ways we engage our brains, it creates different brains. While strengthening new neural pathways, we weaken old ones by disuse. Just five hours on the Internet can rewire one’s brain. Can one want to be “connected” and still miss his/her old brain? Just what will be the consequences of such choices? That is the question that propels further discourse. It is also a question of ethical significance to educators.

From Postman’s prophetic plea to be aware of how we use technology, (or how we allow it to use us), Carr expands the argument to include how recent discoveries in neuroscience show the “plasticity” of the brain and its ability to change in response to both experience and the repetition of experience. He reminds the reader, “The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring, but that it doesn’t” (31). Norman Doidge, a pioneer in neurolinguistic plasticity of the brain, reminds us that when we stop using our mental skills, we do not just forget them. The brain’s “map space” for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead (35). Carr makes a convincing case that every technology carries within it an intellectual ethic about the nature of knowledge and intelligence. For example, he explains how a printed book serves to focus our attention, and how the Net encourages rapid, distracted samplings of a menu of information. The Net is making us into its own image. We become good at scanning, skimming, and multitasking, but are losing our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

Because of this, Carr urges us to be more aware of the “intellectual ethics of technology,” because it has the most profound effect on us as users—even if this is often left unrecognized. Technology changes the minds and culture of its users. Consider this statement in light of the fact that most Americans, regardless of their age, spend at least eight and a half hours a day looking at television, a computer monitor, or the screen of their mobile phone—often simultaneously (87). We have entered, as Cory Doctorow (blogger and science fiction writer) puts it, the “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” And public schools are equipping students to join the fray, encouraging a laptop for every student in every classroom.

Carr says changes in perception are carried in our language, and are recognized in the metaphors we use that relate us to our tools. As Harry Blamires once said, “The battle for morality and reason is often lost or won when a new verbal usage is accepted or rejected” (33). Carr notes that words matter, and we disregard this at our peril. The Net is changing the way people read and write. The problem is we are learning to love being distracted, and the Web serves us well in that end.

Not all is doom and gloom, however. Brain exercise is good—like doing crossword puzzles, we are stimulated by new technologies. It is in the engagement of short- and long-term memory that differences become apparent. Our long-term memory is the seat of understanding. That memory requires deep learning and thinking. It is that memory we lose with repetitive Internet surfing and distraction. We move from reading, remembering, recalling, and reflecting to power browsing. We become hunters and gatherers of electronic data. Multitasking does not become a kind friend as we enter the church of Google. Google has become more than a search engine; it has turned into a moral force, says Carr. In fact, it provides a virtual world that is vying to replace the real one. Digital technology is not just changing something. It is changing everything—how we read, our ability to concentrate, the way we do research, our IQ scores over time, and especially our social skills, behavior, and identity.

Education is in the business of teaching people to learn how to think. We must therefore take some control over how and what we think about. Culture is renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. As Carr says, “outsource memory, and culture weakens.”  Educators have good reason to be concerned and to consider these thoughts. We teach the souls of the next generation in our classrooms.

Carr has much more to say, and he says it well. I will leave his conclusions unsaid, in hopes that you will read his book—preferably not online. As we “rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, is it our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence?” (224). Read and decide for yourselves.

In closing, I refer once again to a thought first made known to me by Neil Postman in the foreword to his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. It contains a thought that I believe Carr would appreciate. Postman states:

Orwell [1984] feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley [Brave New World] feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right (viii).

Works Cited

  • Blamires, Harry. The Post-Christian Mind: Exposing Its destructive agenda. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publishing, 1999.
  • Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  • Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin, 2007.
  • McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In W. T. Gordon (ed.). Corte Madera, CA: Gingko, 2003.
  • Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
  • Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.