“Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us.” – Nicholas Carr
by Matthew L. Schafer
To a moderate amount of fanfare this year, author Nicholas Carr released a much-anticipated follow up to his well-received 2008 Atlantic Journal article entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” called the “The Shallows.” The Shallows outlines how the Internet is changing the way we think. An honest look at the effects that technology may have on us, however, is not a subject that many like to talk about. Despite this, it is worth taking pause to revisit Carr’s book and examine our own technological habits.
Carr argues that the Internet not only changes the way we consume news, but also the way we seek out and think about information. It fundamentally rewires the way we think. The Internet, he argues, demands the brain to multitask-to jump from sending emails to reading news to tweeting to a friend to shopping online. Because of this constant “jumping” from task to task, our brains can no longer stay focused on any one task for any protracted period of time. Indeed, in the time I write this post I will have checked my email, looked at a text message on my phone, checked a news story relating to this post, and tweeted about this post.
“Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling,” Carr wrote. “I wanted to be connected. Just as Microsoft Word had turned me into a flesh-and-blood word processor, the Internet, I sensed, was turning me into something like a high-speed data processing machine….”
In the end, Carr argued it comes down to a technological society driven by the Internet that demands immediate access to a broad but shallow amount of information versus a society defined and created by the book, which promotes sustained deep thinking rather than quick shallow thinking. Indeed, there are no ads, no hyperlinks, no corresponding video to distract a reader of a book. There are only the letters on the page and the reader.
Funnily enough, I had to force myself through Carr’s book. It had nothing to do with his writing or the subject matter, but instead with me and my brain. Like Carr, I can feel it. I can feel my brain wandering, yearning for an interruption. Anymore, I consider it a success if I can make it through a 500 word article let alone a 224 page book.
Unlike Carr, I grew up in the hyperlink forest. I grew up just about the time the Internet began rewiring everyone’s brain. My brain, unlike Carr’s, wasn’t rewired to adapt to the Internet, but was wired for the first time to the computer and the Internet. Yet, my thought process still feels foreign-and if not foreign then highly superficial.
I demand facts fast, and become immediately frustrated when Google or Wikipedia fails me. I go looking for the important bits of larger works and wrest them from their context. I prefer quippy quotes that are sure to stick with people over protracted narratives. I have been trying to read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist for over a year now–I’m on page 26.
The rewiring of our brains into multitaskers aside (which we’re horrible at research shows), the capability to find anything-right or wrong-by typing into Google exactly what you want to get back is dangerous, but also intoxicating. If you want to find evidence that the Earth is flat in order to bolster your predisposition you can surely find it. It is this type of information trolling that must be understood. The reader, searcher, blogger, whoever, must be conscientious of this new ability to always prove yourself right even when you are wrong.
We must pay the price of these disadvantages to reap the advantages. At the same time, we shouldn’t be too quick to set the advantages of the Internet at the alter of human progress, just as we shouldn’t be alarmist about the disadvantages. We must simply recognize both, and move forward with a sense of cautious optimism.