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Learning to balance: Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Shallows’ (Atlantic)

Nicholas Carr lays out his non-Luddite credentials early on in The Shallows—his critical look at ‘how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember’ (Atlantic, August). In the first chapter, ‘Hal and Me’, he tells us that in 1986 he spent nearly all his savings on one of the earliest Macs, which he used to lug between home and work, and he has since followed the enthusiast’s trajectory right through from that machine’s ‘HyperCard’ program—an early hypertext system—to the heady mix of social networking that is today’s online world.

This introduction is calculated to head off easy criticism by those who would claim Carr is critical of our internet use because he either doesn’t’ get it or doesn’t like it. Clearly, neither is true.

Instead, Carr acknowledges the appeal and myriad opportunities the internet presents, while also wishing to examine the way the medium is changing us. Not surprisingly, Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim ‘the medium is the message’, is central to Carr’s thesis that the advent of the internet represents a wholesale change in the way we think.

To make his point, Carr takes us through a history of our communication. When writing developed in our previously oral culture, he points out, it was some time before we developed the inclination or ability to read quietly to ourselves (instead of simply using the words on the page as a tool for oration). When we did develop this skill—and when the invention of the Gutenberg press meant this option was available to many more in society—the activity changed our minds.

‘For most of history, the normal path of human thought was anything but linear,’ writes Carr. Evolution had taught us to be alert to movement, open to distraction. ‘To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. It required readers to place themselves at what T S Eliot, in Four Quartets, would call “the still point of the turning world”.’

Such reading encouraged deep thinking, says Carr. ‘In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.’

The internet, with its proven ability to ‘distract’ us (Carr cites studies that point to the disruptive effect on comprehension of the mere existence in a text of hyperlinks), proves a direct threat to this deep, ‘unnatural’ way of thinking—to the Gutenberg way of thinking. At heart, The Shallows is a love song to the book and (another) warning that we are soon to lose not only the book as we know it, but the way of thinking it ushered in. ‘Like our forebears during the later years of the Middle Ages, we find ourselves today between two technological worlds,’ writes Carr. ‘After 550 years, the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges.’

To those in the book industry, this sounds a familiar alarm, and Carr’s overview of Google’s Book Search, the Kindle and other ereaders, as well as his imagined future of the book, will be of interest. But to many, the response may well be ‘so what?’ What is so dire about this change?

It’s the obvious question for anyone who sees the positive in the new, less linear, way of thinking the web is inculcating. Carr acknowledges that among the advantages of the internet is the increased problem-solving skills evident in the brains of web users. ‘Researchers found that when people search the net they exhibit a very different pattern of brain activity than they do when they read book-like text,’ he writes of a UCLA experiment. ‘Book readers have a lot of activity in regions associated with language, memory, and visual processing, but they don’t display much activity in the prefrontal regions associated with decision-making and problem solving.’

In contrast, web users ‘display extensive activity across all those brain regions when they scan and search web pages’. ‘The good news is that web surfing, because it engages so many brain functions, may help keep older people’s minds sharp,’ writes Carr. ‘Searching and browsing seem to “exercise” the brain in a way similar to solving crossword puzzles.’

The problem, as Carr sees it, is precisely this problem solving. He writes: ‘The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeting sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision-making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information.’ Or, in other words: ‘Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that’s the intellectual environment of the internet.’

As well as interfering with our information processing, Carr argues, the internet poses the risk of turning us into what the playwright Richard Foreman calls ‘pancake people’—‘spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button’.  It is the ‘touch of a button’ Carr worries about—and the way it engenders in us a reliance on the internet as a kind of external hardrive for what we used to make the effort to remember.

Carr cites Australian educational psychologist John Sweller whose three decades’ study of how we process information and learn points to the importance of our long-term memory. ‘Scientists have come to realise that long-term memory is actually the seat of understanding,’ writes Carr. ‘It stores not just facts but complex concepts, or “schemas”,’ and our ‘intellectual prowess is derived largely from the schemas we have acquired over long periods of time’, according to Sweller. Our ability to form new understandings relies on the workings of our long-term memory, not on the ‘power-browsing’ skills the internet builds. And guess what isn’t so great for long-term memory development?

Outlining the detrimental effects on long-term memory of the kind of thinking required by the internet, Carr takes his argument well beyond the fairly neutral territory he has explored to this point. Citing a study at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute he claims, ‘It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion.’ ‘For some kind of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection,’ says one of the study’s researchers.

‘It would be rash to jump to the conclusion that the internet is undermining our moral sense,’ writes Carr. ‘It would not be rash to suggest that as the net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.’

Big claims, and they’ll meet with plenty of scepticism. Carr himself snickers at the pessimism of Socrates as the oral tradition was pushed aside: ‘[Socrates] argues that a dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind, and not for the better,’ he writes. ‘By substituting outer symbols for inner memories, writing threatens to make us shallower thinkers, he says, preventing us from achieving the intellectual depth that leads to wisdom and true happiness.’

We might imagine someone in centuries to come holding up the warnings of The Shallows in much the same way—but Carr is adamant we really are facing detrimental technology this time around. He refers to Socrates again much later in the book: ‘Socrates may have been mistaken about the effects of writing, but he was wise to warn us against taking memory’s treasures for granted,’ says Carr. ‘His prophecy of a tool that would “implant forgetfulness” in the mind, providing “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder,” has gained new currency with the coming of the web. The prediction may turn out to have been merely premature, not wrong.’

Carr doesn’t have much in the way of answers for us. He got out of the social networking game and away from the internet as best he could to develop the thoughts for this book and to write it. But he has since re-entered the online world. The development and centrality of the web is, he admits, inevitable—which doesn’t mean it should go unexamined.

‘The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection,’ writes Carr. ‘There needs to be time for efficient data collecting and time for inefficient contemplation … the problem today is that we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind.’

Are we? On a personal level I believe many of us are struggling just now with this balance—the existence of this book would seem to prove it. But are we also coming to solutions, to a better balance?

When language was first captured in writing, early forms had no spaces separating the words. Reading was laborious. ‘It would never have crossed the minds of the first writers to put blank spaces between words,’ writes Carr. What has it not yet crossed our minds to do, to make the internet and all its riches as easy and attractive as the written book eventually came to be?

And what other adaptations may our minds have in store? There’s a tantalising aside in The Shallows in which Carr tells us some studies suggest ‘that the kind of mental calisthenics we engage in online may lead to a small expansion in the capacity of our working memory’—the part of our brain from which information can be transferred to long-term memory, the part called on for deeper thinking.

The Shallows is a thought-provoking work, particularly interesting, I’d have thought, for those who love books in their current form. It would be too easy to dismiss the points it raises as merely alarmist or pessimistic; there are concerns worthy of our contemplation here. They shouldn’t and won’t stop the wonderful and inevitable development of the internet, but they can help us to understand and manage our adaptation to it. I found that Carr’s arguments made sense of my own ambivalence to the web, reconfirming why I love to spend so much of my time offline with a book—and helping me to use that wired book of books, that crazy non-stop conversation, the internet, in a far less frantic and more useful way.

Now I’m looking forward to Clay Shirky’s side of the argument. His book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, is due from Penguin in September.

Related reading:

Is Google Making Us Stupid?’—Carr’s original Atlantic essay, upon which The Shallows is based

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Clay Shirky, Allen Lane)

Cate Kennedy’s take on the intersection between the web and the writer’s life, from Overland

Readings newsletter editor and regular Bookseller+Publisher reviewer Jo Case on how the internet has supported her creative writing career

ABC Radio’s Mark Colvin, writing on the Drum

And many, many other pieces out there on the big, bad web…

Matthia Dempsey is editor-in-chief of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.



Category: Fancy Goods Reviews