The Shallows, What the Internet is doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr
My brain hurts! We all have heard that phrase used, often at times when someone is experiencing an over-abundance of information, brain stimuli, or a fit of sarcasm. Common examples may include too much bad news on television or social media, excessive noise, someone talking non-stop whom we cannot seem to politely get away from, a herd of loud children running around and screaming, or some sort of excess visual stimulation from bright or flashing lights. In each of the above examples, we know how to remove ourselves from the excess stimulation.
We get up and walk away, do something else that is less taxing on our senses, or simply keep ourselves away from known situations that cause “our brains to hurt” by definition in all its sarcastic humor. In The Shallows, What the Internet is doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr strives to convince the reader that the Internet is making our brains hurt in other ways, where we cannot choose to walk away—obliviously unaware of its control upon us—like the character simulations who unknowingly exist as mere bioelectric human drones for Zion in “The Matrix.” Carr concludes that the Internet and technology are reprogramming each of us to where we cannot easily pull away from the stimuli. In a sense, we are tethered addicts with no chance of recovery. Although there is much support for Carr’s diagnosis of technology and how the human brain adjusts (or does not adjust) to its use, he paints the problem and the individuals it effects with a very broad brush.
Carr offers an interesting history lesson when he describes how we as humans have adapted to new technologies over time, yet counters every positive advancement with an over-simplification of its negative effects. In one example, he discusses the shift from an oral culture to reading and writing. In oral culture, Carr claims “knowledge is what you recall, and what you recall is limited to what you hold in your mind” (Carr 56). This is a quote from Walter J. Ong’s compiled 1982 study, Orality and Literacy. Carr adds a quote from Marshall McLuhan who claims that the loss of a wholly oral culture caused humans to lose our “emotional and intuitive depths” (Carr 56). Some could charge that Carr used these quotes out of context, because Walter Ong describes “two” forms of orality—one that is a primarily oral culture, and another that is a secondarily (residual of) oral culture. Carr ignores these distinctions. In Ong’s definition, one culture has never experienced reading and writing (primarily orality), and others that had some, or residual exposure to reading/writing and its effects on literacy (Ong 52). At the end of the section, Carr shifts the presentation, again using Ong’s research that “writing heightens consciousness,” to validate benefits of the written word (Carr 57). Repeating the “my brain hurts” introduction, Carr uses these whiplash shifts from initial condemnation of an argument to acknowledging each benefit throughout the book. The often-overwhelming number of comparisons used in this manner throughout the book feels like the desperate salesperson’s pitch, knowing he is losing a sale, and is scrambling for any and every tool to convince a potential buyer.
Carr makes a valid point in describing the “process of intellectual maturation” using map drawings of children (Carr 40). We develop intellectual tools over time and improve our abilities as we develop our brains. As we learn, develop our senses, and grow through various experiences, our proficiencies and adaptation increases. What we learned thousands of years ago was different from a few hundred years ago, and what we taught children fifty years ago is quite different in many ways from what we teach by today’s standards. That does not mean we ignore these shifts, it just means our place in time and experiences are different. Studies of how the human brain may have changed throughout various technological shifts throughout our distant history do not exist. However, there is no relevant data of humanity’s regression or loss of intellect. In fact, it is often the opposite. By Carr’s own admission, “initial users of [new] technology can often sense the changes in their patterns of attention…as their brains adapt to the new medium, the most profound shifts play out more slowly, over several generations” (Carr 199). Certainly, we can find numerous examples where new exposure to a historical technology caused traumatic feelings of fear and panic. A few examples include:
- Native Americans and horses (the horse was brought to America by the Spaniards in the 15th century)
- The first experience with the automobile in a world of horses and carriages (and trains)
- Firearms, the cannon, and other weapons of war/death
- The photograph
- The airplane (and first time flying)
- Electricity and the phonograph/telegraph
- Writing and the printing press
In any of the above examples, one that stands out is the automobile. Imagine never seeing or hearing about the development of the motor carriage. You ride your horse into a town and this large, noisy, and smoking beast comes rattling past, startling both you and your horse. You may claim there is nothing that can replace your horse, and the whole concept of the automobile scares you. Your brain experiences the size, noise, smells, smoke, and this lack of experience overwhelms your senses. Sometime in the future, more comfortable with the technology, you purchase an automobile and never look back. Did you experience the stress and intellectual confusion that Carr subscribes? Of course! Did you adapt, learn to drive, maintain focus and avoid accidents? Hopefully yes. The first motor car arrived in 1886, and the Ford Model T did not arrive until 1908. Over 128 years and people still exist who are afraid of motor vehicles. Can the electronic technologies of computers and the Internet be that much different—considering these technologies are only 33-60 years old?
Tracking my own Internet and “connected” use on a day where I attend three classes at the University is quite different from my activities on a day that I have no classes. I connect to the electronic world by default. My business is Internet-based, and I must stay responsive to customer needs constantly, sometimes 24-hours a day, and 7-days a week. One thing technology has created is a lack of patience. People connect to the world through their computers, smart phones and other devices—expecting instant gratification—meaning they want their needs met now! My day starts by checking emails. Did a potential client have a question or problem I need to solve? Did any new orders come in, or worse, did a customer have a problem placing an online order? Did the business clients I create websites for (and often answer their customer’s online tech support questions as part of their contract) have any problems, besides responding to their clients’ needs? Knowing I have a short window to complete these activities, the focus is on time. Not wanting to be late for a class, if there is an onslaught of activity, it may require completing these tasks between or after classes. The next priority is any University message or announcement. Although, throughout the day interruptions occur by way of a message, departmental newsletter, or other University correspondence to my smartphone, these messages are quickly processed (and usually deleted).
Due to limited time, and often an overabundance of information, the time spent reading various messages is often quite brief. Allowing too much time for these tasks, which Carr could claim as distractions, may cause delays on other important duties. Personal time using any connected device is usually limited, and as noted in the attached chart, personal online time is limited. Text messages are few and social media exposure is restrained. There are better things to do with available time, including many unconnected activities.
Fortunately, through easy online access of various devices—or unfortunately, by the fact that connection is virtually constant—there is an intellectual understanding of the time spent online. Finding information is easy, and as many professors have shown, often asking the class to “find it online” or “Google it,” in the middle of a lecture when they forgot a particular point of a discussion, nearly everyone has instant access. The ability to source and read information quickly, making the decision to skim, leave, or read thoroughly becomes individual choice. Although this entertains Carr’s argument of excess stimuli, I disagree when he claims, “more information means less knowledge” (Carr 214). A prime example occurred last week. Looking over a particular news article with various links to other related topics, I accidently clicked a link that mentioned the Fly Geyser, and an image appeared (shown at right) on the page (Fly). Intrigued by the colorful image and a desire for more information, I looked it up. More than just the colors provided curious interest. Learning the history and creation of the geyser became “acquired knowledge,” in contrast to Carr’s claims. Learning about this geyser allowed the sharing of information with others, including my son who is working on a geothermal engineering degree and had never heard of this object or its history. After satisfying the need to investigate new knowledge, it was back to the initial reading, exactly where I left off. Carr may call that a “gotcha” moment that satisfies his claims. However, making a conscious decision to acquire new information and knowledge is just that—a conscious, human decision that ignores Carr’s perceptions of tethered distraction.
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. New York – London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. Print.
Fly Geyser. http://www.allaroundnevada.com/fly-geyser/
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. (second edition; orig. 1982). Routledge, London and New York, 2002. PDF Print