Brave new world

XVII.4 July + August 2010
Page: 49
Digital Citation

Stepping out of the shallows


Authors:
Alex Wright

Ever since the Internet first heaved into the public consciousness in the mid-1990s, it has prompted occasional broadsides from writers who have argued the network poses a mortal threat to traditional literary values. Early Internet Cassandras like Sven Birkerts and Clifford Stoll paved the way for more recent skeptics like Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen, all of whom have collectively demonstrated the paradox that for all its putative threats to the culture of the book, the Internet turns out to be a nearly perfect rhetorical foil for selling books… over the Internet.

Over the last few years, Nicholas Carr has carved out a role for himself as one of the Web’s most eloquent resident curmudgeons. A former Harvard Business Review editor and author of provocatively titled books like The End of IT and The Big Switch, Carr has leveraged his popular blog Rough Type to establish a coherent body of work that casts a jaundiced eye on the seemingly inexhaustible boosterism of the Internet industry and its journalistic enablers.

Carr’s reputation finally transcended the blogosphere with his much-discussed 2008 piece for The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” a rhetorically titled essay that provided the seed for Carr’s latest book, The Shallows, in which he expands on his original argument to take a broader look at how the Internet is affecting our brains, our thought processes, and the culture at large.

Grounding his argument in Marshall McLuhan’s famous prophesy that electronic media would eventually lead to “the dissolution of the linear mind,” Carr marshals a wide array of sources to make his case, drawing on such diverse realms as neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and the history of technology to buttress his thesis that our “intellectual technologies” shape the trajectory of human thought and culture—and not always for the better.

After the obligatory reference to Plato’s Phaedrus (the famous dialogue in which Socrates questions whether the invention of books will lead to a weakening of human memory), Carr introduces his core premise: The human brain is far more “plastic” than previously thought, and highly susceptible to the influence of external technologies.

For centuries, biologists believed the brain was essentially fixed from childhood on. Recent research suggests otherwise. For example, researchers at the NIH conducted brain-scan studies of people learning to play piano, discovering that their brains physically changed as a result of the process. Similarly, a study of London cabbies suggested that their legendary ability to memorize maps correlates with physical changes in their brain structures.


For centuries, biologists believed the brain was essentially fixed from childhood on. Recent research suggests otherwise. For example, researchers at the NIH conducted brain-scan studies of people learning to play piano, discovering that their brains physically changed as a result of the process.


While neuroplasticity may have conferred significant evolutionary benefits by equipping human beings to adapt to their changing environments, it does not necessarily follow that every change to the brain is an automatic step forward for the species. “Plastic does not mean elastic,” says Carr. “Bad habits can be ingrained in our neurons as easily as good ones.”

Having laid the foundation for his argument that human brains adapt in response to external stimuli, Carr goes on to survey the cultural history of humanity’s various tools of the mind—like maps, clocks, and the printing press—tracing the impact of these technologies on the evolution of human thought. For example, he suggests that the rise of the clock and standardized timekeeping “began to stress the methodical mental work of division and measurement,” leading in part to the rise of the scientific method and the beginnings of the Renaissance. Similarly, he argues that the printing press ushered in an era of unprecedented human literacy, with corresponding changes in neural function governing the processing of visual information, reasoning, and memory formation. Those transformations ultimately reverberated in the culture at large, as the rise of the printing press altered scholarship and created a new intellectual world where the practice of solitary reading and reflection became the foundations of a broadening literary culture.

After surveying the history of information technology, Carr brings his argument up to the present day, considering the mounting body of research suggesting that the rise of the Internet is literally rewiring our brains. Marshalling a wide range of evidence—drawn from cognitive science, educational studies, and even usability research (citing eye-tracking research by Jakob Nielsen and the work of Irene Au’s team at Google)—Carr explores how scientists are starting to develop frameworks for tracing the impact of the Internet on the human brain.

For example, a study at UCLA revealed clear differences in brain structure after as little as five days of regular Internet usage: specifically, growth in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortext. The study also found that while experienced Web users display strong activity in brain regions associated with decision making and problem solving, book readers show far more capacity for language, memory, and visual processing. Carr also points to a number of studies demonstrating that readers of online texts retained significantly less information than readers who consumed equivalent information in print.

Carr closes his argument by exploring the mechanics of memory (with a brief digression into Miller’s Law), comparing the process of transferring information from working memory to long-term memory as akin to filling a bucket with a thimble. For most of human history, people have accumulated knowledge by filling one thimble at a time—reading a book, for example, or memorizing a poem. But in a world where the Internet continuously amplifies the volume of incoming data, he suggests, the thimble of short-term memory runneth over.

The Internet’s constant division of attention weakens our ability to parse and digest long stretches of text, imposing a “switching cost” that badly compromises our ability to process information into our long-term memories. The act of deep reading—difficult even under ideal conditions—is rendered even more difficult on the Internet by the constant demands on our prefrontal cortex.

Writing wistfully of a bygone era when “quiet, solitary research became a prerequisite for intellectual achievement,” Carr argues that the always-on cacophony of the Internet assaults our ability to read, reflect, and internalize what we learn. While earlier forms of electronic media—like radio, movies, and television—may have provoked similar fears about the degradation of traditional culture, these technologies never directly threatened the book because they did not intrinsically involve the distribution of written text. The computer, on the other hand, is revolutionizing the way we relate to text. “A new intellectual ethic is taking hold,” he argues. “The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted.”

What is the effect of all this neural rewiring on the culture at large? It may be too early to know, but Carr points to studies suggesting a degradation of scientific research, as researchers come to rely on Web search engines in lieu of traditional indexes and other scholarly research tools—raising the possibility that internal changes in the way people process information will likely reverberate in the culture at large.

Carr’s argument makes for a compelling read, but his strident rhetorical disposition occasionally veers toward self-aggrandizement. For example, when he proclaims that “rarely have we paused to ponder, much less question, the media revolution,” he seems to be placing himself on rather a high pedestal, either dismissing or ignoring the substantial body of criticism that precedes his work.

Carr’s historical analysis has a few conspicuous holes as well. Like many apostles of the printed book, he takes a rather Panglossian view of the Gutenberg revolution, neglecting to consider the tumultuous and occasionally violent social transformations wreaked by the advent of the printing press (see Leonard Shlain’s artful treatment of this topic in The Alphabet and the Goddess). And while he cites Walter J. Ong’s work at some length, he neglects to consider Ong’s theory of secondary orality, which points to the limitations of interpreting the rise of electronic media solely through the filter of traditional literate culture.

These criticisms aside, Carr shows an admirable fearlessness in crossing disciplinary boundaries to make his case. While reading the book, I kept feeling the impulse to put it aside and open up a Web browser to start exploring the myriad trails that Carr lays out for the reader. That impulse went unfulfilled, however, as I had chosen to read the book in one sitting on a seven-hour plane ride, fully untethered from the network. The urge to plug in may have stemmed not just from the plasticity of my own brain, but also to some extent from the structure of the text itself. Reading the book feels a bit like accompanying the author on a long, sustained Google binge. With its dense web of interconnected references and long list of citations, The Shallows seems fundamentally a product of the same Internet it sets out to critique.

In the end, I found myself hoping Carr would hold forth with a deeper, more personal rumination, an uninterrupted stretch of meditative prose that would crystallize the kind of sustained reflection he eulogizes. Instead, we are left with a few fleeting glimpses of the author sitting on the far side of his word processor, wishing for the man behind the screen to step out of the shallows.

When Carr brings his rhetorical powers to bear on his central thesis, however—that the Internet may, indeed, be making us stupid—the book shines. Carr is a gifted polemicist, adept at synthesizing a coherent argument from many disparate sources. His thesis will almost surely draw readers in to engage with the text, poke holes in his arguments, question his assumptions, and check his references: in short, to give this book the close reading it deserves.

Author

Alex Wright is the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. He has led user experience design initiatives for the New York Times, Yahoo!, Microsoft, IBM, Harvard University, and the Long Now Foundation, among others. His writing has appeared in Salon.com, the Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Magazine, and other publications. He writes regularly about technology and design at http://www.alexwright.org.

Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1806491.1806503

Figures

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