November 26, 2010

Will the Human Race Survive the Internet? A Review of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows

Posted in Philosophy, technology tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 2:27 pm by degyes

While the Internet isn’t necessarily destroying our brains as some would claim, it is indeed altering how our brains acquire and process information, and how that data is converted into permanently held knowledge. Furthermore, the Internet—and its accompanying slew of new media—are influencing the very manner by which we relate to knowledge acquisition, affecting our very neurological composition down to its most fundamental levels.

This article is my attempt at summarizing the salient points of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains[1], a book that I found stimulating, thought provoking, and an enjoyable read overall. In terms of this review, there were some bits and pieces that missed summarizing. One that comes to mind is Carr’s chapter titled The Church of Google. While I thoroughly enjoyed Carr’s treatment of Google’s impact on our nervous system and value system, I skipped taking notes on it, and thus, its content isn’t covered here.

Carr’s main hypothesis is that while the Internet and its gaggle of resources give us access to vast stores of information our ancestors could hardly have dreamed of, the very ease and nature of that availability actually serve to reduce our brain’s capacity to retain information and acquire knowledge in the long term.

‘The Shallows’ is not, by any means, a treatise on how the Internet makes us stupid; and Carr never refers to it as evil (though he quotes some who do). On the contrary, ‘The Shallows’ is rife with praise for the Web and how it places in our hands access to just about any field of knowledge ever known to humankind. The catch is to avoid the trap of allowing that quick and unfettered access to turn us into information vacuum cleaners bereft of the ability to deliberate, analyze, and think deeply about what we’ve read (or watched or heard).

The remainder of this review touches on several of Carr’s points that impressed me or otherwise caused me to stop and think about my own online habits, my relationship to (and with) electronic devices, and my information gatherings practices, namely how they’ve changed since my (pre-Internet) youth.

Carr stresses that most of us who spend a significant chunk of our social and occupational lives online exist in a state of mental fragmentation, attention disruption, and—to some extent—personal disconnection. He often draws comparisons to the advent of mechanical time measurement so long ago, suggesting that when standing clocks and eventually portable time pieces arrived on the scene, our very concept of “time,” namely that it would from here onward be structured and managed, impacted human behavior profoundly and irrevocably.

While Carr doesn’t use the term “spiritual,” he does refer quite a bit to the 19th century “transcendentalist” calls for a return to what is natural, simple, and in deeper touch with our more thoughtful and sensitive selves. If not always stated explicitly, Carr does seem to urge us toward—if not embracing—at least not completely neglecting this perhaps more mystical human faculty.

Discussing the Google-Wikipedia continuum and harking back to the propagation of the Web as a common household tool, Carr says that in “the digital marketplace, publication becomes an ongoing process rather than a discrete event, and revision can go on indefinitely.” This is rapidly replacing the book paradigm, an institution since the advent of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century, where an author publishes and the public consumes, waiting perhaps years before a new edition replaces the old one, if it ever does at all. This reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague close to ten years ago, who observed that “news” was then becoming as much a function of reader talk-backs as the (online) paper itself.

Carr spends some time delving into the synaptic processes inherent to the neurology underlying how our brains translate experiences into short-term memories and these in turn, into longer-term memories. While Carr writes that since “neurons that fire together wire together,” today, a “cacophony of stimuli” is short-circuiting our conscious as well as unconscious thought processes, consigning age-old human memory forming abilities to a state of deterioration, if not outright atrophy.

Whereas yesterday we spoke of multimedia, Carr claims that what we’ve got today should really be called “hypermedia,” that is, an overabundance of resources, online and otherwise, vying for our attention. It’s up to us to discern whether the content being pushed to us by those outlets is worthy of our (limited) attention spans. The strain on our cognitive abilities is already tremendous, limiting our ability to internalize the information we acquire. Drawing attention to our evermore limited ability to maintain focus, Carr sites a German study which claims that most of us, upon landing on a Web page via a search, spend on average less than 10 seconds on that page. Carr says that this is probably a high figure.

In the first century of the Common Era, the Stoic philosopher Seneca said that to be everywhere is to be nowhere. This reminds me of the Hebrew adage “תפסת מרובה לא תפסת”, which roughly translates as “if you grabbed it all, you’ve grabbed nothing.” Carr suggests this view as an analogy for how we find ourselves inundated with information; even if we’ve acquired a great deal of knowledge, it’s in such overabundance, we’re not sure how to begin processing it, let alone retain it.

The “velocity of data” refers to how the constant updating of web pages has replaced relatively static HTML—the Internet model of the pre-Web 2.0 1990’s—as the normative condition. Our need to constantly refresh information is best illustrated by the algorithms that govern search engine returns. Although application of SEO techniques can result in better ranking of pages in a search, Carr observes that newer pages tend to get better rankings than older ones. The number of links to a specific page—which one might think would provide a major indicator of a page’s perceived quality, or at least popularity—is only one of about 200 criteria that Google’s search engine uses to determine rank. So, for those with an economic, social, or personal interest in keeping their pages highly ranked, the pressure to accelerate updating is intense and constant. What’s more, the flourishing of social networks adds a whole new dimension to this need for immediacy, and the imperative to keep up the flow of content is unrelenting. Yesterday’s information is, if not already stale, at minimum pushed out of the top returns.

Carr writes that computers “mediate how we learn, think, and socialize.” My particular interest is in the thinking part of this statement, as much of The Shallows focuses on the brain’s declining ability to transform stimuli and short-term memory into long-term memory, and how it is hampered by the rapid pace at which we’re expected to acquire and analyze information.

Carr introduces the term “infovores,” a word describing those adept at acquiring information from multiple sources simultaneously. I like this term, and here’s where I feel the book speaks in a more optimistic voice. Carr concludes by putting forth the hopeful possibility that in the face of the fragmentation, disruption, and distraction caused by the Internet and the plethora of new media, we will ultimately develop new cognitive abilities as an evolutionary compensation [read: survival strategy], replacing the “old” knowledge acquisition and retention abilities that we’ve lost.


[1] Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 2010

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