The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains

To kick off the first post of 2012 we have Danielle Whitburn, reviewing the Pulitzer prize finalist and international bestseller that attempts to explain how the internet has changed us.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr
384 pages. Atlantic Books; 2010.

The rise of the information age, as represented by the Internet, is often lauded as helping us become smarter. Whether you’re looking to become smarter academically, save time and money, or just access more information and what’s happening in the world around you, the internet is posited as an answer to a long-standing problem: how to become a better version of yourself using the least amount of energy. Or, in our increasingly information-saturated world, how to become better in the shortest amount of time.

It is this assumption that Carr questions in this rather renowned critique of the web (it was, after all, a finalist for 2011’s Pultizer and PEN Center prizes and translated into over 20 languages). Carr tracks the rise of the internet most notably, and unsurprisingly, through Google and Facebook. Unlike our surface scanning of these everyday internet tools, however, Carr tracks their popularity from the inside: what the motives of these companies initially were, and how they have changed and adapted to our cultural and psychological tendencies over time. Writing in the style of a confidante (using rhetorical questions and a sense of divulging a secret), Carr asserts that the internet is indeed informing us, but in a most unhelpful way. Simply put, the information age is raising idiots under the guise of informing them.

But how does Carr assert such a blasphemous statement in our age of net adoration? He starts from the beginning, the now almost unimaginable age: the age without the net. In this pre-computerized age, most information was gleaned from books. To glean information from books, one first has to learn to skim-read, but skim-read in a contextual manner; to find the piece of information we want, we first must be looking for it and second will find related information around it to give that information context. As such, to read books is to read in depth. It is this characteristic of books, Carr claims, that engenders inspiration and thought: we have enough time, quiet, and context with which to think of new ideas. Better still, because these ideas are generated in a calm atmosphere and in context, they are well thought out: they make sense. This leads Carr to attribute many of our most inspired philosophy and invention to this age of reading in depth, when we could devote time to critical study.

The invention of the net was successful, Carr claims, because it caters to our biological tendencies rather than our rational ones. Through books, we trained ourselves to become more rationally calm and immersed in the subject. The internet, however, is attractive to our sense of play: our love of distraction. Pop-ups and links saturate our every sight as we scan numerous pieces of information: advertising, gaming, and increasingly material that might appeal to us based on past searches. We click, click, click: but not for any rational thought out reason. It is more for our love of distraction than information that we become addicted to sites like Facebook. They offer us the paradox of the information age: being informed about things of little or no significance. Yet because of our biological tendencies, which seek for opportunity and threat, we feel that to not have access to that information is to be out of the loop, forgotten. Carr’s explanation of our strengthening ties to the net is well-supported, well-thought out, despite his confession to the same addiction. It is easier to agree with his argument not only because it makes sense, but also because he writes as a comrade rather than a condemner, a downfall of many past net critics. Plus, it is very easy to read.

The above arguments fold nicely into Carr’s main claim: that the Internet is actually making us dumber. Pairing an information overload (which paradoxically provides us with too much information for our comprehension) with the billion-dollar business that has for many years been distraction, the Internet is for many just another example of fool’s gold: waste posing as wisdom. An information overload means there is no one to edit the information provided: the net holds too much junk. The net’s distraction attraction stops us from being able to read in depth, thus curbing inspired ideas that might otherwise have flourished. All of the net’s smoke and mirrors act as actors in a typical fable setting, with Google the arch-enemy who profits from the peasants click by click.

An elegantly evidenced tale, one believes Carr, but in a hopeless, defeated sense. We can escape the web for a few days, but in a world where knowledge and power are intimately intertwined with being aware of all that happens, the net holds the key to success in more ways than one. This book is a must for those interested in how their own brain patterns develop, but it is a far cry from being a self-help book or a key to increased brainpower. It’s a great argument; more’s the pity for the solution.

Danielle Whitburn is a PR and events co-ordinator for an advertising agency in Auckland, New Zealand. She regularly blogs, reviews and covers events for newspapers across the region. Find her on Twitter and read her blog.

If you’re interested in writing a book or film review for Behind the Spin, get it touch with the section editor Clare Callery via email: cs.callery @ (no spaces)




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