Vail Daily book review: ‘The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains’
Special to the Daily
The 2015 Summit Reads Community Book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr, is a timely read for our modern era of hyperconnectivity and technology dependency.
Ironically, many who choose to participate in this year’s reading selection in order to explore Carr’s analysis of the Internet’s effect on the mind might opt to do so on an ereader or a laptop. The author of “The Shallows” does not deny the allure of the Internet, nor does he speak with the voice of a Luddite who opposes technology, but he insists the advantages come at an immense cost, the effects of which might not become apparent until today’s increasingly web-savvy children become adults.
Carr is quick to point out that the emergence of the Internet is not the first seismic shift that human culture has undergone. Societies are molded by each new medium of information sharing, and he cites as examples the evolution of timekeeping and the colossally pivotal emergence of the written word and, later, printed books. The shift from verbal storytelling to written histories had a profound impact on the brain and on how stories were passed from one generation to the next. How memories were built and how visual stimulus was interpreted underwent dramatic shifts, with books becoming more available and their reach expanding beyond the inner circle of the elite.
LEARNING TO ADAPT
The written word shifted from mainly being “listened to” by the masses to being read individually and, more significantly, internally. The brain had to learn to adapt or, in essence, rewire itself. Another shift occurred as authors began to write their own words, rather than dictating them to a scribe. This opened deeper interpretations and streams of consciousness.
Now, though, for many people, reading a book — a real book — is not as easy as it once was, and the process is viewed by some as outdated and old-fashioned. With the shift to digital texts, the thinking process that was ushered in with Gutenberg is getting another shake-up, and it may soon be unrecognizable. Our brains are adapting to the new ways in which we read and take in information. Though it was once believed that the brain was “hard wired” and immovable, it is now widely accepted that the adult brain undergoes neuroplasticity, or a constant adaptability to changing stimuli. This can be in response to injury, for example, as damaged neurons are regularly put to different uses, as needed.
But plasticity is ongoing and a part of the lifespan of the brain. To illustrate, Carr documents experiments done to discover how the brain adapts to repetitive activities. For example, when tested, longtime London cab drivers had more developed parts of the brain having to deal with spatial memory and recall, but after they transitioned to GPS guidance, their brains underwent another change.
CONVERGING ONTO THE NET
The crux of Carr’s point with this and other examples is reflected in his book’s title, “The Shallows.” With all media — from map reading to books to dictionaries and calendars — converging onto the all-encompassing Internet, and with the modern average of eight hours per day spent on the TV, computer or phone, the brain is losing its ability to concentrate, even when doing tasks away from the computer.
While on the Internet, in general, people explore more topics, but less deeply. Skimming has increased as the shift to on-screen reading has gone up. Thinking is no longer “linear” or undistracted. The physical process of scrolling and clicking through an online text involves a very different mental process than reading the same content from a real, physical book or other publication. The ease with which we can flit away — and back — to any given text, through links and ads, directly impacts how absorbed we are as readers.
Almost any given webpage is a hodgepodge of vivid, often animated boxes of information, and audible notifications chime in constantly, reminding us of tasks to complete and diversions to explore. With the emergence of memes, gifs, Facebook and Twitter updates, information has become dismantled and fragmented.
To adapt to the competition, some remaining print magazines have altered their looks, trying to copy what one might see on a screen. Articles are shorter, and textbooks — the ones that still make it to print — are color blocks and snippets of data that our shorter attention spans can absorb. Not only has our way of digesting information changed, but so, too, has our ability to retain it. Memorization, a valuable function in the mind and a cornerstone of intelligence, has shifted away from the brain to the “cloud,” which increasingly is taking on the role of human hard drive.
There is no doubt that the Internet can be intoxicating, a veritable smorgasbord of information, and the buffet is always open. Carr concludes his absorbing and very readable analysis with an example of the computer, Hal, from “2001, A Space Odyssey,” stating, “As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”