What to make of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains? The book is not quite as Chicken Little as I expected it to be, he doesn’t think we should throw our computers out and he does admit there might be some good things about the internet. But maybe it is because the book has been out since 2010 and I have read variations of everything he talks about in different incarnations in books and articles, that the book as a whole seemed repetitive and dull to me and had nothing new or interesting to offer up. And while he includes some neuroscience, much of what he offers is cultural history – anecdata – an excellent word I came upon in my internet wanderings today.
Carr undertook to write the book after he noticed he was having a hard time concentrating and doing any kind of sustained reading like he used to do. Carr, it turns out, is a bit of a tech junkie, something I was surprised to learn. At one point he even goes off all his gadgets, bans himself from email and the internet and finds his concentration gradually returning to what it used to be. But then when his personal experiment is done he gets caught up in it all again, checking his RSS feeds, playing around with various social networking sites, constantly checking his email. He even went out and bought a Blu-ray player with a wi-fi connection so he can stream music and movies to his TV and stereo.
While he does take some personal responsibility he doesn’t take enough in my opinion. If he is so concerned about what the internet is doing to his brain and his ability to concentrate then the dude needs to find the off button on his computer. But he worries that if it is happening to him then it is happening to others too and oh, the horror! He’s not trying to stop the madness so I am not quite sure why it bothers him so much that other people aren’t trying to stop either.
Carr’s main argument in the book is that the brain is changed by the internet. Yes, it is. The brain, neuroscientists have discovered, is very plastic. It used to be thought that the brain finishes developing when we are in our early 20s and then it never changes again. But, turns out, the brain never stops changing. Everything you do changes your brain and your neuropathways. So of course spending time on the internet surfing changes your brain. But that in itself is not a bad thing, your brain is doing just what it does whether you read a book or learn a language or play a game of tennis or drive a car. If the internet didn’t change your brain that would be cause for concern.
Thing is, Carr sets up this binary opposition between multi-media, distracted, skimming, internet surfing and sustained deep reading, thinking and concentration. He pretends as though the two sides are mutually exclusive; you can have the internet or you can have deep reading but you can’t have both. But they are not mutually exclusive. Sure, if all you ever do is surf the internet and then you decide to sit down and read some James Joyce, you are going to have a hard time. Reading takes practice just like anything else and if you neglect it for other activities you get rusty at it. That doesn’t mean you can never be a good reader again, it only means that you need to spend some time working at it, building your skills back up.
I found The Shallows to be a disappointing book. It is not alarmist enough to make fun of nor is it reasoned enough for me to embrace. Instead it sits at the bar in Yawnville failing to pick a fight or win the pub quiz. Carr does make a few good points about ethics but it gets lost amidst all the other stuff. They may tie in with what Joanna Russ writes about technology in an essay I plan to offer up here for consideration in the next day or two. So Carr might get a second chance to make a bit of a better impression. Or he might be completely irrelevant to Russ and he’ll be stuck wandering around Yawnville never to be heard from again. Oh the suspense!