In his new book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr has written a Silent Spring for the literary mind. He begins with a feeling shared by many who have spent the last decade online. “I’m not thinking the way I used to think,” Carr tells us. “I feel it most strongly when I’m reading.” He relates how he gets fidgety with a long text. Like others, he suspects that the Internet has destroyed his ability to read deeply. “My brain,” he writes, “wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it.”
As Carr embarks, though, he has a firm grip on his brain, admirably subjecting his hunch to scrutiny. He’s self-conscious about its Luddite and alarmist spirit and steps back to take the long view. The Internet, he observes, is “best understood as the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mold the human mind.” It’s similar to other “intellectual technologies” that have reshaped our activities and culture.
By equating the impact of the Internet with the impact of such things as the printing press, Carr is trying to move the whole “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” argument forward. This Web is seismic. It’s definitely changing us somehow. Instead of debating whether it’s turning us into distractible oafs or a superintelligent collective, let’s first look back into history and see how humans have responded to similar transitions. Then, let’s see whether the new tools of neuroscience can detect any effects of our current transition.
The same anxieties that we have about the Internet, the ancient Greeks had about the new technology of writing. In The Republic, Plato has Socrates famously declare that poetry has no place in the perfect state. As Carr explains, this attack may seem a little out-of-nowhere unless you understand that poetry was Plato’s stand-in for the oral tradition of Greek thought. Epic poems like The Iliadwere how the Greeks preserved and passed on knowledge from one generation to the next. Plato is arguing that the new technology of writing is superior because it allows for a more ordered and logical transmission of knowledge. Also, you don’t have to repeat stuff a hundred times.
Literacy won out, but each new technology gives something and takes something away. The scholar Walter J. Ong looks at oral cultures and sees “verbal performances of high artistic and human worth” that are lost forever in the transition to literacy. But without literacy, he argues, there’s no science, no history, no philosophy.
At first, books did not have any spaces between the words, and required a lot of work to understand. They were typically read out loud, and those who could read silently to themselves, like Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, were viewed with amazement. Eventually, punctuation marks and spaces between the words eased the “cognitive burden” of reading. The “deep reader” was born. Readers trained themselves to ignore their surroundings (countering our evolution, which encourages wariness) and to focus on a text. Writers responded to this new reader. “The arguments in books became longer and clearer, as well as more complex and more challenging, as writers strived self-consciously to refine their ideas and logic,” Carr explains. Private carrels were built in libraries; reference books sprang up to help the solo reader.
The next earthquake was Gutenberg’s printing press. Early booksellers were often seen as agents of Satan, so stunned were people by the sudden appearance of formerly rare and precious volumes. (And at such low prices! Kind of like Amazon.) In a virtuous feedback loop, the public became more literate as more books circulated. The sensitive among us began to complain of information overload. The melancholy Robert Burton had this to say: “We are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.” Yet books were a hit, a convenient way to reference important information and to learn about the latest ideas. Naturally, there was a fair amount of pornography and trashy stuff floating around, too.
The literary mind began its centuries-long rule. Scientists, authors, politicians, crackpots, and poets could all assume the same basic thing: attentive, book-trained minds would be willing and able to follow their complex arguments and plots.
Carr arrives at the Internet era armed with the latest brain science. I think that science makes him a little too confident in assessing our current moment and less willing to look outside the lab for real-world effects. Brain science is like the new freshman quarterback who shows lots of promise. Biologists and neurologists assumed for a long time that the structure of the adult brain never changed. In the late 1960s, Michael Merzenich discovered that a monkey could remap its brain—a result that was later confirmed in humans. The current theory is that our brains are constantly changing in response to everyday experiences and circumstances.
On the one hand, the fact of our “massively plastic” brains should make us optimistic about our ability to adapt in the face of our own technology. We’ll take advantage of opportunities (the spurs to thought supplied by literacy) and work around the losses (the ability to concentrate deeply on a task). On the other hand, we can worry that the rewiring now under way might be exacting too steep a price. Is the kind of brain that engages in deep reading and mindful contemplation like a dying salmon swimming upstream with no chance of finding a mate? “When we go online,” Carr writes, “we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”
Carr’s argument is based on the work of scientists studying online reading and brain researchers studying memory and attention. One big problem seems to be hyperlinks. The foundation of the Web acts like a road bump in a sentence. A link causes us to stop reading and evaluate whether or not to click on it—activating the decision-making pockets of our mind. Books present a more passive environment, letting the mind concentrate on the words instead of constantly being on the lookout for new, possibly better words. Carr sums it up this way: “Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.”
So what if we are a little distracted? Maybe the Internet is helping us develop new minds, ones that can quickly process and evaluate information in short, directed bursts of attention. Thinkers like Tyler Cowen have argued along these lines. I may not be able to drink deeply of Proust like I used to, but I collect information from a diverse range of sources and am more informed about the things that I care about than I have ever been before. This is where I salute the genius of Carr’s title, The Shallows. It’s not that we aren’t learning things when we scan our sites and feeds, he argues; it’s that we are missing out on making the kind of deeper connections of which we were once more capable. We are splashing about in the shallows.
The problem isn’t necessarily that the information online is of poorer quality than the information found in books or conversation. The trouble is that we are consuming it in a state of distraction. Carr quotes the neuroscientist Jordan Grafman: “Does optimizing for multitasking result in better functioning—that is, creativity, inventiveness, productiveness?” The studies show that when we try to do two things at once, the attention given to both activities lessens, and we do each more carelessly. Doing more multitasking doesn’t mean getting better at doing two things at once; it means continuing to do many things more poorly.
The literary mind was a mind that could pay attention, and attention turns out to be a cornerstone of memory. With our plastic minds, part of learning is converting our working memory (what you are using to read right now) into long-term memory (what was that Carr book about again?). Carr points to research that suggests it’s attention that determines what we remember: “The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory.” If we are only paying half-attention, if we are distracted by all of the buzzes and dings on our computers, or if we don’t bother to pay attention at all because we can just Google it later, we are losing a chance to build lasting connections in our minds. Connections that might one day mingle and mesh in ways that we don’t understand, connections that would allow us to frame the world differently or come up with a new solution.
Carr acknowledges throughout The Shallows that it’s neither possible nor preferable to rewind technology. He loves his RSS feed as much as the next guy. But because Carr is someone who grew up in the linear, literary mind-set, he’s trying to capture the virtues of our “old brains” before they become even more of a rarity. It’s tempting to feel he’s worrying too much. You may lose an afternoon to pointless Web surfing, but not an entire mind-set. But here I am, making an extreme argument again, when what Carr is saying is actually quite measured and cautious. The Internet is changing us, changing our culture. Perhaps some of these lab experiments are detecting the initial effects of this change. Maybe we’re more distractible, more frenzied, less able to concentrate. Maybe these mental tics are part of the turbulence of the transition, a pocket of air as we soar to ever higher intellectual heights. Maybe they aren’t.
Whatever our destination, Carr would have us reserve a place for attentive thinking. For to judge by history, he is being not an alarmist but a realist in pointing out that the literary, attention-capable mind, though it may not quite go the way of the chanting Greek poets, will no longer reign. When that happens, our culture will lose something ineffable. And we’re likely to have forgotten what it is or was.