Yesterday I published a review of Nicholas Carr's latest book, The Glass Cage, on automation. Four years agon I reviewed his previous book, The Shallows. It is worth reprinting (the memory of the Internet is short). Here it is:
In 2008, Nicholas Carr published an article in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” His recent book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains,” expands on that article in a fascinating, massively documented and very disturbing book.
The first half of the book is a history of the brain. The key concept here is that modern studies have shown the brain to have “plasticity,” that is, it can rewire itself in response to external stimulus. This contrasts with the older theory of the brain as mechanical (or bio-electrical) and unchanging once it is fully formed in your late teens or so. It turns out that neural pathways can be altered and reformed, and that once new pathways are established they do not “bounce back” when the external stimulus is removed. Brains are plastic and mouldable, but not elastic. Carr demonstrations this with the evolution of printing, maps and clocks and how they have changed our perception of the world permanently.
And although he does not use these examples, this may also help explain why the builders of Stonehenge or the Mayan cities could develop such extraordinarily precise astronomical readings for the seasons, phases of the moon, and do on. Their brains were focused on different topics than someone used to getting information from the printed page. They had capabilities that we have lost.
The development of a phonetic alphabet (fully developed by the Greeks around 750 BC) and the advent of reading changed peoples’ brains dramatically. This has been the dominant intellectual trend ever since: what Carr terms the “intellectual ethic” of the technology of producing written works. You sit down, you read a book in relative concentration and peace.
The Internet changes all this. People no longer read books or even articles, they read snippets. As Carr puts it (massively supported by numerous studies), “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.” As Carr extensively documents, the tendency to read short passages, to jump from one hyperlink to the next actually changes the way the brain perceives the world. Our “plastic” brain is reshaped. “With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful and mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use. At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the book.”
This is the crux of the matter. Carr cites several studies showing that if two groups of people are given the same article to read, in one case containing numerous hyperlinks to related information, and the other without hyperlinks, the group without the hyperlinks has a better grasp of the content of the article when tested later. “Research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.” Or, as Carr puts it in one of his many pithy formulations: “What we’re experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest. Google is “training our brains to pay attention to the crap.” or “the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted.”
If all this is true, then how did Carr focus enough to write a 200 plus page book filled with hundreds of quotations and references? Initially, he says, he had a great deal of difficulty. Then he retreated to the wilderness of Boulder, Colorado, where there was no cell phone service, only a relatively slow DSL web connection. He cancelled Twitter and Facebook, mothballed his blog, shut down his RSS feeds and changed his email settings from checking once a minute to checking once a day. After a while, he was able to concentrate enough to write the book.
I was also gratified to see studies that confirm what I have always thought: if you make software too “easy to use,” you in fact prevent people from actually learning to use it and their ability to tackle any problem out of the ordinary decreases.
An issue that Carr does not address is the quality of information available on the web. With information being “flattened” – everything is available, you do not have to work to get to it – how do you know what information is good, true, valuable, etc? Take Wikipedia: a great resource if you are looking for somebody’s dates of birth, but otherwise notoriously unreliable (some colleges have banned using Wikipedia for research projects). And studies of scholarly research papers show that fewer articles are being cited, that is, the breadth of knowledge and reference has actually shrunk. This is due to the reliance by search engines on popularity: the more something is quoted, the higher it appears in the search engines and therefore the more it will be quoted. The ease of finding information tends to impede searching further.
This is a must read for anyone interested in the development of the Internet and its effect on the human brain – and therefore the future of humanity.