Book Review on The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr
“Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory,” (p. 5). Carr (2011) hooked me at the beginning of The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains by stating at the forefront that not only has the Internet changed the way we read, react and respond to information, but it has actually changed the way our brains are wired, resulting in a decreased attention span, an inability to “read or absorb in the web or print” (p. 7) and the way we process information.
Carr (2011) extends Marshall McLuhan’s (1964) theories in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in his argument. McLuhan purported that whenever a new medium is introduced, people focus on the content not the channel (as cited in Carr, 2011). This reminds me of what I experienced at my company in 2007 when Web 2.0 was the hot topic. Executives across the company wanted a corporate blog. I would ask, “What do you want to talk about?” and the executive would have no idea, nor care about the content. My previous manager would adamantly state, “It’s not about the channel, it’s about the content. We need to first determine the content and then we will decide what channel to use,” (C. Burrows, personal communication, February 7, 2007). She became frustrated at an executive asking for a corporate blog because they were putting the channel ahead of the content. But does the channel matter? According to Carr, our focus on the content can blind us to the deep effects of the channel. He says that we often think that the technology is just a tool, but it’s not. Carr provides several examples of how tools become an extension of ourselves. The first example is of the writer, Nietzsche (1882), who began writing with a mechanical writing ball in 1882. Nietzsche found that the machine became a part of his writing. Nietzsche said, “Our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts,” (as cited in Ihde, 2002, p.97).
The second example he provides is how monkeys begin to view the tools that they use to reach food and other objects become as an extension of their hand. Carr (2011) then goes a step further to demonstrate how we not only view tools as an extension of ourselves, but our brain rewires itself based on the tools we use. The researcher, Merzenish, made incisions into the hands of animals and severed the sensory nerve. Initially the nerves in the monkey’s hands grow back in an haphazard fashion and their brains became confused. However, after a few months, something astonishing happened. The monkey’s brains rewired themselves correctly and the neural pathways corrected themselves.
The most fascinating example that Carr (2011) provided was from researcher V.S. Ramachandran, who heads the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego. V.S. Ramachandran studied a teenage boy who lost his arm in a car crash. He asked the boy to close his eyes as he touched him on different areas on his face. V.S. Ramachandran discovered that when he touched a space under the boy’s nose, the boy felt it on his left pinky. The boy’s brain map was in the process of being reorganized. This explains the “phantom limb” scenario we often hear about, but more importantly for Carr’s research, it shows the brain’s plasticity and the ability to rewire itself. “Plasticity,” says Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a top neurology researcher at Harvard Medical School, is “the normal ongoing state of the nervous system throughout the life span,” (as cited in Carr, 2011, p. 31). Although fossils can show us evolution of our skeletal structures, we have no physical evidence of the change in brain structure over the years.
However, though what we do every single day we are changing the chemical exchanges in our synapses and we change our brains. This is the nature component of the nature versus nurture theory. We then hand down these habits to our children and reinforce them over time, which in turn modifies the structure of our brains. This speaks to the nurture component. Through both nature and nurture, we have changed our brains over the years.
I think we can all agree that the way we communicate has changed significantly throughout history. Think back to the time when communicating via the written word began. The earliest examples of reading and writing occur as long ago as 8000 B.C. and the first writing began by scratching on rocks. In 750 B.C. the Greeks invented the first complete phonetic alphabet. In 2500 B.C. Egyptians began manufacturing scrolls. Johannes Gutenberg left Strasbourg, Germany in 1445 and created an automated way to produce books. Carr (2011) believes that Gutenberg’s invention was the most important invention in history. Gutenberg’s printing press allowed ideas to be spread more easily, as the process of copying documents became quicker and easier. It affected the lives of people all over the world for centuries. His printing press can be credited with playing a role in the success of the Protestant Reformation (Kennedy, n.d.), the spread of literacy and contributed to the start of the Renaissance (Whipps, 2008).
The next step in our evolution of literacy came in 1954 when the first digital computers came into mass production. The cost of a typical computing task has decreased by 99.9 percent since the 1960s, resulting in computers advancing at an incredible speed. The Internet replicated the Gutenberg press, first undertaking the written word, then music, then video. Carr (2011) points out that the introduction of the Internet doesn’t mean that people aren’t reading books anymore. Even though information is digitized traditional media is still used. Carr states, “When old technologies are supplanted by new ones, the old technologies often continue to be used for a long time, sometimes indefinitely, (p. 89). However, Carr doesn’t think that we will continue to use traditional media as it exists today. He cites McLuhan (1964), “Traditional media is refashioned. McLuhan says in Understanding Media, “a new medium is never an addition to an old one, (as cited in Carr, 2011, p. 89)”.
Does that mean that the Kindle will replace traditional books? It will, according to Charles McGrath, former editor of of New York Times Book Review. This is the first area of impact that Carr outlines. Carr (2011) states that the way we read and process information on the Internet is completely different than how we read and process text in traditional print. Carr believes that the Kindle creates what an Atlantic author describes as “technology-induced ADD,” (as cited in Carr, 2011, p. 222). Carr states that because the Kindle has an always-available wireless connection, every word of the book is considered hypertext. Further, Carr states that hyperlinked text changes the way we read, as every time we encounter a hyperlink our brain experiences an interruption in thought. When we come upon a link, we have to pause for a moment to allow our prefrontal context to evaluate if we should click on it. This interrupts us. Carr says this brings us back to “Scriptura continua”, which is when reading was a cognitively strenuous act (p. 122). I can relate to the distraction faced when reading online or on a Kindle device. In fact, I bought a hard copy of The Shallows even though I own a Kindle, iPad, iMac, MacBook Air and iPhone, all of which would allow me to read the electronic version instead. The digital version of The Shallows cost less and would be more convenient. However, I still opted to buy the hard copy. Why? Because I wanted to actually pay attention. That’s right, even before I read The Shallows, I recognized that my time and attention would be divided if I bought the book on my Kindle and this book review was too important to risk being distracted.
Even though I own all of these electronic devices for reading, my bookshelves overflow with books. I have a bookshelf in my office with all of my books on writing, communications and fitness. My favorite room in my house is the one I designed for reading. My walls are lined with my favorite books; from my tattered copy of The Feminine Mystique to Bitter is the New Black to The Lore of Running, I keep my favorite books around me like a security blanket. My kids have their own book corner, complete with classics, novels, history and educational books. In their room, they have yet another bookshelf, which is destined to keep their favorite books to read before bed. We are a family of readers and yet, I too feel the pull away from traditional media. I sit down to read a book and I find that I long to double-click a word to find the definition. More than once I’ve swept my fingers across the page to flip to the next page. Other times I simply become bored. My brain longs to hit the “Get Mail” button to see if I have email or visit Facebook to see what my friends are doing. Carr (2011) describes this almost like an addiction saying that when he dismantled his online life to right the book, “my synapses howled for their Net fix,” (p. 199). Carr also compares the Internet’s lure to that of a rat receiving positive reinforcement for specific behaviors. The constant source of intellectual nourishment keeps us coming back.
The most important benefit of this book is Carr’s (2011) clearly articulated research on how the Internet is changing the publishing industry. McLuhan predicted this issue years ago and warned that the inability to see how the medium’s form would change its content would cause problems. Many book publishers recognize that the form of a book changes its content. Take the viewpoint of senior vice president of HarperStudio, an imprint of the publishing giant HarperCollins, who says “E-books should not just be print books delivered electronically,” (as cited in Carr, 2011, p. 102). I agree with this statement as I have published five books, Candy Around the World, Culinary Duct Tape, Guilt-Free Cupcakes, Lunch, by me! and A Pet for Emberly. Four of the five books that I’ve published are cookbooks and one is a children’s book. None of them are bestsellers and I’d venture to say that none of them will be. Why? Carr’s statement sums it up best, “Changes in reading styles will also bring changes in writing style, as authors and their publishers adapt to readers’ new habits and expectations,” (p. 104). I didn’t change my writing style to meet new reader’s reading styles. Carr discusses how Simon & Schuster have begun publishing e-books that have video embedded in their pages. These “vooks” encourage jumping around and not reading in a linear fashion. Judith Curr with Simon & Schuster states how the world of publishing has changed when she says, “you can’t just be linear anymore with your text,” (as cited in Carr, 2011, p. 106). My book doesn’t have a built-in video with a visual demonstration for how you can make the perfect meringue or a link to a Wikipedia article about the history of bread making. I realized in this moment why none of my books would ever become best sellers. The publishing industry has changed significantly due to the Internet and the way our brains are wired. As readers, we now expect to be engaged more fully with the content we read. We no longer have the patience to read a book from cover to cover. Take, for example, how the publishing industry has changed in Japan. In 2007 the three top-selling Japanese novels were written exclusively on mobile phones. The cell phone books are written in short sentences with informal language. This is another example of how the technology influences writing, just as it did with Nietzsche in 1881. Nietzsche’s writing was influenced by the Hansen Writing Ball (Hansen Writing Ball) just as the authors of mobile phone books were influenced by their phone.
The second area of impact is the way the Internet, which is causing our technology-induced Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), to overtax us and reduce our cognitive ability. Carr (2011) states that our brain’s cognitive load is the information flowing into our working memory. We are unable to retain information or make connections between new information coming in when our brain is overloaded. When we are overtaxed we find “distractions more distracting” (p. 125). Stephen Johnson’s 2005 book, Everything Bad is Good for You concluded that reading online actually provides more intense stimulation than reading traditional print books, which is good for you (as cited in Carr, 2001, p. 123). However, Carr argues that while the research is true, the overstimulation is actually bad for us because we need to have a calm mind for deep reading. I think about this in regards to exercise. I’m an avid runner and crossfitter. Just last week I reached a point of overtraining, which is similar to overstimulation. I ran and lifted weights too many days in a row, which contributed to me feeling so weak that I fell when I was running and dropped the weight bar on my thighs during crossfit. We need to have the maximum load on our muscles to reach total fatigue for our muscles to grow. But for our muscles to properly getting stronger, we also have to give them rest. Excessive inflammation from overtraining can result in muscle fatigue, loss in muscle protein, loss of muscle mass, and reduced muscle function (Reid, M. & Li, Y, 2001). The same is true for our brains. If we constantly stimulate our brains without providing rest, we become overtaxed and our capacity for thought and memory is reduced. The overstimulation provided by the Internet contributes to our reduced brain function and memory. Our technology-induced ADD lends itself to our diminished patience for engaging in only a single task at a time. At Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center in the mid-1980s they presented the new operating system to a group of computer scientists to demonstrate how many windows could be open at one time, allowing one to multi-task. Many of the individuals in the room asked why one would want to be interrupted in the middle of a task to answer an email. What a shift in perspective just from the mid-1980s to now. We are now expected to be online all the time. If I don’t respond to an email within 10 minutes my manager sends me an instant message and asks me to check my email. We aren’t allowed the luxury of thought.
There are two points that Carr (2011) makes that I would like to respectfully critique, as I don’t believe them to be true. The first point that Carr makes that I don’t agree with is “when we’re online, we’re often oblivious to everything else going on around us,” (p. 118). I disagree with this statement, as I think that we aren’t necessarily oblivious, but our attention is spread among many different things. In my opinion, it’s counterintuitive to say that we are oblivious to everything around us when we are online because that infers that our attention is hyperfocused on the Internet and therefore we are solely concentrating on that content. I think on the contraire, our attention is not on what is going on around us or what is on the screen, I think we are partially paying attention to many things. Think about the mother who is looking at her phone while her child is telling her about his day. She half-listens, nodding and responding at certain points, but she is also half-paying attention to what is on her screen. While we are not oblivious, our attention is divided. I also disagree with Carr’s statement “It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards”, (p. 116). While I do agree that it’s possible to think shallowly either online or with a traditional medium, I don’t think that the Internet encourages and rewards thinking shallowly. The real problem, from my point of view, is that writing for the Internet isn’t geared towards engaging and understanding, it’s designed for one purpose…making money. When one writes for the web, they are writing for Search Engine Optimization (SEO), trying to trick Google algorithm to deem their content worthy. The owners of websites and blogs, for the most part, aren’t writing to help increase a reader’s knowledge, they are writing to attack advertisers and increased SEO ratings. The Internet rewards Adclick words, not engaging content. That is the real problem.
In conclusion, The Shallows provides fascinating research on how the Internet is changing our brains. After reading this book, the reader will understand how the Internet has not only changed the way we read, react and respond to information, but how it has changed the publishing industry and our attention spans. While I agree with Carr (2011) that the Internet has introduced a new normal, unlike Carr I don’t view it as a negative. This isn’t the first time our minds have been remapped to adapt to a new medium of obtaining information. From newspapers to the radio to television to the phone to the Internet, technology is constantly evolving. Think about how much has changed from oral storytelling to the written word to the Gutenberg printing press to the Internet. The way we communicate has changed significantly over the years. Even the way we speak and write has changed dramatically over the years. Try reading a letter from 19th century. It’s difficult to understand because we don’t talk the same today. We have moved to more informal writing over the years. The Internet has guided us to the next step in this direction. Carr admits that from the beginning of time the channel is often debated, with critics decrying it and enthusiasts touting it. I feel that Carr is another one of the critics, decrying new technology and wishing to go back in time. People are often resistant to change, but change enables us to grow. I agree with Carr that the Internet has rewired our brains, and I agree with Carr that the way our brains are rewired has resulted in significant changes in our publishing industry and the way we read and process information, however I don’t think this change is bad. Over the evolution of time we shouldn’t go backwards, but rather move forward. I am excited about the future and the new technologies it will introduce. This isn’t the first time that a technology has changed the way we process information and it won’t be the last. We can have great success embrace this change rather than resist it.
Carr, N. (2011). The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to Our Brains. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Hansen Writing Ball (n.d.) Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hansen_Writing_Ball#cite_note-3 on May 22, 2014.
Ihde, D. (2002). Bodies in Technology. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Kennedy, R. (n.d.) What Impact Did the Invention of the Printing Press Have on the Spread of Religion? Synonym. Retrieved from http://classroom.synonym.com/impact-did-invention-printing-press-spread-religion-6617.html on May 24, 2014.
Reid, M.B. and Li, Y.P, (2001). Cytokines and oxidative signaling in skeletal muscle. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica. 171(3), 225-232.
Whipps, H. (2008, May 26). How Gutenberg Changed the World. Livescience. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/2569-gutenberg-changed-world.html.