The Shallows – What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, W.W. Norton and Company, 2011, ISBN 978-0-393-07222-8
Nicholas Carr begins The Shallows by sharing his sneaking suspicion that his brain was changing. As someone who consumed a lot of online content, he found that his ability to focus his attention for sustained periods of time was getting weaker. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” he writes. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”
What follows is his examination of how the Internet changes our brains, for better and for worse. Carr charts the change in human development that has occurred with each new technological breakthrough such as maps, clocks, the printing press, the World Wide Web and shows how our tools shape us as much as we shape them.
Carr’s focus is on the damage the Internet is doing to our brains. Citing the latest brain research that shows the plasticity of the brain, he advises that we remain cautious in fully adopting Net technologies. “The more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted – to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention,” Carr writes. “That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers.”
It’s been awhile since I read a non-fiction book that was such a page-turner. Carr is a great writer, able to synthesize history, neuroscience and psychology in a way that’s not only comprehensible but compelling. After reading the book over the weekend, I share the sentiments of author Jonathan Safran Foer, who writes in a blurb for the book, “I have not only given this book to numerous friends, I actually changed my life in response to it.”
Carr also strikes the right tone throughout the book. He acknowledges the benefits the Internet provides and cites arguments by Instrumentalists (those who believe that technology is a tool within our control) that celebrate this brave new world we are entering. But Carr is clearly a Determinist (those who feel that technology controls us, more than we control it) and he cites a wealth of neurological research to raise alarm. He shows how the plasticity of the brain makes it vulnerable to environmental factors and how the brain responds to increased Net usage. “The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention,” Carr writes. “So we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”
The most frightening part of the book for me was when Carr describes the ultimate cost of relying too much on the Web for information we previously had to remember on our own. “When we extend some part of ourselves artificially,” Carr writes, “we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions.” In exchange for the vast amount of data the computer “remembers” for us, we numb that part of the body which used to manage that brain function.
Information about the author
From the author’s page on Amazon, we learn that “Nicholas Carr is an acclaimed writer on technology and culture. His latest book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” is a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. A New York Times bestseller, “The Shallows” discusses the personal and cultural consequences of Internet and computer use and, more broadly, examines the role that media and other technologies have played in shaping intellectual history. Carr is also the author of the 2008 Wall Street Journal bestseller “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google,” which ranked #4 on Newsweek’s recent list of 50 Books to Read Now, and of the influential 2004 book “Does IT Matter?” He wrote the celebrated and much-anthologized essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” which appeared in The Atlantic, and he has also contributed to the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, Wired, The Guardian, the Financial Times, Strategy & Business, and other periodicals. He was formerly the executive editor of the Harvard Business Review. Carr blogs at http://www.roughtype.com. More information about his work can be found at his website, http://www.nicholascarr.com.
Science, Neuropsychology, Internet
Reading Level / Interest Age
Grade 11 and up