Thursday, 4 October 2018
How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember
by Nicholas Carr
In his astonishingly interesting book The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, writer Nicholas Carr starts off by reminding us of some of the things Marshall McLuhan said in his 1960s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. How he pointed out that the radio, movies and television were pulling us all back out of our solitary experience of reading and into a more tribal collective state. However, something Carr reminds us about here is that McLuhan was possibly more aware of the double edged nature of his findings than the memory of popular culture may have us believe. His famous quote “The medium is the message”, Carr confirms, is as much a cautionary warning of that fact as it is an acknowledgement of it.
Because there’s something wrong here, isn’t there?
And if you’re bothering to read this review I’m guessing you are probably more than just a little aware of this too. The way your brain can’t always seem to focus as well as it used to when you were younger (and that’s not necessarily because you were younger, as we’ll find out). The way you can’t seem to concentrate on reading like you used to. Or the way your brain is perhaps becoming more and more distracted every day?
Well, Carr has done the research and he’s here to throw the gauntlet at our feet and tell us exactly why our brains are getting so messed up by modern life... and it’s not just restricted to the technology of modern times such as the internet mentioned so prominently in the subtitle of this book. The internet merely presents a speeding up of a technological process at work on our brains which is, perhaps, as much a natural progression as it is digression or devolvement. Except, there’s way too much at stake here to continue to embrace the fiery call of the digital technologies which are part and parcel of our everyday life. Alas, it’s also seemingly far too late to pick up that gauntlet and run away from the catastrophe that is eating up our brains on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. What we can do, however, is listen to the warnings and decide if we can afford to slow down, just a little... and take a small step back from the way we are, constantly, rewiring our brains. Although, that last imagined call to action, based on what I’ve been reading here, may be just a little spurt of optimism too far on my part.
Okay, so this isn’t a book primarily about the internet... it’s about a long line of things literally dumbing down the species as a whole from century to century and how we are collectively always advancing to worse versions of this behaviour as the years go by.
In this book, Carr asks us to try and think about what it is about the internet, for example, which is being seen by some as an enemy to thinking and defended by some for, what appear to be all the obvious reasons. Yes, the internet can deliver so much content in many different ways... more than we’ve ever been able to access before in the history of our species... but that’s not what Carr is arguing against at all. Instead, taking McLuhan as a brief starting point, he asks us to look at the effects of the media itself, as opposed to the content it delivers. Carr was moved to write this because the internet had dumbed down his capacity to “lose himself in a book” or, frankly, concentrate on much of anything for very long (I’ll get back to how he’s even able to convey this in a well written book towards the end of this review).
And although I, myself, have been feeling the effects of technological overload on my brain for a number of years now (and I’m so glad to find it’s not just me)... I can understand how, for the majority of people, this idea would be a very hard sell.
After all, quick and almost instant access to any knowledge you want at a few key strokes as opposed to flicking through the pages of a book you’ve located which might have what you’re looking for in it? That is to say, the ‘internet way’ of getting information as opposed to the way we’ve always gone to a paper reference or pulled out a memory from within ourselves... that’s good isn’t it? Who is to say the old way of thinking is any better than the new ways? Some people, it seems, think books are totally superfluous now and who is to say they are wrong?
Well... Nicholas Carr and our own brains actually... although Carr has a fairly open mind about the claims on our mental real estate the internet and other associated digital media are making on our minds as a force to be very cautious about, as opposed to a force of ‘difference’. That being said, you can clearly see which side of the fence he has fallen on by the end of the last chapter of The Shallows. And he, like most people, admits he is a heavy user of the internet and all the other technological marvels that make up our modern environment... as reliant on it, as much as anyone else.
And the way he shows us just what is happening is by constantly going back in time and looking at, not just the way things have developed but how various inventions such as written language was having a marked affect on the users that embraced these things. For instance, let’s look at the case of the famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche was always pretty ill and he’d got to the point with his illness where he could no longer write or even concentrate on reading due to some historical problems. He was ready to give up when, instead, he bought an early and unusual, if beautiful version of a typewriter and, suddenly, he could not only write again but he became prolific. However, his style of prose changed too. It was noted by many and Nietzsche himself realised this. He blamed, or praised perhaps, the typewriter which had given him a new lease of life but simultaneously changed his thought patterns.
Carr also goes on to talk about various other historical examples of brain altering culture such as the written word. When mankind replaced pictures with words and was able to write things down and store things, there were big warnings about this dangerous new technology formed of an alphabet because men would grow shallow in thought, since they no longer had to pluck the information from their brains. And this is exactly what’s happening to us at the moment at a later stage of this problem where our ability to pull facts from the internet has weakened our ability to work at recalling things on our own. Big time, if my tired brain is anything to go by. How many times have you thought... oh, I can’t quite remember... it’s on the tip of my brain... and then just looked it up online rather than struggle a bit to open the right mental link to get the answer. It’s getting dangerous out there in cyberspace people!
What’s actually going on here is something which has come to light in only the last few decades... neuroplasticity.
It turns out the brain is constantly diverting and forming new physical links to different things we’re doing but, as one kind of cognitive function is exercised over another (even if only for an hour a day for a week, it seems) then new pathways are opened to make you good at that kind of behaviour but you sacrifice other things. For example, it turns out that London taxi drivers who have ‘The Knowledge’, the complete map of all the roads in London stored into their mind, are absolutely dreadful at remembering anything else you ask them to recall. Because the stuff in the brain used for ‘The Knowledge’ has grown and the stuff for other kinds of memory functions has died off... until it starts getting regularly exercised again. Turns out our brains are rewiring themselves to new functions all the time and this might, I suppose (I’m speculating here) also explain why lovers or good friends tend to pick up a lot of each others mannerisms once they spend a little bit of time together.
Carr’s book is an absolute delight as he takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of history, throwing up loads of interesting stuff I never knew and then weaving it altogether to build a very interesting case as to why the technological age we have reached now is even more dangerous to the way we lose the ability to ‘deep think’ about things... not to mention ‘deep read’ a book (as he refers to it in a few places).
So he talks about the development of the written word such as the clay tablets favoured by the Sumerians and the codex (or bound book) which replaced the scroll in popularity for a number of reasons. And the form various written versions of languages took in various times. For example, when it came to words, no blank spaces separated them back in the old days. ‘Scriptura continua’ as it is now called. There was no punctuation and words in ‘sentences’ weren't necessarily in the right order. So the amount of concentration a person had to put into deciphering the text and drawing meaning from it was a lot more of an involved process than it is these days. So we invented grammar and sentence structure and things got easy for us (and I’d personally be lost without these things) but we sacrificed one part of our brain for another.
Another interesting thing I learned from this book is that, even by as late as AD 380, it was considered very strange if somebody read a book to themselves in their head, as opposed to reading the text out loud. I’m not going to spoil here how we know this though because, well I can’t tell this stuff like Carr and it is all very entertainingly written. It’s also quite something to learn about an invention by somebody called Lee De Forest which he named the Audion... it was a game changer for a lot of technological progress and paved the way for a lot of advancement. And wait until you find out what Google are really doing!
Now then... back to the medium and the message and just why Carr and many others are seeing the internet as the enemy, to a certain extent.
The way we navigate a piece of writing influences the degree of attention we pay to it. The touch and experience of paper can immerse us into the experience in a way reading something on screen with a scroll bar can't. And the influence of the web is huge. As it’s grip became more apparent, printed magazine layouts were even tweaked to look like their online counterpart.
The use of tools like the internet is not without significant neurological consequence, Carr argues. The act of 'deep reading' becomes impossible online because every time you are faced with a link or pop up etc. your brain is distracted by it and has to make a decision on whether to remain or click it and go and look at something else instead. Yes, often related content but you didn’t even finish what you were just reading. And the links keep coming as do the distractions (I’d possibly hesitate to point out to the author that this book has lots of numbered sections which send you to various appendixes... a distraction to reading if ever there was one). And this would explain why a fair few of my younger co-workers aren’t even able to sit down and read a book or work on something for longer than five minutes before looking at their phone. The culture of distraction has become in-built to our systems very quickly... so quickly it’s frightening. We basically get cognitive overload which distracts our brains and possible sources for this are 'extraneous problem solving' and 'divided attention'... the two central features of the experience of surfing the internet. And it’s not just this either... it’s the way we read online, often vertically and skimming the text randomly, which is a big hindrance and is another thing we are evolving our brains to do, very quickly, at the expense of other things.
In fact, various results of researching the way we read online prompted one prominent and respected researcher to propose the question "How do users read on the web?" His answer... "They don't."
And, yes, there are arguments to be made that humanity is just branching off into another direction... another stage of neurological evolution if you like. However, as much as Carr keeps an open mind about things in his book, the more he is brought back to the fact that the cost... in what we are losing in terms of our ability to think, contemplate and ponder things... is far too high. Disastrously high, in fact and I suspect we’ll really be seeing the signs of this in just a few more years down the road. I work in an educational environment myself (although I’m thankfully not a teacher) but I’ve more than noticed the consequences of digital technology on the minds of the younger generation in the last five or so years and, seriously, it is quite frightening. All the more so when I realise it is happening to me too.
One last thing... Carr mentions how impossible it was to try and concentrate on the writing of this book for all the reasons he explores in it. It was a long time coming but what he had to do in order to get the thing done was move himself and his family to a much quieter, rural area and deliberately limit his internet and email access. After a while he found himself able to concentrate on things again and the clarity of thought he used to have returned to him... at least until he finished the thing and then had to go back to technology’s dark embrace. It’s very much like the story Julie Delpy tells in Richard Linklatter’s Before Sunrise about being in a situation which forced her to go without television and similar distractions for a long time... after a short while she found the clarity of thought she used to posses returning to her. This is obviously just another version of this reaction to the neuroplasticity of the brain, possibly even before researchers had identified it and given it a name.
All in all, I’m glad I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember... and I would recommend it to pretty much anybody who has a heart that beats. Not exactly a survival kit to modern life but certainly something which is, at least, a cautionary warning which you may want to revisit at some point when you realise how ‘woolly’ your brain is becoming as a consequence of what you are inadvertently training it to do. It’s an entertaining, if sobering read but... it never hurt anyone to spend a little time sober, as far as I can remember. Definitely give this one a go before your brain drowns.