Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains
Nicholas Carr

Ever since I’ve lost God, or rather misplaced Him, I’ve been looking for the prime cause a little lower; within my brain, to be exact. Once I stopped thinking of “my second favorite organ” (to quote Woody Allen) as a fixed operating system but instead as an ongoing work-in-progress, one that you could effect by your actions and that, in turn, would effect you, I’ve become interested in how the cauliflower inside our heads gets anything done. Neurology has replaced psychology and, as it is still a fresh field for me to explore, I am fascinated by the ideas that grow there.

One favorite idea is that technology changes us fundamentally because technology changes our consciousness. Our ancestors of long ago, who lived their entire lives without various tools, might as well be a different species. It’s a very Marshall McLuhan idea, though I was infected with it by David Cronenberg. The way that technology changes us, that it is never a passive tool free of consequences, is the underlying thesis of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Carr moves from the anecdotal and personal (“I can’t seem to concentrate on reading anything for very long nowadays”) to trying to find the reasons why. It’s not just that concentration and deep reading are a bore or old fashioned in today’s infobyte culture. It’s because prolonged exposure to the internet and how we surf the web causes changes not just in habits or learned behavior but in the physical structure of the brain itself.

Like the internet, The Shallows contains multitudes. It is a history of books and reading and of the internet, including an overview of Google (the book grew out of the author’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”). It includes a demonstration on how technology changes consciousness. Clocks changed man’s perception of time (the first people to demand precise time measurement were monks in the middle ages who wanted to know exactly when to pray) and maps changed man’s perception of space. It is an accessible primer on the physiology of the human brain and how experience is transformed into memory and a demonstration of why human memory is nothing like computer memory. It is a warning of the consequences of individuals and cultures abandoning the concentration that comes with focusing on a text in favor of gorging on information in a short period of time.

In a digression, Carr himself admits the irony in the fact that he set out to write a book about the fact that he seems to be losing his ability to concentrate on anything for an extended period of time. To finish his book, he had to deliberately curtail his internet usage, but confesses that as the book neared completion, he found himself going online more and more.

I find myself with a slightly different problem. I’ve always been a fidgety reader, but once I get past the initial phase of looking around, looking at the cover of the book for the umpteenth time, flipping through its pages and re-reading paragraphs, then I am hooked. I can’t blame the internet for that. However, I now find it takes a great deal of effort to watch a movie. It is rare I watch a film in one sitting at home anymore. Inevitably I have to stop to make tea, check email, take a nap, or indulge in some other distraction. I suspect that this is internet related and that it is the similarity of the television screen to the computer monitor that makes me want to mentally “click” on to some other idea. This doesn’t happen when I watch television shows, probably due to the faster-paced storytelling.

Happily, I’ve become interested in reading in a way that I have not in years. An irony to add to Carr’s: I was completely hooked on his book about how books are losing their place as the prime purveyors of information, particularly to sections discussing how human brains work. Having finished The Shallows, I try to force myself to concentrate more, particularly while at my job, rather than get swept away in the tide of instant messages, emails, jumping online and indulging in all the other distractions. I can’t control the world around me, but I can try to exorcise some control over how it affects and if it changes me.

(And yes, I did look at the internet many times while writing this post).


Julie said...

This reminds me of a book I love about the Greek poet Simonides. In the story Simonides has been forced to memorize thousands of poems and composes his own work entirely in his head. He's horrified to discover that younger poets are writing things down, and that the rulers of Athens are having scribes commit Homer's Iliad to the page. He understands that writing will change the way people think, and that they'll loose their ability to memorize complex pieces of information.

the hanged man said...

Julie -

That story sounds like it was based on Socrates' mistrust of writing things rather than memorizing them, which is discussed in Carr's book.