When I was in college, I was encouraged to read and to read broadly. I have tried to follow that advice. “Readers are leaders,” goes one saying. Most of the people who have influenced me and whom I respect the most have been readers, so maybe there is something to that. The reviews on this site are for books that I have personally read, were a help to me, and I recommend (sometimes with caveats) to you. I hope they will encourage you to start reading (if you don’t tend to) or read more and more broadly (if you already do).
Nicholas Carr, as the subtitle of his book makes clear, examines how the internet and a world of distractions is affecting our brains, “remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory” (p. 5). Leaning on McLuhan’s maxim, “the medium is the message,” he is alarmed by the effects internet use has on concentration, deep reading, memory, and our ability to think.
He begins with some of his own observations, perhaps which you share:
“Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”pages 5-6
We are losing the ability to immerse ourselves in texts, and instead are browsing and skimming it: those are habits programmed into us by the internet. This leads to a brief history of Carr’s personal experience with the development of computers, ultimately culminating in the internet.
Chapter 2 digs into what we thought, but now have come to understand, about the brain and its ability to continue to adapt and change (known as neuroplasticity). Whereas in the past, we believed that the brain developed rigid connections and was incapable of changing (the “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” idea), through observation and experimentation we have learned that
“The brain is not the machine we once thought it to be… the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They’re flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need.”page 29
Even into later life, our brains still possess the ability to “rewire” themselves. This has major ramifications for our use of technology since, as we use any technology, we adapt to it. That characteristic can actually be negative if we’re exposing ourselves to the wrong kinds of influences.
Technologies also change how we view our world and ourselves. Maps, clocks, and written language are a part of everyday life that we might never consider “technology” (yet in their time they were). All of these have had a profound influence in the way we think, talk, and live our lives. Consider what life was like before we could “keep” time or follow a map to our destination (let alone a GPS). These things are not bad in and of themselves, but they do change us: how we think, how we talk, and, ultimately, how we live.
Chapters 4 and 5 follow the development of the printing press, then the computer. Carr shows how that each “technological” step affected the thinking and living of mankind. Then Chapter 6 introduces us to digital reading. All of these build up to the challenge Carr is trying to address: our use of the internet is changing us.
Chapter 7 records the frightening effects that internet use has on our ability to think and remember.
“…if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the internet.”page 116
“The Net demands our attention with far greater insistency than our television or radio or morning newspaper ever did. Watch a kid texting his friends or a college student looking over the roll of new messages and requests on her Facebook page… What you see is a mind consumed with a medium. When we’re online, we’re often oblivious to everything else going on around us. The real world recedes as we process the flood of symbols and stimuli coming through our devices.”pages 117-118
All of the high-speed input and distractions of texts, notifications, and information short-circuit deep thinking.
“The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively.”page 119
Chapters 8-10 deal with the rise of Google and how information overload (now through social media networks) leads to a blurring of what is relevant and irrelevant (with the glut of data available to us, how could we just know?); the vital role that actually knowing information ourselves in memory (rather than outsourcing it to a search engine) has to understanding, critical thinking, and culture (especially addressing how our working knowledge and critical thinking areas of the brain are affected by the new culture of information overload); and ultimately, how we can tend to lose ourselves in the medium we are using.
“The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers – as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens – is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines” [such as the real-world “experiences that shape our memory, [our] thinking, and our capacity for emotion and empathy”].page 207
Now a decade old, Carr’s book is still a wake-up call for a society dominated by cyberspace. Though Carr admits the benefits of fast information and the ability to connect with others more than at any time in the past, he is wary of the deleterious effects all of this is having on us as individuals, as citizens under government, and as a society as a whole.
The change he feared has most certainly started to come to pass. One does not have to look far to find the proliferation of irrelevant and flat-out false information (“fake news,” conspiracy theories, Facebook). Then standing around all of it and warming themselves in the “heat” that it creates are those who have lost the ability to think deeply and critically about subjects, having had their minds and memories absorbed into the medium that they gorge themselves on everyday. (How often do you see otherwise intelligent people posting articles that are clearly conspiracy-driven or “fake news”?)
At the very least, Carr’s book should give us pause about the amount of our lives we spend on the internet, in front of screens. Readers of Carr’s book should come away with a stronger commitment to reading printed books (as opposed to e-readers, see Chapter 6), and to know information rather than always having to “look it up.” Though this technology is a beneficial tool for our lives, we should live purposefully so that it continues to serve rather than rule us.