Internet: a brainmelter?

January 17th, 2011

It’s a familiar pattern: A provocative piece with fragile logic and thin evidence but crisp writing and pungent examples goes viral followed by a storm of discussion. After all, it’s an assault on sacred cows. What follows is on expected lines: A lucrative deal for a book length extension of the essay. Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains” reinforces this syndrome. The book is an improvement on Carr’s bridge burning essay called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, which appeared in Atlantic magazine a couple of years ago.

Backed by evidence in neuroscience by pioneers like Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel, Carr crystallises the most important debates of our time: while enjoying the Internet’s bounties, we are sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply. Carr posits that the nature of the beast called Internet is that it is supposed to distract humans through its “ecosystem of interruption technologies”: a few chunks of text, video or audio stream, a set of navigational tools, various advertisements and widgets. He says that the 21st century man will be busy flitting among bits of online information while losing “capacity to concentrate on a complex task from beginning to end”.  So piercing are his observations that I almost felt guilty for checking my Twitter timeline while reading the book and started wondering if the Net was indeed a digital Chernobyl: the air is fine, the water is fine but it is just not worth inhabiting.

While denouncing the mind-numbing nature of Net, Carr also doesn’t discount its multiple and attractive benefits: interactivity, hyperlinking, searchability, multimedia. The best part about the World Wide Web is that information is now literally available on fingertips. This blessing is inherently a curse in disguise too, according to Carr. “Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us— our brains are quick— but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently.”

But the case that Carr makes for books tends to be simplistic. “By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking.” Carr fails to notice that a book too is a form of technology and not some organic object that was plucked from a tree. Let’s face it, a book also can no longer provide what our relentlessly connected age has made difficult, if not impossible: splendid isolation. But Carr tends to get mystical when the talk veers towards the brick and mortar: “There was something calming in the reticence of all those books (in the library of his alma mater Dartmouth College), their willingness to wait years, decades even, for the right reader to come along and pull them from the appointed slots.” Sadly, ‘The Shallows’ is beset by similar bouts of mawkishness that Carr never manages to shrug off.

While the book’s subtitle purports to talk about the impact of Net on human brains, Carr barely touches on the subject the half-way mark. In the first six chapters, I got the feeling that Carr was on literary auto-pilot with meandering accounts of Friedrich Nietzsche wrestling with a typewriter and Sigmund Freud dissecting the brains of sea creatures.

The Shallows breathes hard in the initial parts when Carr dons a historian’s hat and takes the reader on a guided tour on the genesis of paper to Google’s ascendance to Internet superpowerdom. A more careful editor could have curbed his indulgence. It’s not until the seventh chapter (The Juggler’s Brain), which is the book’s linchpin, that Carr gets down to business. Carr introduces us to John Sweller, an Australian educational psychologist, who explains that human brains incorporate two kinds of memory: short-term and long-term. While the former holds immediate impressions and thoughts, the latter stores all our conscious and sub-conscious impressions of the world.

Carr says that the depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from the former to the latter. “When we read a book…. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory. With the Net, we face many information faucets (remember “ecosystem of interruption technologies”?) all going full blast…. And what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.”

To say something so substantial about a technology that’s only two decades old, this thimble, faucet metaphor seems a bit farfetched. That said, there is much to admire in ‘The Shallows’, primarily for the brisk, vividly written chapters that flow with the swiftness of a river. If only Carr could match his magpie’s eye for detail with an insight that’s truly unique. ‘The Shallows’ is so packed with thrills that the reader doesn’t have a moment to breathe— or to enjoy the deep reading that he so strongly recommends.

The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
W W Norton & Company
276 pages
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