Author Nicholas Carr says digital age may be rewiring how we think
Nicholas Carr’s latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, $33.50), says the on-line era is changing not only how we work, socialize, and shop but how we think—and not for the better. It’s a warning that’s been issued before, notably by Carr himself in his controversial article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, published two years ago in The Atlantic. But in The Shallows the Colorado-based writer takes a closer look at the neural nuts and bolts, arguing that our ever-growing reliance on the Web weakens connections in the brain that allow us to read deeply, remember, and contemplate.
The Straight reached Carr by phone in Denver to talk about the possible consequences for students and society at large.
Georgia Straight: Let’s start by giving you a chance to point out that you’re no Luddite.
Nicholas Carr: I don’t think of myself as one. Other people make that charge, but I consider myself much more of a technophile than a technophobe, and have been a big user of computers and other gadgets and the Internet and networking in general. So this comes as much out of my experience as a person who’s benefited a lot from the Internet and personal computers, more than from any basic antagonism toward technology.
GS: Did the concerns you talk about in the book come upon you slowly, or was there a sudden realization about them?
NC: Basically, what inspired the book and inspired me to start thinking about this subject was realizing that I was having trouble myself maintaining concentration on one thing, and in particular sitting down and reading a book.
And as I look back on it, I think that personal phenomenon developed fairly slowly, but I think I made the connection to my Internet use and my on-line time pretty quickly. Because for quite a while I didn’t really notice it, other than to think, “Gee, I’m kind of losing my concentration—must be something to do with age or whatever.” And then I realized that it wasn’t just a loss of concentration. It was that my mind wanted to constantly be busy and constantly shift its attention the way I use it when I am online. So I started to make the connection between my use of technology and what I was experiencing myself in terms of loss of attentiveness.
GS: New information technologies have obviously had a huge effect on education. At one point in The Shallows you mention a recent Rhodes scholar who claimed to have no use at all for books because he preferred hunting online for whatever specific facts he thought he needed. Is he unusual?
NC: Well, not only was he a Rhodes scholar but he was a philosophy major—somebody in the humanities who suddenly says, “Who cares about books? I can just grab the tidbits through Google Search.”
My guess is that he’s certainly not representative of all young people, particularly humanities majors. But I think his attitude is increasingly common—the sense that we can get everything we need through Google and through the Web. So what we’re seeing is that attitude beginning to displace the sense that we need to read deeply and sit down with books and long articles and things like that.
So, unfortunately, I think that attitude is becoming more and more common—and not only among the young. I think it’s becoming common throughout society.
GS: You also argue that the emergence of powerful search engines has in some ways actually narrowed scholarship, instead of widening it. This seems to be the opposite of what we’d expect.
NC: It does. Our instinct is that, because we have access to such a huge amount of information online, it would broaden our horizons, and particularly broaden the horizons of academics and other researchers.
But what seems to be happening—and this is based largely on a study done by a guy from the University of Chicago, and published a couple of years ago [“Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship”, by sociologist James A. Evans]—is that we’re all using Google or other common search engines, and what they lead us to is based on popularity. And so what happens is, instead of the Web and search engines broadening our horizon, they’re actually leading everyone down the same path, to a narrow set of the most popular sources. Of course, their popularity begins to be magnified by the fact that search engines are leading everybody there. So it becomes kind of a self-amplifying loop where more and more people go to fewer and fewer sources, because they’re the most popular ones.”¦
And another reason is because the vast majority of people don’t go beyond the first three search results when they use a search engine. So that also tends to narrow people’s focus.
GS: Much of your book is about how plastic the brain is, how it’s physically moulded by technology and the kinds of attention that each technology demands. If that’s the case, and schools are places where the shaping of the mind is most overt, what’s the overall effect on students?
NC: I think that the more that educators and teachers and parents push computer technology—whether it’s computers in schools or cellphones for kids—the more time kids spend in the classroom and out of the classroom taking in information and messages through these gadgets. And because the mind is plastic and will adapt to what we use it for, if kids are constantly interrupted and constantly distracted through their use of the Web and texting and so forth, the danger is that they’ll never develop those mental circuits that allow us to engage in deeply attentive thought—things like contemplation, reflection, introspection, deep reading.
And so we risk emphasizing one way of thinking: skimming and scanning and gathering information quickly. Which is good, but if we’re not training kids to pay attention, they’ll never experience what I think is the most valuable mode of thinking that our minds are capable of, which is very deep conceptual thinking, critical thinking, all the kinds of thinking that do require deep concentration on one thing.
GS: Traditionally, those would be the typical pursuits in, say, postsecondary study—contemplation, having to attack texts that are difficult on first read, making memory more sophisticated. What’s the future of these?
NC: If fewer and fewer people view those kinds of deeply attentive, contemplative modes of thinking as being important, and fewer and fewer people practise them, then inevitably you’ll see a withering away of those modes of thinking.
And I think this is a way that society has been drifting for quite some time now, even before the arrival of the Web. We’re constantly giving greater and greater value to problem-solving, to fast information discovery, to collaboration, and we’re not giving emphasis to the more open-ended modes of thought that often take place in solitude. The kind of solitary, attentive modes of thought get very, very little emphasis these days, it seems to me. They’re being pushed aside by more utilitarian modes of thinking. So I think the shift is part of a long-term trend in society, but it’s being accelerated by the Web.
GS: Is there a way to preserve those modes of thought and the value of them without becoming a technophobe?
NC: You have to look at it at two levels. One is for society as a whole. And as I said, I think we’re moving—particularly in our adoption and love of technology—away from contemplative modes of thinking.
But then you also have to look at it at the level of the individual. And I think it’s getting harder and harder for us as individuals to back away from digital media and digital communications, and exercise more attentive modes of thought, because the expectation of being constantly connected is being woven deeply into people’s work lives, it’s being woven deeply into people’s social lives.
But nevertheless, if as individuals we cherish more open-ended and reflective ways of thinking, then we have the choice to do that. We have the choice to make the sacrifices necessary to reduce our use of the Web and pull back from that, and—equally important—exercise the attentive modes, whether it’s reading or any kind of attentiveness. So I don’t think it requires cutting yourself off from technology, or never using a computer or cellphone or the Web. It means achieving some balance where you’re exercising all the potential capabilities of your mind.
For me”¦it’s been more of a conscious effort. I dropped out of Facebook and Twitter, and I have a cellphone but not a smartphone, because I recognize in myself this primitive desire that I think all of us have to constantly seek out new information—to feel like we’re not missing out on anything that’s going on around us. It’s very easy just to get caught up in that and never have a moment to yourself. I think that’s becoming more and more the norm, particularly in the last few years, as social networking and things like Facebook have really taken hold.
GS: In The Shallows you also discuss how commentators such as New York Times columnist David Brooks celebrate the Web and search engines for having freed us from the task of memorizing facts. That task was definitely part of traditional schooling—the kind of rote learning that most people would probably be glad to leave to machines, if given the choice. But you contend that this misses the point about memory and learning.
NC: One of the things I try to bring out in the book is that this kind of metaphorical connection between personal memory and computer memory is completely wrong. It’s that metaphor that equates the mind with a computer that allows people to say, “We don’t need to remember anything anymore—we can just Google it, because it’s so easy.” But it’s really only through putting our experiences and what we learn into our long-term memory that we get the rich connections between what we’ve learned and what we’ve experienced that really are the basis for, I think, everything from conceptual knowledge to distinctive personalities.
To think that the external connections in a database are a worthy substitute for the internal, biological connections in your own memory is completely wrong-headed. Furthermore, it’s also wrong-headed to think that if you don’t remember something, you’re freeing up space in your brain to do something else. Cognitive processes and memory are completely different mental processes, so in fact the scientific evidence is that the more you have in your memory, the easier you find it to learn new things and to build up your own knowledge. So, far from there being a trade-off between memory and depth of thinking, they’re actually tightly intertwined.
GS: Almost in the way that if you learn a second language, learning a third is easier?
NC: My guess would be—and I haven’t looked into what we know about that—but that’s a very good example of how learning builds on learning. The more we have in memory, the easier it becomes to learn, because we have a much broader context of knowledge in which to plug new things.
GS: You point out elsewhere that the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates warned that the act of writing would inflict damage on memory. Yet it’s impossible now to think of traditional education as not involving the written word. So that particular technology turned out to be far more powerful and useful than Socrates thought.
NC: Socrates, I’m almost certain, was right that there was a degradation of human memory when we started using reading and writing. It’s pretty clear that the feats of memory that you see in oral cultures are astounding by our standards.
But he failed to understand the great benefits that people came to get from reading—and one of those benefits was, actually, a strengthening of certain aspects of memory, because as even very early readers remarked, there’s something about reading deeply that actually seems to help your memory. You know, there’s a big tradition of entrusting what you read to your memory and realizing that that strengthens your intelligence and strengthens your knowledge.
GS: But how, then, do you make sure that your warnings about our own era’s information technologies aren’t off the mark in the same way, given that these are really early days?
NC: What I’ve tried to do is look at what I see as the fundamental characteristics of the Internet as a technology, and trace the development of the Web and computers to show how they’re moving in the same direction to emphasize those characteristics. And the characteristics are things like hypertext and multimedia and alerts and interruptions and multitasking. These characteristics seem to me to be intrinsic to the technology.
Then, if you take those characteristics and you look at the scientific evidence of how they influence our thinking, what you see is that all of those characteristics are characteristics of distractedness and divided attention. And what we know about the mind is that if you are always distracted, if you’re constantly interrupted, if you’re multitasking, you simply don’t understand as deeply or comprehend as deeply or learn as deeply as you do when you focus on one thing.
So it could be true that the basic nature of the technology will change dramatically in the future, but I don’t see any evidence so far that it will. And certainly the basic constraints of the human brain aren’t going to go away in the near future. There are some fundamental things, like the very small capacity of working memory, that mean you can’t be distracted and think deeply at the same time, and you’re never going to be able to.
GS: In The Shallows you describe how pervasive electronic devices are in your own life. You also describe the process of stepping away from them to write the book, and then how they worked their way back into your routines. Do you have to mark out times when you’re not going to use these devices?
NC: Well, I wish I had more discipline in doing that [laughs]. There are some things I’m successfully resisting—things like Facebook and Twitter and social-networking-type services in general, which I think increasingly are extraordinarily disruptive and distracting, because you’re no longer going out to see a page online, a Web page. It’s these streams of very small messages that are extraordinarily compelling in one way. Again, it goes back to our natural craving to harvest new information all the time.
So I have held the line at not going back to those types of things, but I do find that it’s very easy to be drawn back to the computer and to e-mail and clicking on links and Googling, and I haven’t been as good as I want to be in carving out more time for other ways of thinking.