The writing has been up on the wall for some time now but Nicolas Carr’s recent book puts on the table the basic truth that the Internet has made us think differently. But has it really made us stupid? This is the burden of Carr argument, which he makes scientifically and eloquently. What started as a cover story in The Atlantic in 2008 where Carr said the torrents of information available on the Web are rewiring our brains, making us all deficient in our attention span, has ended up in an entire book.
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains certainly raises some pertinent questions. For instance, does greater access to information actually increase our knowledge? Bolstered by scientific theories and studies, Carr sets out to establish that simply having facts and being able to regurgitate data is not the same thing as having wisdom. Carr tackles these notions expertly with several humorous anecdotes and a plethora of scientific facts to back up his intuition on the subject of our ever-increasing dependency on the Internet.
The Internet, Carr writes, is a system that might as well have been designed to foster distractedness. When you’re reading a book, it’s easy to sink into the text — what Carr calls deep reading — for long periods. There’s nothing in that medium but the text itself. Reading on the Internet, however, is a different matter precisely because it is designed to facilitate rapid switch between web pages. Then there are infernal pop-up ads that float across your screen, or animated banners flashing their messages above and to the side of the text you’re reading, plus there are links embedded in the text itself — all forced to break your concentration. Result: while surfing the Internet the brain constantly switches tasks, something that does not come naturally.
Carr goes so far as to say that no search engine has yet adequately replicated the malleability and mechanisms of the human brain and is not afraid to strongly criticise the creepy pronouncements by innovators on the powers of their products — Sergey Brin’s expressed desire to make Google more like HAL 9000, the “human” computer on board the spacecraft in Arthur C Clarke’s prescient Space Odyssey.
The point, it seems to me, isn’t whether the Internet is “good” or “bad” for our brains. I did partly agree with Carr in his deduction that the Internet has changed us — just as the printed book and the typewriter did. But it is worth wondering whether it is for the worse. On the contrary, my argument would be that the Internet sharpens us, makes us more adept at shifting between tasks, even as it erodes our ability to focus on a single topic, for long periods of time. (Case in point: I took 11 long days to read this book. I would have taken four days just five years ago.)
Carr goes on to draw on neuroscientific studies to bolster his claims: That people who multitask while online struggle to concentrate when they’re offline, that spending a lot of time on electronic devices hinders creative and critical thinking, and students who surf the Web during a lecture retained less information than those who listened with their laptops closed.
To cross-check Carr’s view, I did some quick web research myself — and discovered a 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) who found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text”. This brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, which Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Some other studies suggest that surfing the Web “engages a greater extent of neural circuitry... (than) reading text pages”. Although these studies may not be perfect, they certainly don’t support the hypothesis that the Internet, as Carr is suggesting, is turning us into “mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory”.
The author of two other books and a columnist for The New York Times, The Atlantic and other publications, Carr makes several points about the cultural losses that emerge with the arrival of any new technology. And while his ideas may not really be radical, nowhere in the book does he imply that we should ban the Internet or regulate it for its harmful effects. “We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self,” he pleads.
Overall, this is not a technology-bashing book; it would be better described as a rather detailed study of studies.
What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
W W Norton & Company
288 pages; Rs 1,277