I've always been one for pop neurology and scare journalism, so this week I read The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Equal parts communications history, neurological case studies, and screeching polemic, Carr's book promotes an interesting theory, but fails to prove the conclusion he is obviously trying to make: that the Internet is making us think more shallowly, and that literacy itself may be at stake as the result of this brave new invention.
The theory, in the micro-sense, is sound: the act of browsing the Internet makes us skim a lot more than we read, and the constant presence of ads, hyperlinks, etc. makes it hard to focus on any one article or blog for too long, since after all, why read a scholarly article about Latin cognates when Plants vs. Zombies is just a screen away, and Angry Birds is sitting uncompleted on your smartphone, stuck on that goddamn level with the stone train Jesus that level is frustrating. In addition, the fact that everything is available online is causing us to take our memories for granted, not allowing our memories to filter through our consciousness but instead relying too heavily on external aids. Of course, a book is also an external aid to memory, but Carr apparently gives books a pass. Because they don't have hyperlinks, or something. And that makes all the difference!
I have anecdotal -- and thus entirely scientific -- proof that part of his theory is correct. Earlier last year I worked as basically an Internet stalker. Without getting into the details, I'll just say that it's a job that required a lot of scanning, a lot of hyperlink clicking, and I never spent more than thirty seconds on a single page (more like ten). And after I finished the day's stalking, my distractibility was one bajillion times worse (actual number). I could feel my mind slipping whenever I tried to read fiction, refusing to stay on the page. And normally I like fiction, and don't find myself distracted when reading (TV, on the other hand...).
The book, though, kinda veers off its own path when Carr makes the bold claim that this newer, "shallower" way of thinking will mean the end of intellectualism, nay, perhaps even of Western culture itself. Who's to say that a restive, undistracted mind is automatically better than one that mimics the rhythms of the Internet? I mean, I sure prefer it for myself... but Carr doesn't prove that your brain is worse on the Internet, just different. He doesn't even seem to take seriously the (completely credible) hypothesis that our brains will adapt to new environments. Early on in the book he brings up Socrates' hypothesis that writing will ruin our memories and lead to intellectual laziness, and dismisses it, roundly. But by dismissing the potential positives of the "Internet mind," he is doing the exact same thing, and it's not even as good a dismissal as Socrates', since (I assume) he was not wearing a toga while writing this book.
The statistics were also faulty, I thought, because pretty much everyone included in these studies would have to be adults, due to the strict regulations re: using minors as clinical research subjects. Would Carr's theory hold up if he tested the attention span/reading speed/eye tracking of "digital natives," people who don't remember a time before the Internet? I mean, if you used a time machine and brought a caveman into the Renaissance, he would also show an immense failure to adapt to books, which again, Carr points as an example of technology that has been wholly beneficial to mankind. This part of the book honestly comes off as a grumpy old man not understanding kids these days.
In short, I think this is a worthwhile subject that needs to be studied further, perhaps next time by someone without so many preconceived notions. I also think it repeated itself a lot and could have been about fifty pages shorter, but hey! I am one of those easily-distracted Internet users. I sort of get the feeling that Carr is one of those people who thinks Idiocracy is a documentary.