Nicholas Carr is a first-rate writer, and The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011) demonstrates his skills. Lucid and informed with crystalizing turns of phrase, his style is easy, enlightening, and enjoyable to read. It’s no surprise this book earned him a finalist’s spot for the Pulitzer Prize. Part neuroscience and cognitive psychology handbook, part philosophy of technology and media, part social commentary, part existential pilgrimage, The Shallows is all fascinating and eye-opening prose.
Since the meat of the book is really in the second half, the first few chapters might seem a bit long and mildly irrelevant at first – even Carr admits as much. But in retrospect, their function is clear and important. As Carr says, “The deeper I dug into the science of neuroplasticity and the progress of intellectual technology, the clearer it became that the Internet’s import and influence can be judged only when viewed in the fuller context of intellectually history” (115). These chapters, thus, travel along the highways of these subjects, giving a brief but informative tour of the historical landscape; because in order to understand the impact the Internet is having on us, we must see it, Carr writes, “as the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mold the human mind” (115).
By the time you arrive at chapter 7, the stage has been set for Carr to unveil in what ways “we seem to be taking on the characteristics of a popular new intellectual technology” (142), namely, the Internet. This idea of a technology or medium impacting the user is a major theme (it is, after all, the book’s thesis) introduced in the early chapters and developed throughout the book. And at first glance, it almost seems counterintuitive. Aren’t technologies made to serve us, not we them? While the answer is “Yes”, Carr responds, “The tight bonds we form with our tools go both ways. Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies” (209). He notes, for instance, “When the soldier puts the binoculars to his eyes, he can see only what the lenses allow him to see. His field of view lengthens, but he becomes blind to what’s nearby” (209). Likewise, the Internet, while expanding some of our intellectual faculties, it also diminishes others.
The last four chapters, therefore, dive into some of the ways in which the Internet is most deeply changing us. Broadly, along with other related themes, these chapters cover the way we read, process information, remember, and interact with other humans. One thread that runs through these chapters is distraction. The Internet is a technology that encourages distraction. Via pop ups, ads, hyperlinks, search results, and a feverish emphasis on the now, the Internet presents the illusion of infinite knowledge, infinite connectivity, and infinite capability, so long as we continue to click…click…click. While the Earth keeps spinning and life keeps moving, we become captivated by a screen that promises to deliver our every wish. But at what cost? The distraction that the Internet encourages, through extensive use, becomes the default mode of our existence, such that we seek ever-new and changing stimuli, can barely remember a telephone number, and can neither endure the pounding silence of solitude nor stand under the emotional gravity of a neighbor’s grief.
“One of the greatest dangers we face,” writes Carr, “as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is…a slow erosion of our humanness and humanity” (220). The intellectual faculties cultivated by deep reading, contemplation, and interpersonal relationships cannot be replicated by the Internet. Just as Carr warns, “Outsource memory, and culture withers” (197), if we continue to outsource our minds, at what point will we become more robot than human, more silicon than flesh, more software than soul?
With the ever-increasing presence and predominance of Internet-based technologies, companies, and communication, The Shallows stands as a prophetic witness to the impact the Internet is having on our society, our brains, and our souls. Even with all the advances the Internet has brought to the world, we must not go on welcoming it without scrutiny. To that end, I heartily recommend The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.