I recently enjoyed the audiobook version of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Yes, I did the audiobook version. Sometimes while I was driving. At double playback speed. Yes, I get the irony…or hypocrisy?
In The Shallows, Mr. Carr chronicles the history of various ways we have dessimated information over the centuries, from oral tradition, to books, newspapers, radios, televisions, cable TV, and then the rise of the Internet and associated technologies. As he describes, it seems that with every new medium, there are some who proclaim that the world will go to hell in a hand-basket because of the new medium will undoubtedly corrupt our minds and even our very souls. Is the Internet and computer technology any different or is there something unique to technology that can cause a long-lasting negative impact on individuals and society as a whole?
Mr. Carr makes a compelling case that, by it’s very nature, the Internet (I will include other technologies as well when I use “Internet”) is rewiring our brains for a short attention span – to live in “the shallows.” He cites a number of studies that demonstrate how multitasking is a myth (we task switch and those who multitask the most tend to be the worst at it) and that some of our deep, critical thinking skills might atrophy to a degree because of lack of use.
For instance, when we read text on the Internet that contains many hyperlinks (e.g., while reading a Wikipedia entry), our reading is interrupting because every time we see a hyperlink we must decide whether to pursue the link. This disrupts the information processing. Also, as Mr. Carr describes, in order to move information from short-term memory to long-term memory, some uninterrupted time is required. If we find useful information on the web but then quickly browse to other information (e.g., follow links, go to Facebook, online chat), our brain is not given the time in needs to store the original information. In essence, our brain’s resources are allocated to attending to the new information/task at hand instead of moving the original information into long-term memory.
One might be tempted to say that we don’t really need to store information into long-term memory nowadays. Hey, we can just google it or go to Wikipedia, right? This doesn’t appear to be the case. Mr. Carr cites other research to indicate that many of our thinking skills are dependent upon information stored in our brains. Thus, we are unable to do a significant amount of our deep thinking without accessing information stored in our long-term memories.
I love technology, and believe we are amazingly adaptive creatures. But we do have our limits. In ways, we did not evolve to live in the world in which we now live. For example, we need about the same amount of sleep nowadays (still around 8 hours) as we did thousands of years ago. These things cannot change overnight. Yet, now we have the Internet and other technologies that stay on 24-7…they beckon us like the call of the Siren. We sleep on average about one hour less per night than we did 20-30 years ago. Maybe that’s why there’s been a proliferation of antidepressant medication and therapy, but Americans are still no happier than they were back then.
Although every generation seems to believe that the advent of new media technologies will spell doom (or at least cause serious problems) in our society, Mr. Carr makes a strong case for how the Internet and other technologies are different than those from the past. We could be in some real trouble. Are the dangers of technology overblown? Will we adapt as we have in the past? I’d say time will tell, but technology is evolving at such a breakneck pace that I’m not sure how we can keep up sometimes.
To read some more about this topic, please check out some of my previous posts:
If you have ideas about this, please post your comments!