Reading this post may make you dumber. Not (only) because of bad arguments I might make, but because you’re reading it on a computer.
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that as we read more online documents and fewer books, we’re losing our ability to think as deeply as we once did about complex questions.
Carr begins by describing his own pretty typical experience with computers. He first encountered a mainframe at Dartmouth in the late 1970s, bought his first personal computer in the 1980s, tried some of the early online services in the 1990s, and so forth. He describes himself as a willing participant throughout. But then,
Sometime in 2007, a serpent of doubt slithered into my info-paradise. I began to notice that the Net was exerting a much stronger and broader influence over me than my old stand-alone PC ever had. It wasn’t just that I was spending so much time staring into a computer screen. It wasn’t just that so many of my habits and routines were changing as I became more accustomed to and dependent on the sites and services of the Net. The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I’d figures that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it–and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. . . . the Internet, I sensed, was turning me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine, a human HAL.
I missed my old brain. [p. 16]
In spite of what this passage might suggest, Carr isn’t a crank. He doesn’t simply argue that he experienced things this way, and therefore it must be true that reading online is bad for our brains. Instead, he discusses bits of evidence on several topics that together make a pretty good case for his conclusion. For example, he reviews some recent research on brain plasticity. It’s been demonstrated that our brains are able to rewire many of their connections in response to new stimuli, and to do so very quickly–in days or weeks. So it wouldn’t be surprising if our brains were in fact rewiring their connections in response to our exposure to computers.
Carr also talks about the unintended effects of new technology. Clocks are a classic example. Their inventors and builders intended them to be used only to keep track of time, but their widespread adoption ended up fundamentally changing how people thought about time. We now think nothing of having this device dictate when we should be doing what activities, but to people who lived before the clock revolution, such a notion likely would have seemed absurd.
The technology of the book is one Carr focuses on specifically. It’s one we’re so immersed in and familiar with that we generally take it for granted. He points out that the path from the invention of writing to the widespread availability of books was a long one that required many incremental inventions along the way. For example, when writing became easy enough to do that authors could write drafts themselves, rather than dictating them, this likely freed them to express more ideas that they might not have been willing to express to a scribe. Carr concludes that this technology, like the clock, changed the people who used it:
The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply. [p. 64-65]
So, Carr argues, reading from the screen of a computer (tablet, phone, etc.) might not seem like that big a change from reading out of a book, but it nevertheless is, and he fears it changes how we think about what we read for the worse:
A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book . . .
Hyperlinks also alter our experience of media. Links are in one sense a variation on the textual allusions, citations, and footnotes that have long been common elements of documents. But their effect on us as we read is not at all the same. Links don’t just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them. . . .
The searchability of online works also represents a variation on older navigational aids such as tables of contents, indexes, and concordances. . . . As with links, the ease and ready availability of searching make it much simpler to jump between digital documents than it ever was to jump between printed ones. Our attachment to any one text becomes more tenuous, more provisional. . . .
By combining many different kinds of information on a single screen, the multimedia Net further fragments content and disrupts our concentration. [p. 90-91]
Again, although the bits I’ve quoted probably don’t make this clear, Carr is very even-handed. He acknowledges at every turn the benefits of electronic documents and internet access. His reason for writing the book appears to be simply to point out what is likely being lost in our rush to make all information digital, but he nowhere denies that there are many good reasons to do so..
I think what struck me most about this book was that my experience very much matches Carr’s. I’m a decade and a half younger than he is, but still old enough that I had years of experience reading books before I was exposed to the internet. I read quite a bit as a teenager, for example. Here’s one bit of a memory that suggests to me just how devoted a reader I was: I once stayed up until 5am to finish Stephen Coonts’s Final Flight. I know this isn’t terribly remarkable; even I read a few other novels in a single day. But what’s telling, I think, is that Final Flight wasn’t a very good book, and I didn’t even think it was a very good book at the time. I really enjoyed techno-thrillers, but I thought Coonts was nothing compared to Tom Clancy or Larry Bond. But still, I stayed up most of the night reading it just to find out how it ended.
As an adult, I’m far less likely to stay up all night reading. And it’s not just that I now have a family and a job. Like Carr, I find that I’m much more distractable than I used to be, particularly when it comes to reading. I still do a fair amount of pleasure reading of books, but, sad to say, most of it is while I’m on the bus commuting to and from work. This means it’s in bits of time that are typically no more than 15 minutes, which is good because I don’t concentrate as well as I used to on reading. I love to read online. Slate is great. But I probably like them at least in part because their articles are so short. I love to read blogs. But again, blog posts are typically fairly short, and because of this they probably don’t have the depth of discussion that books do.
If you’re reading this, you must be a person who reads blogs at least sometimes. What do you think of Carr’s argument? Does your experience at all match his (and mine), or not? Should I reconsider before giving up blogs in favor of reading more books? (I kid, of course. I could never give up blogs!)
- 13 March 2011