The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr, Nicholas
Nicholas Carr has a knack for framing provocative questions. In his latest book, he expands on an article he wrote for the Atlantic in 2008, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Provocative but unanswerable.
When I was a young consultant, I would frequently get my hand slapped for trying to "boil the ocean." Later, as a doctoral student, my advisors would hound me to narrow my research questions to something they judged feasible and I felt constricting. It doesn’t appear that Carr got comparably wise advice.
Carr’s thesis is that the Internet (more precisely the World Wide Web) represents
…an important juncture in our intellectual and cultural history, a moment of transition between two very different modes of thinking. What we’re trading away in return for the riches of the Net – and only a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches – is what Karp calls "our old linear thought processes." Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the fast the better…
For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press make book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind. (The Shallows, p.10)
There are two primary threads in Carr’s argument. First is a review of the development of writing, the codex book, literate culture, and reading. The second is a look at the plasticity of the human brain and recent research studies about how new technologies might be leading to changes in how we think. While I found both of these journeys interesting in their own right, Carr fails to persuade me that they make his case.
Literacy enables substantially more complex thought than was possible in the oral cultures that preceded the invention of writing. Carr is a bit too quick to dive into the development of literate culture without examining how it differs from oral cultures. He acknowledges the work of Walter Ong and his study of this transition in Orality and Literacy, but would have done better to stay with that transition for a while longer than he does.
As for the plasticity of the human brain, my take on Carr’s analysis and on other reports from the world of neuroscience is that the jury is still out and will be for some time to come. Most of this research suffers from the limitations of all rigorous research. The studies need to be narrowly enough construed to generate results that are publishable. Few, if any, of the researchers conducting these studies would ever make the leaps of generalization that Carr does to support his interpretations.
Carr writes exceptionally well, which actually presents a problem. There are several spots where he smoothly leaps from his evidence to conclusions that go far beyond the evidence into unsubstantiated speculation. If you aren’t reading carefully, you’ll find yourself lost in the poppies somewhere. Somehow, I don’t think Carr intended this as a test of my abilities to closely follow his arguments. But you can draw your own conclusions.