Friday, February 15, 2013

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains / Nicholas Carr -- a second look

I don't normally read books twice.  There simply are too many unread books worth reading to return to one I have already read, especially now that I am recording my thoughts about the books I read here on this blog.  I did, however, happily agree to re-read Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows when it was proposed by a member of my book club.  I was curious to see if I would take away something new from it on a second reading.  I suspect not, but my original review by no means covered all of the interesting ideas in this insightful work.  You can read my original review by searching on "Shallows" on this blog.  What stands out for me on this second reading is what Carr writes about the formation of memory and the relationship that is developing between people and our machines. 

In my earlier review, I wrote about Carr's observation that the constant distractions that are presented on the internet are having a detrimental effect on our abilities to transfer working memories into long-term memories.  What I did not emphasize, but what is of great significance is the consequences that this has for our abilities to understand the world.  A broad and deep understanding of the world is only formulated when a wide variety of experiences are assembled in a coherent set of relationships that generate practical theories about future experience.  We need not be conscious of these theories, but they are necessary to navigate the world.  For most purposes, our daily, routine experiences are sufficient to allows us to navigate the day, but understanding more subtle relationships among phenomena and their significance requires more careful reflection.  It requires the patient, probing, and in depth examination of experience which cannot be accomplished without stable, long-term memories as fodder for thought.  If Carr's thesis is true, that the internet impedes the development of stable memories, then it must also be true that it impedes the development of a broad and deep understanding of the world.  Over exposure to the internet would have the consequence of making us shallow and superficial.

It is an extremely provocative conclusion, though Carr does not quantify the extent to which the internet has this dulling effect.  One could dismiss the concern by asserting that our capacities to understand the world in a deep and meaningful way are only marginally diminished by the internet and that the intellectual capacities that the internet fosters more than make up for the loss; however, our ability to objectively reach this conclusion after long exposure to the internet would be undermined if the thesis is true.  Moreover, a simple addiction to the glamour of the internet would also prejudice one's assessment.  Having spent countless work hours connected to the internet and countless off-work hours reading, I am inclined argue that I feel significantly more "human" after a three hour stretch of reading as opposed to a three hour stretch of work on the internet and I suspect this is due to the fact that the activities involved in finding meaning in the world are of a much higher intellectual, indeed spiritual, order than the activities involved in the kind of rapid and ever-changing information observation that comes with working on the internet.

A second and more stunning observation that came out of my second reading of The Shallows is Carr's observation that as our cognitive capacities are changed by the internet, they are changed in a manner that makes us more like the digital tools that we are using.  Computers access and process information, storing it in a manner that makes it entirely inaccessible until specifically recalled in another processing event.  Without the growing store of long-term memories produced by thoughtful reflection, our mental activity becomes more like this information processing, affected only by the immediate inputs of the present cognitive transaction and unaffected by a repository of long-term memories connected in a sophisticated worldview.  Certainly our minds must work in the context of some sort of worldview, but in comparison to a pre-internet world view, it is impoverished.  What stands out about our mental activity is the immediate information transaction and as we are increasingly communicating (receiving and sending) information on the internet in social networks, we are becoming very sophisticated chips arranged in a network.  The only question is, for whose benefit is the network doing its computing?

Certainly, these observations stretch Carr's concerns beyond what one might reasonably have, but there is little doubt that the concerns are significant lead us in the right direction in thinking about the internet and its affect on our selves and society.