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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Review - The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr examines neuroplasticity and the internet. His conclusion is that our continued used of the internet and connected technology is making us shallow, vapid thinkers who lack the ability to think deeply.

In some ways he's right. But mostly I think he's wrong.

It's absolutely true that our brains change in response to the tools we use. Carr explores reams of research, stories, quotes and history pointing to that indisputable fact. Monkey brains incorporate rocks held in hands as extensions of their bodies. So too do humans consider our tools as extensions of our abilities. When we hold a hammer, as Carr points out, our brains see the hammer as a part of our hand, but our brains also limit the function of our hammer-hands to pounding and pulling nails.

So, it follows that when we use the internet as a tool, our brains see it as an extension of our minds as well as a limiting factor to how our minds can work. Our synapses shift in response, our brains rewire and we become what we do.

Up to that point, I follow Carr wholeheartedly. He's illuminating an important aspect of how we use the internet. We cannot afford to miss this point.

If you aren't familiar with neuroplasticity, the history of communication or the beginnings of information technology, then Carr provides a thoughtful, thorough examination. His tone is conversationally academic (his copious endnotes point out all the work he did) and his discursives add humanity and depth to the overarching story.

If, however, you were expecting a book that speaks to the very people that the title addresses, you'll be sadly disappointed. Carr writes his stand against the vapidity of the internet with long, slowly developed chapters that eke out the information. It seems his intent is to force readers to slow down and dive deeply into reading just to prove his point. He effectively alienates the very people who most need to hear his message.

Carr also makes the classic mistake of futurists. He projects a straight line based on current trends. In the 1950s the trend was toward more efficient, cheaper food. The straight-line projection from that was food-pills. Yet today we have organic food, slow food and local food movements. The straight-line projection of Socrates, which Carr discusses, is that writing will erode human memory. It didn't happen with script, nor with print, but Carr expects that it will happen with the internet.

The fallacy is that humanity continues on a straight line path. It's never happened. We ebb and flow, sociologically, technologically, philosophically and neurologically. Our brains are being shaped by the tools we use. We are changing due to the internet. But we change our tools based on our brains. It's not a one-way transaction. We started with large rocks that we could use to pound things. Those rock changed our brains. But then we changed the rocks by tying them to a stick. The process of intertwined evolution has continued and will continue in the future. Not in a straight line, but in a spiral.

We are, without a doubt, being shaped by our time on the internet. But we are also shaping the internet, creating it to be a better tool. Making spaces of depth, thought, interaction and reflect. We're also using the tools of technology to connect in real life, away from the internet. We're changing our tools as much as our tools are changing us.

What does the future hold? I don't know, but you can be sure it's not on a straight-line from where we are now.

(Note: if you buy the book through the links on this page, I earn a small commission).

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