Book Review: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, by Nicholas Carr

One of the most immediate physical changes I noticed when I stopped working and started university was in my hands. Years of working with raw wood every day had given them a solid grip and a manly coat of tough skin. Were this ancient Greece, Homer might have called them man-slaying hands. But within months of starting school they began to weaken. To my shame I found myself twisting off beer caps with my shirt, as my soft, pink hands wussed out on the sharp edges. They have yet to regain their former glory. Clearly, the manner in which we use the various parts of our bodies will determine how well developed, or undeveloped, those various parts will be.

But is the same true of our minds? And if so, if using certain parts of our minds causes them to develop, and foregoing the use of others causes them to shrink, then what is the effect on our brains of heavy internet use, or heavy reading, or of avoiding the use of both? These are the sorts of questions Nicholas Carr addresses in his book, The Shallows. The internet is the most powerful and pervasive intellectual technology ever developed, a tool that in countless ways has improved the quality of life in our culture. But are we asking serious questions about the cost at which these improvements come? “When a ditchdigger trades his shovel for a backhoe,” Carr writes, “his arm muscles weaken even as his efficiency increases.” Carr goes on to argue that indeed, the same is true of our minds.

Trading in shovels for backhoes has been occurring since the very beginning of time. It’s what we generally refer to as “progress.” Normally, however, the term is applied to physical technologies, like using bullets instead of arrows, or graphite fly rods instead of branches. But Carr argues that the same sort of development can be traced through what are called “intellectual” technologies, as well. Among the examples he uses in the book are writing, clocks, and the printing press. When man began to write things down, for instance, he traded in his oral culture for a literary one. This has been an incomprehensible blessing to mankind, but it has come at the cost of a highly developed memory. Prior to this, the cultures of the world were stored away only in people’s minds. All it took was for one generation to be irresponsible in transmitting their culture to the next generation, and that culture would be lost forever.

What is significant about this is what recent scientific studies have revealed about the nature of the brain. For much of the last two hundred years, ever since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, scientists and philosophers considered the brain to be a machine composed of fixed, immutable parts. It grew until the age of six or so, but then it became rigid, the neural pathways set for good. But this is completely false. In the past couple decades scientists have discovered that the brain is not fixed at all, but almost entirely plastic, that is, mouldable. The physical components of the brain can grow and shrink, and do all the time depending on how they are used. New neural pathways can be created and strengthened, and unused ones can fall away. What this meant for pre-alphabet man is that the parts of his brain devoted to memory creation and storage would have been far more developed than ours.

But what this means for contemporary man is that the internet is affecting the physical composition of our brains. When we use the internet, which parts of our brains are being used? Which parts are we developing at the expense of others? The answer to this question forms the main argument of the book, and the answer is in the title itself. The internet is making us shallow. The parts of the brain that we exercise when we surf the net are the parts that favour quick and impulsive judgments. Using the internet also develops our multi-tasking skills, but this only serves to turn us into the old “jack-of-all-trades, master of none.” It discourages the linear, logical thought that forms the basis of great thinking, and turns us into associative thinkers that bounce from one thought to the next without much coherence. We become easily distracted, we can no longer concentrate, and it goes so far, Carr argues, as to erode the brain functions that encourage deeper emotions like compassion and empathy.

But Carr is not so naïve to argue that the internet should not be used, for that would be impossible. Just as man was not going to revert back to an oral culture after experiencing the benefits of writing, so man will not abandon the internet, either. But Carr’s diagnosis is bleak. The internet is here to stay, he argues, and so are its effects upon our brains. Just as man traded in his highly sophisticated memory for writing, so man will likely trade in his deep, linear thought for the internet. We can’t stop it, but we might as well be aware of it.

And I think it’s nonsense. Yes, it’s clear that tools do affect our bodies and it’s good to be aware of that effect. Having been a student for four years, I am acutely aware that sitting around and reading all day may give you a fat mind, but it will also give you a fat body. But this does not mean that students have forever traded in physical fitness for mental fitness. If I so desired, I could eat healthy and exercise regularly and perhaps become more fit than I have ever been, and indeed, there are plenty of students that have done so. If the claims of contemporary neuro-scientists are true, and our minds are as adaptable and changeable as they say, then there’s no reason to fear new technologies. Man did not trade in his sophisticated memory forever when he began writing. He is still free to develop his memory to whatever extent he chooses, and no technology can take that away.

But of course, this all depends on the right worldview. If you don’t believe that there is value in memorization, then you won’t memorize, and that part of your brain will stay undeveloped. In the same way, if you don’t think there’s value in deep, logical thinking, then neither will you engage in activities that encourage it. It’s your values that are determinative, not your technology. So what we really should be talking about is not how we think about technology, but how we think about the world.

The Church is very well poised for this sort of engagement. She knows the value of deep reading and the sort of high and profound thought that results from it. She knows it because she obeys the command of her Bridegroom that “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” The Church is sustained by a book, and so Christians will always be readers, the very best readers, really, and they will always be thinkers. The Church can accept new technologies with thanksgiving to her God, and she can know that a thankful and meditative heart is immune to the petty trends of the world. Thus we can pray that those souls who desire something deep, meaningful, and profound in their lives, and who fear the increasing corrosion of contemporary culture, may find solace and fulfillment in the teachings and the practices of the Church, and ultimately find their salvation there as well.

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