August 18, 2010
The Shallows 1: A Change of Mind
Nicholas Carr made a splash with his Atlantic cover story "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" which I discussed here. Now in The Shallows he brings a full-length book to bear on the question, and it's a dandy.
The subtitle, "What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains," is very descriptive. In this serial review, I'll touch on some of the evidence he offers, a mix of anecdotal and scientific.
On the anecdotal side is the Rhodes scholar (philosophy major!) who has stopped reading books. The Duke University professor (of literature!) who says her students don't read whole books anymore. And there's Carr's own sense that after reading a few pages he gets fidgety, loses concentration and looks for something else to do.
Is this possible? Do different activities change our brains? Scientific study after scientific study says yes. Rather than being hard-wired, our brains are plastic. If we lose a limb or a sense, the activity of our brain shifts around to compensate. It can rewire itself, even restoring function after a stroke.
The brains of London taxi cab drivers (who use mental maps all the time) are very different from others. Regular piano playing changes the brain too. "Bad habits can be ingrained in our neurons as easily as good ones" (p. 34). Brain scans even show significant differences in those who read and write Chinese logographic symbols from those who use a phonetic alphabet.
But aren't tools neutral? Can't you use them for good or ill, constructively or destructively? Yes, but that's not the end of it. As Marshall McLuhan prophesied almost fifty years ago, "The medium is the message." The tools we use (the medium) at once expand and contract our horizons. They change how we see and live in the world (the message). Could using a tool like the Net actually change us, change our brains?
Beginning with a brief history of maps and clocks, Carr shows how these tools translated the natural world (space and time) into artificial concepts that changed how we lived. A world previously dominated by the agrarian rhythms of seasons becomes focused on exactitude and productivity. Punctuality, unknown and unpracticed before the Middle Ages, now appears as a virtue. As Marx put it, "The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist" (p. 46).
Maps and clocks had such an effect, people started seeing them in completely different realms. Now even relationships could be mapped and the universe itself became a clock and God the Great Clockmaker. And what had become of God the Shepherd, the Lion of Judah, the Prince of Peace, the Waiting Father, the Protecting Hen, God the Redeemer, the Comforter, the Guide? These receded. Something was gained, you see, and something was lost.
Next Installment: The Shallows 2: A Brief History of Reading