A Reading of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows

“The Internet’s import and influence can be judged only when viewed in the fuller context of intellectual history”(Carr, 2010), writes Nicholas Carr at the beginning of chapter seven of The Shallows, his book published in 2010. And contextualizing is precisely what the author does in this book, where he recounts the evolution of the different intellectual technologies that the human inventiveness has come up with throughout its speciation and evolution.

Contextualization is a reasoning technique that considers something in relation to the situation in which it happens or exists. By situation we mean the space and time where said thing happens or exists, and contextualizing implies often delineating the historical events that led to the current state of the situation. That is precisely what Carr does, tracing the history of the intellectual tools that preceded the Internet. In any case, a contextualization implies always a broadening of the considered variables and tries to make sense of something taking those variables into account.

Historical contextualization has, however, a drawback: when applied to current events: it rarely gives accurate results for predicting future events for the sole reason that distance is needed to fully appreciate the different faucets of a given situation. Even though information may appear to be abundant, a crucial part of it is always lacking: a good historical distance between the research and the object of study, or the author and the event he writes about. Nevertheless, this book does a very good job in contextualizing intellectual tools, summing up our current historical knowledge on that subject, and gives us a picture of the current state of neuroscience and neurophysiology, with a lengthy amount of sources and citations to validate his point, building a steady (even if not inexpugnable) set of arguments.

His contextualization is not a neutral and innocent one. The author set out to write this book trying to prove a predefined idea: the continual use of the Internet is changing our brains in such a way that we are loosing our ability to focus on more intellectually demanding tasks such as the deep-reading of books. His point is that the architecture of the Internet, or rather the hyperlink-based World Wide Web, is an intellectual paradigm that never allows for concentration, calm and focus, since it is an “ecosystem of interruption technologies” (Carr, 2010) with all its bells and whistles such as the aforementioned hyperlinks, images, sounds, videos, menus, tabs, advertisements, popups, notifications for multiple services (twitter, Facebook, Digg, email, etc.) always demanding the fullest attention from our poor brains, and as we grow used to inhabit that kind of fast-paced, multitasking-heavy environment our brains adapt to conform with it, with its quick flood of information, allocating ever more of its resources to that adaptation, diminishing those originally used for other cognitive tasks that require more focus, such as learning and deep-reading.

Contextualization, as earlier mentioned, requires a degree of distance that, although it is achieved in its historical sense, for the author does a good job of explaining the evolution of the mind tools from the writing to clocks and cartography to the invention of the book, Gutenberg’s press and the electrical/electronic media, falls short in the assessment of the implications of the Internet on the changing of our brain, since the data is, presently, rather poor and contradictory on that subject, and his interpretation of the data that exists is clearly biased to conform with his own preconceptions and prejudices. Jim Holt, from the London Review of Books, points out that “The only germane study that Carr is able to cite was undertaken in 2008 by Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA.”(Holt, 2011).

He starts his book with a prologue where he defines one of his pet themes: the technological drive of humankind and the risks it represents for its own integrity. He exemplifies it with reference to Marshall McLuhan’s work in media studies where he stated his vision of the evolution of media and its influence in people’s perception of reality. It isn’t difficult, looking back, to agree with the passages from McLuhan’s Understanding Media Carr mentions. Who could disagree that our focus on the content most of the times blinds us, as users, to the medium in itself? And is it not true that every new medium cannibalizes the precedents, ultimately relegating them to niches or curiosities of the past? But, in fact, do we as a species have any other way forward, considering that inventiveness and the use of technology plays a major role in defining us as a species?

Past the prologue the author continues by presenting himself as having had an “Analogue Youth and then (…) [a] Digital Adulthood”(Carr, 2010). He first used computers at college, and witnessed the digital transformation of the American society, first on businesses and then on personal lives, being effectively part of it. He bought an early version of Apple’s Macintosh in the middle of the eighties, spending almost all of the couple’s savings, for his wife’s dismay, and used it for work and at home tasks. Soon, the computer started to have an impact on him: “at first I had found it impossible to edit anything on-screen”, he declares, “At some point – and abruptly – my editing routine changed. I found I could no longer write or review anything on paper. I felt lost without the Delete key, the scrollbar, the cut and paste functions, the Undo command. I had to do all my editing on-screen.”(Carr, 2010) When some years later he bought a modem, new possibilities opened up for his digital life. There was still no World Wide Web, but his America On Line (AOL) account allowed him a few weekly hours of text-based interaction with the world through email, newsgroups and chat rooms. When the World Wide Web made its debut in the first years of the 90’s, he embraced it, and the story goes on to a more or less common experience we all had: increasing connection speeds, increasing potential of the technologies, more storage, more and more diverse content, social networks, etc.  My own experience, I could say, is not far from that, saving the differences related to age: I was a kid in the 80’s and had a ZX Spectrum at the end of the decade, my first “serious” computer was bought around 1995 and I only had access to Internet in college in 1997. I had, however, some previous knowledge of it and learned to code HTML before even trying it live due to my curiosity on the subject. On this first chapter he uses the infamous HAL computer from Kubrick’s (and Arthur C. Clarke’s) 2001: A Space Odyssey to introduce his fear of a thinking-machine laden, automation and efficiency-focused world. I must say I’m a sci-fi fan myself, having read hundreds of books and short stories of the genre, so I felt immediately compelled to empathize with the author, and was unable to break the spell until late in the book (that is, until he really starts talking his mind). His digital life, however, culminated in an epiphany when he suddenly realized he was unable to “pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes.”(Carr, 2010) That realization was deepened by a feeling not of age-related degeneration of brain functions but a craving of the brain for more and more information to feed its anxious neurons in an increasingly fast pace. Conversations with others reassured him that was the “new normal” state of the brain nowadays, and he started wondering what is this seemingly powerful influence the Internet apparently has in our brains.

The author’s argument for the influence the Internet is having in our brains claims for a scientific basis for the whole “brain change” subject, and that is exactly what he does on the second chapter by informing the reader with the evolution of neuroscience from the end of the nineteenth century to our days, and the discoveries that led to the change of paradigm from an immutable brain in adulthood to an ever-changing malleable, plastic brain that growing evidence is pointing to. It appears to be increasingly accepted that the brain seems to be a bit more complicated than what Aristotle or Descartes thought (and the generality of humankind for that matter) until evidence for real changes in the brain structure started being consistently collected by researchers. Today neuroplasticity is a common word to define the malleable properties of the neural connections and the research on the field is beginning to give us a clearer understanding of the electro-chemical processes endured by the neurons in response to the information the nervous system collects from the exterior thus managing the diverse neural reactions such as creating new connections between different areas of the neural network, strengthening, weakening or breaking existing ones, repurposing or taking over less used ones. The focus here, as it is clear by the title of the chapter, is to refer the so-called vital paths, or the capacity shown by the neural network to, when an habit is set, in other words, when a neural set of connections is created and reinforced, if for some reason that habit is left behind for a time thus weakening the neural path or even making it be repurposed for other function, it quickly gets back to its original function if the habit is regained. That explains addictions, for example, but also gives an insight on the self-optimized characteristics of the brain management system.

After this introduction to neuroscience, the author focuses on the mind tools. He starts by mentioning how time-tracking and map-making were crucial points in humankinds intellectual evolution, and how they changed the way we understand reality. Time tracking gave us a new sense of time as an inexorable entity, measurable and irreversible. Time-tracing was a kind of losing of innocence for humankind: never more would the human being be allowed to rely solely on his biological, nature-given clock. The unnaturally of an artificial time started to embed itself on human beings’ minds, changing them forever. The same happened with the art of visualizing what is around us in a two-dimensional abstraction of space, ever more so with the evolution of the technology. We traded the interaction with the nature for the convenience of the map, and our minds, gaining in abstract thinking, lost much of their ability to survive without it, the old outdoorsman art. And then he turns to the implications of the greatest mind tool and the one that, arguably, had the biggest effects in our minds: writing.

We can consider that writing was a natural development in the process of civilization. As communities grew in size some kind of strategy had to be developed to keep track of various management issues, and it naturally evolved from simple concrete images or tokens to increasingly abstract representations until the ultimate abstraction represented by an alphabet of letters corresponding to vocal sounds. The implications of a writing system were immense, and represented a further alienation of humankind from the natural world. Reading and writing was a new layer of abstraction for the human being and our brains adapted to that with little training (a child, nowadays, requires less than one year to read and write with medium correctness). Reading and writing, although acquired by education, became so deeply incorporated in our brain processes that seem natural to us. What was the trade-off of the adoption of the technology then? According to Socrates, the losing of memory, the death of the revered oral tradition of which he was the grand master. People would rely on written words and not on their own memory. Where do we see this kind of criticism nowadays?…

The focus of the fifth chapter is at one time a contextualization of the birth of computing as a science and a return to the media theme issued on the prologue. Carr informs the reader about the beginnings and great line of theorization behind modern computing with a reference to the brilliant work of Alan Turing and his visionary proposals and reflections, even warning against the risks of his own theoretical machine. His work is of an incredible insight, revealing the genius of a man who could think ahead of his time. The author highlights particularly his warnings against the error of relying in machines, or rather in the all-purpose machine, to substitute humans in tasks that require wisdom, and uses that to return to the media topic presented in the prologue, stating the differences between the traditional media and the Internet. Bi-directionality is obviously the most salient, and that gives it a power and influence that no other medium achieved. Another salient characteristic is the effective cannibalization of every other media and intellectual tool: reading, writing, time-keeping, map-making, books, newspapers, magazines, music, still and moving pictures, the Internet is concentrating and absorbing all of them. A ring to rule them all, towards the singularity?

Carr’s efforts to contextualize the history of the book, since that seems to be one of his main worries, started on the fourth chapter but are reinforced on the sixth his view on the effects the current digital technologies are having on it. The digitalization seems to be the way forward, but the author is worried about the loss of our concentration and deep-reading abilities, and doesn’t think the solutions that include hyperlinks are appropriate, presenting evidence of a less rich cognitive experience on texts filled with hyperlinks than on texts without them. His worries with the electronic books, or eBooks, ability to be suitable substitutes for traditional printed books are, if anything, increased by products such as the Amazon Kindle platform that offer an innovative experience of reading books, with social networking features and hyperlinks throughout the text. I must confess I totally agree with his point: after reading more than one hundred eBooks, I can safely say I don’t see any point in hyperlinks to external sources. They really clutter the text. Of course I love the ability to search, annotate, highlight, underline, change fonts, increase and decrease its size, but those are (in my opinion) non-intrusive features that, if anything, add to a good cognitive experience.

His point on this chapter is to discuss the value of the literary, linear, focused mind against the new trend that is promoted by the digital culture. He argues that the linearization of the mind caused by the introduction of the written narrative and its posterior rapid growth derived to the invention of Gutenberg’s press was crucial to the intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment and the advances that followed it. Reading used to be a form of “training” the memory, and was beneficial to humankind by providing a technique that promoted deep thinking and focusing. However, many see that role of the book as being outdated, “a brief ‘anomaly’ in our intellectual history”(Carr, 2010), reinforced by the idea that “our old literary habits ‘were just a side effect of living in an environment of impoverished access [to information]’”(Carr, 2010). Those who support this line of argumentation see on the kaleidoscopic richness of innumerable interactions made possible by the Internet a fuller contribute to cognitive development. For them, the fast multitasking, the access to information and the ability to connect to knowledge sources in a non-linear, narrative-style way is a far superior experience, and reading a book is a waste of time. Reading books was, before Gutenberg’s printing press, reserved to an elite. Will that, once again, be the fate of the book? Are there neither alternatives nor balances in-between?

In The Juggler’s Mind the author focuses on the evidence for the influence of the Internet in reading and how it affects learning. Evidence seems to be mounting to support a shift of paradigm in the way people’s cognitive process of reading and understanding takes place. There’s no wonder here: the nature of the Internet and its characteristics promote a fast-paced kind of reading that many times is nothing more than a skimming or scanning of short pieces of information scattered through multiple pages. In a fast-moving world our brains are adapting to do more with the same resources, allocating more of their neural resources to quickly process information in a non-linear way, making sense of what is collected in the multiple links. At the neural level the two ways of reading are, in fact very different. If on reading a book the predominant neural paths are those related to concentration, understanding and linguistics, in online reading there is a great deal of decision-making involved, with the former relegated to a less prominent role. Knowledge is taken as an immediate need, but that immediacy tends to be ephemeral, since there is no deep knowledge. This argument will have further development in a later chapter.

The Church of Google is a chapter dedicated to what lies behind the philosophy and practices of the biggest “dotcom” ever created. Google is a knowledge-based company, but its philosophy lies on the corporate efficiency postulated by Frederick Taylor at the end of the nineteenth century that led to an enormous improvement in manufacture production. Google started as a search engine developed to efficiently catalogue and rank the ever-growing amount of web pages that were being created in the last years of the twentieth century. Efficiency was the keyword that originated Google, as well as the notion of knowledge as availability and accessibility of information. The dream of pure knowledge, however, had to balance with capitalism, and Google was forced to adopt an economical model based in advertising to be a viable company. And it worked so well that quickly it became the biggest advertising company in the world, tying up personalized ads to a continual stream of information gathered from its diverse set of free services whose main purpose is exactly the gathering of personal information and serving as vehicles for ads.

Google’s dream of efficiency didn’t stop with the cataloguing of the web. A plan was devised to scan every book ever published and make it available on the web… with Google being the sole copyright holder for those, even if on public domain. The process of scanning the books has been going on for more than a decade now, and was never an easy ride for the Mountain View, California company: actions in justice moved by authors, copyright holders and libraries from various countries were, and still are, a constant. Their plan, according to public documents, is to be able to make the books available in a searchable format, complete or in excerpts, for selling, renting or embedding with advertisements. The author’s position is not against the digitalization of the books, there are obvious advantages on that, but Google’s seemingly patronizing and disdainful attitude towards intellectual property and the integrity of the book as a whole work is not one of appraisal. The search for total effectiveness and optimal use of resource of the company, based in algorithms, is an upsetting one, and embodies the general trend of a machine-driven, machine-dependent world, where the human brain is being fed with scraps of information from multiple sources instead of meaningful curated content.

Contemporary neuroscience is advancing at fabulous and unthinkable pace for some decades ago. Recently new advances were made with new experimental evidence suggesting the storing of certain kinds of long-term memory on the cortical region of the brain rather than on the hippocampus region (Max-Plank-Gesellschaft, 2013), giving a small outdate note to the excellent information provided by the author on the ninth chapter of the book. Memory and its implications in cognition are the main theme of this chapter, and Carr elaborates about the accumulated knowledge on the workings of the neural network in the creation of short-term, working memory and the long-term memory and their implication with cognition and learning.

Studies suggest that the working memory is a short-term, immediate memory used for the gathering and processing of information available in the short span of time. This immediate memory is responsible for the senses, for example, and its neural processes are different from the long-term memory. Evidence suggests that the storing of a memory from short to long time memory requires a meaningful repetition of the task, the old-style memorization, and here is where lies one of the main arguments of the themes of the book: the Internet, with all its bells, whistle, fireworks, multitasking and fast-moving culture, is making the users rely solely in the short-term memory, with hardly any interaction being either meaning or insistent enough to make it to the long-term memory. Even if that decline of memorization can be accounted for with the extraordinary amount of information available online, the author is clearly a critic of that situation, and the title of the book derives exactly from this mental shallowness, which the continued used of the Internet, tends to cause.

The deep-reading of books, in contrast, offers just the right measure of meaningfulness and repetition required for long-term memories to consolidate, for the neural processes in question to properly take place. Carr refers the historical examples of the praise of memory that have been continually degraded since the advent of the thinking machines, and finishes the chapter warning against the error of assuming everything is measurable and reduced to bits and bytes. Human culture is much more that what Google can digitalize and divide in fast to read, easy to use excerpts.

HAL, the defective electronic brain in 2001: A Space Odyssey, makes its comeback in the last chapter of the book, the incarnation of the all-powerful, all-knowledgeable thinking machine, product of an utopian / dystopian (depending on the personal opinion of the reader) society where humans outsource their intellectual powers to the high-speed and immense memory storage of machines in the name of efficiency and stability. This scenario is becoming all too familiar, as the advances in artificial intelligence research and the increasing reliance on the Internet for every kind of human task conjugate to “make our lives easier”.

The search for an artificial intelligence as the holy grail of technology and human inventiveness poses a problematic depicted in innumerable works of literature: what would be the relationship between the human and the machine if the latter was able to emulate or surpass the functions of the former? This question is becoming increasingly important due to the developments in the research, not only of the technology but also in the psychological field. Long-standing evidence points to an eagerness of the human mind to unconsciously reflect their own emotions on others in the communication process, even if those others are simple machines following a scripted set of rules, such as computer programs. Carr exemplifies recalling the events following the publication of the first program that could, apparently, establish a textual conversation with a human being following a relatively simple set of instructions and rules. Developed by MIT’s computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum and presented in 1966, the program would give what seemed to be meaningful answers and pose questions based in the analysis of the input given by the users. That analysis was only syntactical and not semantic, but was well composed enough to trick the human mind, provided it didn’t understand the programming behind it), in thinking the machine had a real personality and was interacting in a meaningful way. This tricking of the human mind is a result of the human feature of empathy or the reflection of human emotions in others. The program, in short, caused a real stir in the American society of the time, and its application in the psychological field in large-scale was even considered. The principles behind its programming were also the base for Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar studies, and represented a line of enquiry in artificial intelligence research, much to the displeasure of Weizenbeum who, like Turing had done, ended up advising against the risks of technology overuse.

The epilogue of the book offers a final thought on what is at stake in the event of an HAL-praising society: the increased minimization of what is human, like our inventiveness and difference, in favor of increased efficiency. The human element washing away, replaced by machines and their set of instructions that, even if programmed by humans, reflects a particular view of society and of humanity at the image of the machines themselves.

Carr is not, however, a Luddite. He doesn’t abhor technology and the realization that led him to write this book wasn’t enough to make him cut his ties to it. He describes his process of writing as a fight against the entrenched habits his full-connected life had created in his brain that led him and his wife to move from the suburbs of Boston to the mountains of Colorado to allow for concentration and focus as a difficult but necessary move. He reduced his connections to a minimum for the time needed to write the book, but he confesses in the end that he’s sliding back into his former connected life: so many are the advantages of the Internet, so many the possibilities it open, how can anyone resist? Today his personal blog, Rough Type, has an average of 2 or 3 relatively lengthy posts every week.

How can we resist the appeal of our technology? There is no doubt that our tools have changed us since we first start using them, their evolution is part of our own evolution. Different tools have extended human capacities and molded our behaviors and thinking processes to lengths we are only now beginning to understand, even if that realization dates from millennia ago. Our use of tools always had the purpose of alienating us from nature, creating layers of distance between the outside world and us. Our brains evolved in that direction, finding new ways to overcome our own weaknesses and do the most natural thing for a living form: survive in the wilderness of the outside world.

The role of technology is, in the end, the main theme of this book. The twists of evolution have taken us to the present times, where our tools seems to be so powerful and complex that they will apparently replace our brains in most of the intellectual tasks we did until now. If this is a good or bad thing we don’t know, we can only speculate. What is undeniable is that the evolution of our brains and of us as species doesn’t stop, and changes are happening every day.

Bibliography

Carr, N. (2010) The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, Atlantic Books

Holt, J. (2011). Smarter, Happier, More Productive. [Review of the book The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember.] London Review of Books33(5), 9-12. Retrieved from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n05/jim-holt/smarter-happier-more-productive.

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (2013, August 27). Long-term memory stored in the cortex.ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 30, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­/releases/2013/08/130827091629.htm