I recently finished reading two books dealing with the effects of the Internet on our lives: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (the book-length offshoot of the infamous article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) and Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers. Both are well worth reading and complement each other nicely. Though there is some overlap (from Seneca to Marshall McLuhan) they really delve into different aspects of this topic.
Carr’s book is scientific in scope. He cites a dizzying number of studies to show how our brains are being affected by ever-increasing Internet use, and the data ain’t pretty. Take multitasking. At best, it is a misnomer—we don’t truly do two things at once, we switch rapidly between them, with a loss of focus and mental efficiency each time we make the switch. At worst, it is a destructive practice because it impedes our ability to think deeply and focus in a sustained way. (It was during this section of the book, as I considered the 24-hour news cycle and our easily distracted, instant-gratification culture, that I began to fret that we as a nation are becoming ungovernable.)
The most personally convicting sections of the book were his discussions of memory. The kind of reading we do online is having a negative impact on our ability to retain information. I’ve noticed this myself; I have occasionally tried to summarize an article to Robert—that I had just read—only to find that I couldn’t really remember it well. Part of this is that we’re going too fast. But Carr argues that the nature of the computer screen invites a more superficial reading. (In one study, one group of folks read an item on the computer; the other group read the exact same thing on paper. The former group scored worse on a basic comprehension test.)
I am struggling with these ideas. When I was a corporate trainer, our philosophy was not to teach adults every jot and tittle of content, but to hit the major points and then teach them the resources: where to go to find the information they needed. Of course we would do experiential learning things where appropriate, but we didn’t spend a lot of time drilling content into people’s heads. I stand by that as an approach to adult learning.
Now, the Internet has taken this mindset even farther—there’s a shift from storing things in our own brains’ memory banks to storing them on computers. This is the core of Evernote’s business—store your tidbits online, not in your brain. (Their tagline is “remember everything,” which is odd, because with Evernote, the whole point is not having to remember stuff. Their old tagline, as I recall, had something to do with letting Evernote “be your brain.” Could we already be seeing a backlash against the idea of outsourcing our mental processes, thanks to books like The Shallows? Perhaps.)
Carr also spends a lot of time on artificial intelligence, which I didn’t find particularly compelling. I think his point is that the rise of interest in artificial intelligence has led us to rely too heavily on the metaphor of the brain as a computer, and our brains are way more complex than that. Carr also has very little in the way of “now what?” He admits that he struggles with all the same stuff he writes about, but also reports that during the writing of the book he unplugged from the Internet and found his thinking slowing and deepening again over time. I don’t have a good sense of how plastic the brain truly is. Can the losses be regained? I’m not sure anyone fully knows that.
Powers’s focus was more up my alley. His focus is philosophical and historical as he examines other periods in history in which a technological leap required us to think creatively and intentionally about our interaction with the new technology. For this reason, the book is fundamentally optimistic. Did you know that new technologies have often led to cries that the world is coming to an end? And yet we are still here. I find this comforting.
Powers also seeks to provide real-life, concrete practices that can help mitigate the havoc that extended Internet use can wreak on our lives. None of these practices were particularly surprising, which is good in a way—the answers are really quite simple. I liked the fact that an Internet Sabbath was a big part of his solution—as y’all know, I’m a fan.
Carr in The Shallows wants to shake us awake to the tremendous shifts that are occurring in our brains, perhaps so we will be more intentional about the use of technology. Powers in Hamlet’s Blackberry is equally concerned about how the Internet is shaping us, but is ultimately much more reassuring.