The Block Island Times

The Shallows: How the internet is rearranging our brains

By Renee Meyer | Jun 26, 2013

As our society continues its rush to embrace all things new in the tech world, sometimes we have to sit back and question whether this is truly a good thing; or at least question how it has changed our lives. Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains” — which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011 — does just that.

As all the devices around us are getting “smarter” (think of cars that park themselves), are we getting dumber? This is a question we hate to ask ourselves. We love the convenience of our cell phones, our word processors, our Google searches. We drink at the fountain of information. So does Carr. We most likely would never choose to completely abandon our new-found tools, (neither would Carr), but we do need to understand the influence all this has on our lives. We need to determine for ourselves whether technology is a tool that we are using, or whether it is, in some way, using us.

For this reader, it is a welcome relief to know that there are scholars out there who are continuing in the tradition of Marshall McLuhan and applying his theory that “the medium is the message” to informational technologies such as the internet, cell phones — especially those “smart” ones — and e-readers.

I first encountered McLuhan in a college course around 1980. McLuhan’s “Understanding Media” was published in 1964. It explored the idea that the content put forth by media was secondary to the form of the media itself. That is to say, how we receive our information matters as much as what that information may be, and more importantly, how much of that information we actually absorb and learn. For example, your experience and enjoyment of a Red Sox game varies depending upon whether you experience it live at Fenway, listen to it on the radio, watch it on television, or in the most recent development, follow it via an “app” on your phone. Likewise, listening to music at a live concert differs vastly from listening to the same music on a compact disc.

Carr not only takes us through the work of McLuhan, but of those who study the brain. The prevailing notion throughout most of the twentieth century was that the adult brain was “fixed.” It was somehow molded throughout childhood and then became stagnant, so to speak. Recently, scientists have discovered that that is not so. It may seem obvious to us now, but it has been discovered only fairly recently that the brain is capable of making endless reconnections in order to adapt to changing circumstances. Throughout our lives we all mix our own personal cocktails of neural networks. The things we do over and over again are the things we really learn, the things we become experts at. As Malcolm Gladwell concluded in his book “Outliers” professional musicians owe more to their success from hours and hours of practicing than to some innate talent.

After exploring what modern science has discovered about the plasticity of our brains, Carr loops back to the origins of written language and the development of the book. From primitive scratching on stones to Gutenberg’s printing press, all along the way there have been those who lauded the developments, and those who have been skeptical of each one. Even as the Greek philosophers may have embraced the written word, they debated the implications of the abandonment of the oral traditions of Homer.

But of course, “The Shallows” is ultimately about our brains on the internet, and by extension, the smart phone and e-readers. One could almost guess the outcome of this book from the title alone. However, that would spoil the fun, and there will be no “spoiler alerts” here. There is a lot to reflect on in this book — and reflect is the operative word. It is evidently something we could all stand to do a bit more of lately.

“The Shallows” is available locally at the Island Bound book store and through inter-library loan at the Island Free Library.

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