The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Image of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Release Date: 
June 30, 2017
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“This ‘Net backlash’—not withstanding our current communications shift—is revving up to full gear. Pull up a seat and give it a try, because it’s a long wait until the next shift.”

Point. Click. Scroll. Scan. Point. Click. Scroll. Scan. Repeat until you walk away or shut off the computer, smart phone, or tablet.

This is how we communicate, get information, work, and even play. Most importantly, in the age of the Internet and the Word Wide Web, this is how our rewired brains are becoming comfortable with reading and writing.

The persuasive and comprehensive case for this current state of affairs is made by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, the paperback release of this Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Mr. Carr, the author of the provocative Does IT Matter? (2004), and The Big Switch (2008), is a thought leader to be reckoned with when it comes to interpreting how technology, history, business, and society interact to determine the way we live now and in the foreseeable future.

Indeed, Mr. Carr admits that to write The Shallows, he removed himself from “a highly connected suburb of Boston to the mountains of Colorado,” which lacked cell phone service and high-speed Internet access. “When I began writing The Shallows, toward the end of 2007, I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words. I tended to write in disconnected sprits, the same way I wrote when blogging.”

Mr. Carr also shut down the agents of communication, those ever-present reasons to stop reading and writing in the traditional way and return instead to the point-and-click of the computer or smart phone to check in. He canceled his Twitter account, suspended his access to Facebook, “shut down” his automatic news reader, and “curtailed Skypeing and instant messaging. Most important, I throttled back my e-mail application.”

What he did to write The Shallows was to disconnect: go offline from the Net. This enabled him to rewire his brain and once again engage in the deep thought of traditional reading, writing, and communication. Going offline? Blasphemy for those who live in the connected world and who (think they) would perish without email.

The reader doesn’t have to know technical or statistical details about today’s technology to understand Mr. Carr’s main points and appreciate what the changes mean right now. The plasticity of the brain (the constantly changing brain), has met up with the staccato messages and techniques of the Internet and Web. Web hyperlinks connect different and ever-changing environments by moving the reader from point to point via a mouse click, then displaying long text, byte-sized bits, and ever shorter snippets of text, as well as still and moving images.

All this, combined with the facile communication capabilities of short messages and emails, means to author Carr that the “linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster the better.”

Superbly researched and written, Mr. Carr presents his thesis through the grand sweep of communication shifts: from oral culture to medieval script, from script to 16th century print, from print to electric, and finally, from electric to electronic, landing at the door of the Internet and Web. All of this communications history is integrated with analyses of how the malleable brain changes the way people process information throughout the ages.

The Shallows synthesizes the work of great scholars and researchers: Marshall McLuhan, Lewis Mumford and Walter Ong on media; Vannevar Bush, Elizabeth Eisenstein and Eric Havelock on the history and development of communication systems; and biologist Eric Kandel on the brain—among many others. This is an impressive research list covering two distinct topic areas. No wonder Mr. Carr had to unplug his computer; reading and bringing together this high level of thought is an arduous, complicated endeavor.

A compelling storyteller, Mr. Carr guides the reader over the deep, essential terrain of these communication shifts with illustrative vignettes, such as the impact of Johannes Gutenberg’s bankruptcy on the spread of print, and how Friedrich Nietzsche’s typewriter allowed him to resume writing. Perhaps more background on the how the rise of education led to increased literacy among the populace would have been helpful, but Mr. Carr’s stumbles are few and far between.

How the brain works in relation to the various communication shifts is well crafted for the non-scientist. Exploring centuries-old theories on how the brain functions, Mr. Carr explains and disposes of the idea of the “unchanging brain” and demonstrates what we now know to be true, that the “plasticity of synapses” show that the brain is constantly changing.

The Shallows links the Net and the brain succinctly: the malleability of the brain craves action in the form of hyperlinks and interactivity. “If knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. . . . It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brains circuits and functions.”

In the Afterword to the paperback edition, Mr. Carr writes about those who rise up against the “Net’s distractions.” This “Net backlash” not withstanding our current communications shift, is revving up to full gear. Pull up a seat and give it a try, because it’s a long wait until the next one.