In The Shallows,Nicholas Carr asks how the Internet is changing minds.

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2010 10:05 AM

The Internet Diet

Nicholas Carr is a sane guide to how it's changing us.

Nicholas Carr's The Shallows.

In his new book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr has written a Silent Spring for the literary mind. He begins with a feeling shared by many who have spent the last decade online. "I'm not thinking the way I used to think," Carr tells us. "I feel it most strongly when I'm reading." He relates how he gets fidgety with a long text. Like others, he suspects that the Internet has destroyed his ability to read deeply. "My brain," he writes, "wasn't just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it."

As Carr embarks, though, he has a firm grip on his brain, admirably subjecting his hunch to scrutiny. He's self-conscious about its Luddite and alarmist spirit and steps back to take the long view. The Internet, he observes, is "best understood as the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mold the human mind." It's similar to other "intellectual technologies" that have reshaped our activities and culture.

By equating the impact of the Internet with the impact of such things as the printing press, Carr is trying to move the whole "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" argument forward. This Web is seismic. It's definitely changing us somehow. Instead of debating whether it's turning us into distractible oafs or a superintelligent collective, let's first look back into history and see how humans have responded to similar transitions. Then, let's see whether the new tools of neuroscience can detect any effects of our current transition.

The same anxieties that we have about the Internet, the ancient Greeks had about the new technology of writing. In The Republic, Plato has Socrates famously declare that poetry has no place in the perfect state. As Carr explains, this attack may seem a little out-of-nowhere unless you understand that poetry was Plato's stand-in for the oral tradition of Greek thought. Epic poems like The Iliadwere how the Greeks preserved and passed on knowledge from one generation to the next. Plato is arguing that the new technology of writing is superior because it allows for a more ordered and logical transmission of knowledge. Also, you don't have to repeat stuff a hundred times.

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Literacy won out, but each new technology gives something and takes something away. The scholar Walter J. Ong looks at oral cultures and sees "verbal performances of high artistic and human worth" that are lost forever in the transition to literacy. But without literacy, he argues, there's no science, no history, no philosophy.

At first, books did not have any spaces between the words, and required a lot of work to understand. They were typically read out loud, and those who could read silently to themselves, like Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, were viewed with amazement. Eventually, punctuation marks and spaces between the words eased the "cognitive burden" of reading. The "deep reader" was born. Readers trained themselves to ignore their surroundings (countering our evolution, which encourages wariness) and to focus on a text. Writers responded to this new reader. "The arguments in books became longer and clearer, as well as more complex and more challenging, as writers strived self-consciously to refine their ideas and logic," Carr explains. Private carrels were built in libraries; reference books sprang up to help the solo reader.

The next earthquake was Gutenberg's printing press. Early booksellers were often seen as agents of Satan, so stunned were people by the sudden appearance of formerly rare and precious volumes. (And at such low prices! Kind of like Amazon.) In a virtuous feedback loop, the public became more literate as more books circulated. The sensitive among us began to complain of information overload. The melancholy Robert Burton had this to say: "We are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning." Yet books were a hit, a convenient way to reference important information and to learn about the latest ideas. Naturally, there was a fair amount of pornography and trashy stuff floating around, too.

The literary mind began its centuries-long rule. Scientists, authors, politicians, crackpots, and poets could all assume the same basic thing: attentive, book-trained minds would be willing and able to follow their complex arguments and plots.

Carr arrives at the Internet era armed with the latest brain science. I think that science makes him a little too confident in assessing our current moment and less willing to look outside the lab for real-world effects. Brain science is like the new freshman quarterback who shows lots of promise. Biologists and neurologists assumed for a long time that the structure of the adult brain never changed. In the late 1960s, Michael Merzenich discovered that a monkey could remap its brain—a result that was later confirmed in humans. The current theory is that our brains are constantly changing in response to everyday experiences and circumstances.

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