The Shallows - Nicholas Carr 

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The Shallows is a book about how the Internet is rewiring our brains, most likely for the worse, and it should be essential reading for anyone of this generation. Carr starts the book by reminding us of the authority on technology and the consequences of its use, Marshall McLuhan, who in 1964 wrote ‘Understanding Media’. McLuhan warns us how the content of a medium is just “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”, that “the medium is the message.”  He also tells us that new technology is bringing about the dissolution of the linear mind, which raises THE question: is our internet-propagated rewiring necessarily bad? For we are simply measuring our new networked thinking process against the old linear standard.  

To answer that, we need to know what is this new networked thinking process. But first, Carr explores how this transformation our brains have gone under, or are in the process of going under, was even possible. Delving deep into neuroscience, Carr does well in reducing what would have been inaccessible and obscure medical research to digestible and relevant morsels of information. 

First, he tells us that the brain is plastic, and that even for adults, contrary to popular belief, “every action leaves some permanent print upon the nervous tissue” (J.Z. Young). Next, we learn that “cells that fire together wire together”, meaning that these permanent prints are actioned by tangible anatomical changes in our brain: synaptic links which grow stronger, and new neural terminals. Then, we are informed that when a blind person goes blind, his or her visual cortex doesn’t ‘go dark’, as previously thought; instead, it is taken over by circuits used for audio processing or touch (when they learn Braille). The conclusion: that “neurons want to receive input” (Nancy Kanwisher). Finally, fascinating research done by Pascual-Leone showed that test subjects who simply visualised playing a piano underwent the same neurological changes as subjects who had actually played the piano. 

So from this wealth of information, we discover that the brain, regardless of age, isn’t as immune to change as we previously thought. In fact, it was also shown that London cab drivers underwent a significant redistribution of their hippocampuses (the area of the brain associated with storing spatial representations) as they learnt their way around the streets, and that these changes were reversed when they retired. The brain can therefore be seen as a use-it-or-lose-it system, one that craves input, and is susceptible not only to our actions, but even to our thoughts as well. With this in mind, it is understandable why the Internet is so addicting and eats up an ever-increasing portion of our daily lives: the engagement fulfils our input cravings. 

While this neural plasticity may be celebrated by excited educators, it represents a double-edged sword for the possibility of intellectual decay is also implied. And though we may live in the Information Age, where an encyclopaedia can be consulted with a few clicks on a smart phone screen, we lack knowledge. Carr describes us as “lab rats”, “constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment”. This resonates with my experience of empty hours spent trawling through social media, searching for likes and comments, for little pieces of self-gratification, and of an equal number of hours surfing Wikipedia, jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink, reading, but never absorbing. 

This new networked thinking sees us opening and maintaining multiple tabs whenever we’re on the internet, always multi-tasking, and therefore never fully concentrating on the task at hand. Small wonder we find tasks like reading and memorizing, the bread and butter of an education system only recently shelved, so difficult now. While it could be argued that books are a thing of the past (Americans between 25-34 read printed works for only 49 minutes/week in 2008),  the precipitous decline in reading does not cause unwarranted concern.

The Internet has reverted us to what Maryanne Wolf calls “mere decoders of information”, as our brains, overtaxed by the processing, co-ordination, and decision-making that the Internet demands of us, are hindered in their ability to comprehend and internalise – skills essential to reading, coincidence? Abilities that are most likely permanently hindered thanks to neural plasticity. Perhaps it is also not a coincidence that ADHD rates are at an all-time high.

To summarise my take on this well-researched and well-written caveat on the consequences of our Internet use, I’ll leave you with a salient allegory of Carr’s, in which he explains the distinction between working memory and long-term memory, respectively alluding the two to using a thimble (short and re-fillable) to fill a bath tub (huge, and requiring filling). He explains how in the same analogy, the Internet represents a multitude of fast-flowing taps, which even if you could decide which tap to use, flow too fast to fill your thimble. 

More

  • In the past, only words, thoughts, and opinions of merit were retained, the rest being winnowed by Time. Now, facing a flood of information, we are forced to rely on automated filters which prioritise the new and the popular, not the worthy.
  • Media supplies the stuff of thought but it also shapes the process of thought
    • Nietzsche on using a typewriter “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”
  • Hebb’s Rule: “Cells that fire together wire together”, when neighbouring neurons are repeatedly fired, their synaptic links grow stronger through physiological (increased concentration of neurotransmitters) and anatomical (new neural and synaptic terminals) changes
    • (Research by Eric Kandel) Normally, when a sea slug’s gill is touched, it will reflexively recoil. However, after being harmlessly touched 40 times, the gill no longer recoils – and only 10% of the gill’s sensory cells remain connected to the motor cells (vs. 90%) 
    • When a person goes blind, his or her visual cortex doesn’t ‘go dark’. Instead, it is quickly taken over by circuits used for audio processing and touch (when they learn Braille). “Neurons want to receive input.” (Nancy Kanwisher)
    • (Research by E.A. McGuire) Experienced London cab drivers were shown to have undergone a redistribution of grey matter in their hippocampuses, the area of the brain associated with storing and manipulating spatial representations. 
    • (Research by Pascual-Leone) Visualising playing a piano resulted in the same neurological changes as actually playing the piano. We become, neurologically, what we think.
  • But this also leaves us vulnerable to establishing bad habits and addictions, where we are incentivised to keep repeating a harmful action or behaviour simply because the neural pathway has already been defined. The vital paths in our brains are the paths of least resistance. 
  • The author defines 4 technologies, (1) extends our physical abilities, (2) extends the sensitivity of our senses (3) enables us to reshape nature (4) intellectual technologies that extend our mental powers
    • Intellectual technologies have had the most impact on our development, for example the invention of the map established previously non-existent conceptual and spatial understanding capabilities  
  • Since language is the primary vessel for conscious thought, technologies that affect it tend to exert the strongest intellectual influences
  • The alphabet and the literacy it preluded released us from the shackles of memorisation but also detached us from the many emotions than an exclusively illiterate person might be privy to
    • At the same time, the desire of authors to describe the world in greater detail required closer observation of it. Both enriched our experience of the physical world and our ability for abstract thought
  • Our evolution-honed senses predispose us to noticing environmental changes that in the past may have alerted us to danger. This puts us at odds with the process of reading, which T.S. Elliot said requires one to put themselves in “the still point of the turning world”, but makes internet surfing a welcome activity 
    • While the hyperlink is a handy navigational tool, its usefulness is inextricable from the distraction it creates
    • Already, the content of the internet is beginning to affect our expectations of the content of printed works
  • Americans between 25-34 read printed works for 49 minutes/week in 2008
  • The author foresees a problem where the dynamism and consequential transience of digital content will diminish the pressure for excellence
    • You need only compare the quality and content of letters from the nineteenth century and electronic letters (AKA e-mails) from ours
  • We are now seeing [book] reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.” 2005, Annual Review of Sociology