Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Is Google making us stupid? Carr asked the question in a piece for the Atlantic, causing a flurry of responses as he tapped into anxiety about whether new technology is changing us for the better or worse. In The Shallows, he explores this concern in more depth.

He's obviously been reading up on neuroscience and explains that the brain is like a muscle, which changes depending upon how we use it. This plasticity gives us the edge when it comes to adapting to our environment, but it also involves the pruning of neural connections that aren’t used much. So what is happening to our brains as we surf the net, get distracted by pop-ups, and simultaneously keep an eye on twitter, facebook, and email? Are we getting smarter or are we losing something valuable in the process?

Carr argues that all this endless clicking on hyperlinks is putting us at risk of becoming too easily distracted. The internet is a whole lot of mental noise that encourages us to engage in activities that are shallow with instant pay-offs. The price - a reduced ability to pay sustained attention to tasks needing deep thought or contemplation.

To support this claim, he discusses what has been discovered about the general functioning of the brain. What is lacking, though, is data from research studies that is specific to the use of the internet. This is where the book falters. The research coming out of the neuroscience field does not support Carr’s claim that extensive use of the internet dulls intelligence: if anything, it suggests a possible increase of activity in those areas.

What this book is great at, however, is its exploration of how technology changes human behaviour and culture. Throughout history new technology has spooked many. Jonah Lehrer reports that Socrates bemoaned the invention of the book, while one late nineteenth century physician blamed the “pelting of telegrams” for an outbreak of mental illness. It’s easy to scaremonger.

The Shallows also explores the idea that technology has driven the changes in world view over the centuries and Carr provides eloquent descriptions. How did maps change human thinking? How are the invention of the mechanical clock and the proliferation of the scientific method related? And, is Google the 21st century offspring of the Industrial Age?

This is a stimulating read about the pros and cons of our new techno savvy society. The usefulness of the internet speaks for itself, but Carr does a noble job of reminding us of what may be lost if we don’t guard our cultural heritage. Our brains should be fine; but think twice about handing over reading the 3-year-olds bedtime story to your I-Pad.

Posted by Spot

Catalogue Link:  The Shallows

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