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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Does the Internet make us shallower? Initial thoughts on The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

I just finished reading The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr. In this book, the author argues that while the Internet has given us a greater breadth of knowledge it has come at the expense of intellectual depth. Here are my initial thoughts.

The book is a fascinating read combining a survey of the history of the development of written language with cognitive psychology and interspersed with the author's enlightening editorial asides. The author cites a great deal of evidence that the brain is "plastic" and can therefore be rewired throughout one's lifetime based on how it's used. He believes that each successive advancement in written language has led to a rewiring of the brain. Carr recounts this development starting with the oral traditions of the bard and continuing with the first chiseled words on cuneiform tablets, the creation of writing surfaces like papyrus and animal hides, the invention of the phonetic alphabet, the first books known as the codex, and finally to the advent of the Gutenberg Printing Press which democratized the book as a medium for the masses.

In each of these instances, Carr argues that the brain went through a fundamental change. For example, the invention of the phonetic alphabet eased the process of reading and writing since it taxed the brain far less than the earlier cuneiform symbols. This led to the shift from a primarily oral culture to a written culture. Later, the printing press with the standard alphabet, punctuation, and spacing between words further increased reading comprehension so the reader could spend more time focusing deeply on the content of the written text. The ability for quiet contemplation which reading provided led to great advances in human consciousness and scientific thinking.

According to the author, this is threatened by the rise of the Internet. The author believes that the Internet discourages deep thinking and analysis by encouraging the opposite form of inquiry, broad skimming of various areas of knowledge. The primary cause of this is the hyperlink, the footnotes embedded within webpages, that serves as a launching pad to various other sites. When one is reading online, one rarely spends too much time on one page and, even when looking at a single webpage, often skims the text rather than reading it with the care of a printed book. The hyperlinks and other stimuli on the page distract the eye. Jumping to another site, even for a few moments, in the midst of reading further causes one to lose one's train of thought. When returning to the original site, the reader has to refocus himself and these extra steps mitigate against deep thought. When this web-based reading is accompanied by multi-tasking, as is common amongst our students who read various websites while simultaneously IMing or texting friends, and updating their Facebook status updates, this further exacerbates the difficulty in achieving anything more than a superficial understanding of the text. The author cites a great deal of research to support each of these statements based on cognitive overload theory and other areas that are beyond the scope of this posting.

The author has an entire chapter devoted to Google that is particularly illuminating. Google claims to have as its mission statement: "to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful." While accessibility, organization, and usefulness appear to be lofty goals, in reality, Google also has some other unstated agendas. The author explains how Google primarily makes its money through the placement of ads that are coupled with each search screen. Therefore, Google profits more when people do a superficial reading of websites and then quickly return to the search screen. The more Google searches, the more profit. Even the Google Books Project which seeks to digitize the world's libraries so it is freely available to the masses (what goal could be loftier than that?) has an insidious side effect. Using text searching in books, encourages one to cull bits and pieces of information from books from a page or two rather than reading the chapter or book in its original context. Once again, the book merely becomes another information source that Google can profit from rather than a tool for contemplation and deep thinking.

The author ends as he began on a cautionary note, stating that by using computers to mediate our understanding of the world, rather than teaching computers to become more human, we are actually training ourselves to become more like an artificial intelligence and gradually becoming devoid of what makes us human.

While I agree that Carr's caution is well founded and noteworthy, I believe that it is a bit unrealistic and overblown. The author creates a false dichotomy between exclusively using printed works which encourages deep thinking and the use of the Internet which rewires the brain against contemplation. What real solution does this provide for the issues that are raised? The author describes how in writing this book he moved from the hubbub of the city to the quiet solitude of a cabin in Colorado and greatly curtailed his use of the Internet and other technologies. This is a highly unrealistic prescription for most of us as the author himself admits.

Even in the Haredi Jewish world where the Internet is often discouraged such decrees against technology often lead to significant backlash. I remember a talk about technology and teenagers given by Rav Yanky Horowitz who is path-breaking, open-minded Haredi educator. When a parent asked him what he should do if his child wants to join Facebook, Rav Horowitz's response was to join Facebook yourself and "friend" your son or daughter. Rav Horowitz noted that if your child wants to join Facebook then s/he will find a way to do it no matter what. However, if you forbid Facebook then this will be a surreptitious act in which the child will likely not use caution or foresight in his/her online interactions. If you allow your child to join Facebook when s/he first expresses a desire to do so early in the teenage years, your child will appreciate you and much more readily accept your influence. I found this illuminating response to be the only realistic response to technology. Not to ban it or decry it's use, but to accept it, set boundaries for it's use, and provide guidance when necessary.

With this in mind, here are a few of my suggestions in how to deal with some of issues Carr raises.

  1. Encourage the use of technology tools to help alleviate the very problems that Carr discusses. Carr notes convincingly that a many hyperlinks, pop-up ads or other distractions on a page can negatively effect reading comprehension and retention. One tool that I have found to be indispensable in combatting this is Readability. This is a free app that gives any web-page the clean appearance of ereaders like the Kindle so one can focus one's attention on the page and not the distractions. I recommend encouraging the use of this tool for your student or child.
  2. Discourage multi-tasking. Although Carr notes that research indicates that kids today are in fact better multi-taskers than in the past, the cost in terms of distractibility and lack of clear and deep thought is immense. When doing homework on the computer, require kids to put away the cell phone, keep IMing to a minimum, and regulate how much time can be devoted to social networking sites. This is a hard one to require but I heard a suggestion from Dr. David Pelcovitz to help educate one's child. Have them do an experiment where one night they do homework the way they normally do and the following night they do the same amount of homework while minimizing multi-tasking. They should then compare the amount of time it takes them to do their homework on each night. They will probably discover on their own the time savings achieved when focusing on one task at a time. If they do not see a difference then perhaps they are not that distracted by their other activities.
  3. Encourage the positive uses of technology. One area where I have personally experienced the advantages of technology is in encouraging time for reflection. This posting is one example. The ability to read an article or book and then blog about it greatly improves my thinking. Often students as well can better express their ideas through typing on a computer than by writing with pen and paper. The social nature of online self expression also encourages reflection. I have used this to great effect with my students through the use of online discussion forums. I have found student responses online to often be richer and more thoughtful than their responses in class or their writings on more formal written assignments.
  4. Shabbos. In Judaism, we are lucky. God has mandated for us, one day a week to refresh our minds and replenish our soul without the distractions of the modern technological world. It's called Shabbos. I often get my best creative work done on Motzi Shabbat because my "wired" brain has had a day to rest. Impress these benefits on your children/students. Perhaps rather than view Shabbos as a chore, a series of "don'ts", or a day when they secretly text when you are not looking, they will learn to appreciate the beauty and power of the day as a welcome break from the constant need to be "online" in our technological world. 


  1. I agree with many of your well written ideas. I would slightly differ in calling these four nicely-articulated points disagreeing with Carr. I don't think that he believes his home in Colorado to be feasible for anyone at all times. He reiterates many times throughout the book that he is quite involved in technology and very much "connected." I think he would agree to each of your suggestions.

    I would also add a fifth point: TORAH ( Like Shabbos, I believe Torah study is also supposed to be completely disengaged from the technological world.

    Nice post; keep up the good work.