Home » E-Learning » What is the Internet doing to our brains? Not much. Though Nicholas Carr begs to differ.

What is the Internet doing to our brains? Not much. Though Nicholas Carr begs to differ.


The Shallows : What the Internet is doing to our Brains?

Nicholas Carr

Love it or hate it the Internet is here for keeps.

I had might as well say forever, as we would all surely agree that everything we’ve got so far will only become more pervasive during our respective lifetimes.

I had hoped to get an objective view from Carr but ‘The Shallows’ fails to say what
the Internet is doing to our brains.

I would love to time travel and stop my ancestors from what they were doing 35,000 years ago so that I could have shared with them what making stone tools would do to their brains and where it would lead.

What’s different? Not much.

They would have been too busy to listen, or, as we are doing, they would listened but pressed on

Carr lacks the credentials, training or inclination to answer the very question he poses.

Journalists and authors, Nicholas Carr is both, want to sell copy so he has to take a stance – he is against.

‘The Shallows’ is an apt title as his research lacks depth. Look a bit closer and many of the authors he cites say as much to counter the arguments as support them, take the Nobel prize winning Eric Kandel who on the one hand identified the ‘plasticity of the brain’, but also showed that through habituation a sort of boredom sets in – hardly the case that Google is taking us over as Carr would gave us believe.

Whatever our attractions and distractions, unless we have behavioural or cognitive issues, the
Internet is no more a trap, no more changing how we think than the book, TV or radio in the past. Despite the Internet we still sleep, make friends, go to school or work, shop, make love, raise kids …

the human world is too complex, too fluid to have been taken over in the way Carr suggests.

What the Interent ‘does to our brains’ is no different to anything else if we engage or apply ourselves for long enough. Carr has a US-centric view too, and a US where everyone of course has Internet access, a smartphone or laptop. He projects this scheme of things onto the rest of the world as if it is the same in North Yorkshire where there is limited broadband access, or to Lake Nakuru, Kenya where there is none.

In his ignorance or arrogance he assumes that everyone is like him and his friends, borderline ADHD, easily bored, addicted to the early adoption of whatever comes along. If half an audience agree with Carr when he suggests that the Internet is taking over their mind and this is a bad thing, the other half will say that it is not – that it is a tool there to do their bidding.

Personally, I come over giddy with excitement when I start a quest to research and read, just as I got each morning when I entered a different library as an undergraduate at Oxford. Then amazed at the knowledge before my eyes that could be called up in a few hours or days. Today equally gobsmacked by tools and resources courtesy of the Open University Online Library that offers up just about anything I can find and want to read in seconds. I’m mot the slave to a platform
or a piece of kit – I move around in both the physical and the virtual sense from different access devices – smartphone, iPad, laptop or desktop as well as through different portals. There isn’t
the sameness to it that Carr implies.

There is variety everywhere you turn. And this is my unique and personal perspective. To avoid
regression to the mean in large scale research on use of and behaviours as a consequence of using the Internet I would invariably be discounted anyway. Far from discounting the few
people Carr speaks to he holds them up as representative of all of us. Proper research could well conclude the opposite to what Carr thinks.

Carr chooses his metaphors to support his perspective – this is natural, but he wants us to think he is speaking in absolute terms, that we all ‘forage in the thickets’. It is a passing phase. Get out of a taxi in a country we have never been to before and we all feel a little lost and overwhelmed. We get over it. Sitting on the fence, as academics do, doesn’t sell books.

They don’t scaremonger. If nothing has changed they say so. ‘What’s the Internet doing to our brains? Not much’ isn’t going to see a title, book or magazine, flying off the shelves. People, in their purchase, like to declare ‘I am for or against’. If Carr had honestly been for he would, like Professor Martin Weller, have published ‘The Shallows’ as open source in a digital form, instead
it is marketed like the latest film staring Sandra Bullock or Nicole Kidman and only made available in analogue form. Carr has a first degree in English literature and a Masters in American literature. He can graze a few articles on neuroscience and webscience but this hardly qualifies him to describe with accuracy how the mind works. Neuroscientists will ponder for decades to come the way we remember. Carr therefore falls back on a potted history, selecting those arguments that support his thesis, rejecting those that do not. He suggests for example that information flows through the eyes and ears to our minds. I’d like to measure that. I’d like
to see that.

Perception isn’t achieved in this way.

No substance flows from one place to another . It is this misconception that must give Carr the impression that his mind is somehow filling up, or getting aggitated by the bombardment of ‘stuff’. The Internet isn’t the problem, rather it is Carr’s own physiological and pscychological response to it. His personal fix, if this is his desire, should be cognitive behavioural therapy. The Net may be
chipping away at Carr’s capacity to concentrate but he and we know that everyone is not like him. Personally, and his is a often a personal, anecdotal story so I can respong from my singular
perspective, I feel as though I was made for the web. The ADHD mind that hungers for everything can in some measure be satisified so long as I give no single interest more than three hours at a time, and I mix up the activities in any 18 hour period when I am not asleep. Carr wants us to believe that the Net is stopping us from being able to concentrate. On the contrary, I find I can now get the exact book or paper I need which I will read cover to cover in eBook or print form. There is less need for compromise. If the book isn’t holding your attention blame the book – find one that better suits you. And finding what does suit you is what the Internet and Google in particular, does do staggeringly well.

Three decades ago my reading pattern was to have six books on the go. I would rotate,
two chapters or two hours on each. Of the six two might be on history, another two on technology, and the fifth and six a novel and a book on design, art or photography. All six might now be in digital for – though the art book is as likely to be large and hardback. And the books may be spinkled with links offered any the author/editor to video or supporting websites. Whether or not I
take up a link is no different to whether or not I stop to read a footnote, or follow up a reference.

The choice is mine, not Google’s. Google enables to my mind, while Carr believes it disables. He is wrong. My handwriting has become illegible. Do I blame Google for the lack of practice, or not having access to a QWERTY keyboard for a few hours yesterday? I coach swimming. I understand adaptation in sport, the phsiological process that links mind to body and action. Your mind and body learn how to do a thing … then you get lazy, or impatient, or come to think of it, resort to scribbling a note with a cheap biro onto the back of an envelope rather than digging out the Sheafer fountain pen and writing, at a desk, rather than propped up on the sitting room sofa
… ‘use it or lose it’ applies to a kid swimming an IM or a Fifty something surfing the Web. If he wants to ‘lose it’ in relation to his behaviours and the Interent all Carr needs to do is something else.

Personally, and I have stated this every year or so in the 13 years I have been blogging, I crave a book – a clear, well–written, single–minded read from end to end, getting into the ‘flow’ of another person’s thinking i.e the Interent has the exact opposite effect on me. But it isn’t just me. Does the ‘Internet’ make us less or more social? Less or more likely to go out and meet up?

Research shows that being sociable online has us wanting to meet face to face. It’s counter intuitive. That’s because the Internet is just a mirror to our natural behaviour. The Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University has a series of labs designed to monitor how we engage with technology, the Internet in particular. To see and measure and understand how we behave with kit and software – we need to listen to the reports they produce and that other institutions such as the IET produce. They will tell us what is really going on because Carr has not. Carr uses research of the past, often the distant past, to inform what is happening today.

The technological distance between Plutarch, Aristotle, Freud and Dewey is too great. Quoting Shakespeare or Arthur C Clarke may provide colour and plausibility, but it doesn’t tell me
what is going on when or as we exploit what can now do, and read, and see and interactive with online. Carr references the ignorant as examples of the informed. I’d describe this as the blind leading the blind. Two fools in a pub can wax lyrical about the ways of the world wide web but the rest of us are none the wiser as a result of listening in. What Carr needs to undertake next, far less sexy that a sensationalist article for the popular rather than the academic press, is research.

To set parameters and to ask a question then set about testing and analysing what is going on. Marshall McLuhan, like Carr fifty years later, knew how to spin an intelligent story. McLuhan then and Carr today read like the transcript of a standup comic for the well read. They both dip into historic greats, but this kind of intellectual name dropping whilst appearing to prop up their arguments starts to crumble when scrutinised closely.

Web 2.0 does this, on the one hand toppling flase prophets such as Marc Prensky and the nonsense of the ‘digital native’. According to Carr ‘we’ must have had minds formed by papyrus scrolls and printed books in the past, just as our minds are so clearly so different courtesy of the Internet.

Who is this ‘we’? It cannot be everyone.

Carr mentions three friends and their experience of the web … as if these people are representative of all human kind. ‘My friend said to me … at a dinner party the other week … a colleague feels that’. Each of these phrases sounds to me as if it could be a transcript from a dinner party. Nothing wrong with conversation if we recognise its context and so long as this isn’t offered as some kind of evidence.

Carr is using this as evidence though. He cites these anecdotes as if they are representative. ‘ ‘The Shallows’ is hear say from one page to the next. He really ought to be writing fiction. No harm in this, at least Aldous Huxley, H G Wells, Arthur C Clarke and even Asimov differentiate between fiction and fact.

Our thought process has never been linear … and book reading certainly didn’t make it so. If anything the way those of us with permanent access to the internet work with information is more in tune with the scattered, fluid, formative nature of thought. Asking ‘What is the Internet doing to our brains?’ could never be answered
by doctoral research.

The question is too broad and ill defined.

‘In using the word processor I had become something of a wordprocessor myself’ p. 13. A statement that can be applied to anyone, at anytime, acquiring an adaptive skill whether at the piano or with flint tools, whether progamming a computer or building a fence. We ‘become’ these things, or rather acquire a additional skills alongside many others. If we use an iPad to take a picture, offer a book, tot up the shopping bill, play music or a TV show, sketch or chat with a friend on the other side of the world what is it that Carr says we have become? We can do all of these things from one device in a shorter space of time – far from defining or confining us I call this liberating.

If Marshall McLuhan talked of the ‘global village’ of the electrical age of mass media, then today these devices put the world at our sides, in our pocket, at our finertips, and courtesy of Google Glass or an Apple device on our noses and wrist. It doesn’t make us one jot the less human, one jot the less a smart, feeble, fallible and mortal creature with all the same pecadillos that Shakespeare so well described 400 years ago. It is p. 14 a ‘high–tech Swiss Army knife’ which may, or may not demand my attention and can be put down, out away or lost, even forgotten about with equal ease.


1 Comment

  1. […] What is the Internet doing to our brains? Why we should disagree with Nicholas Carr. (mymindbursts.com) […]

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