December 10, 2019

Book Review: The Shallows - What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

We’re hooked on this highly addictive method of gaining new information, but we’re not processing, retaining and subsequently doing enough productive, creative work with it.

Book Review: The Shallows - What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Following a wildly popular 2008 article in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” Nicholas Carr expanded on his ideas in the 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominated book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Unlike most writing about technology, this book feels more relevant now than it did eleven years ago. Perhaps it’s because we’ve had a chance to watch its main thesis play out in our personal lives and in the public square – both of which have developed largely online over the last decade in ways that have proved deeply alarming.

Carr’s concern is based in the idea of neuroplasticity, and he talks about how neuroscientists have discovered our ability to ‘re-wire’ our brains over our lifetimes through repetition. This, of course, is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, repetition can help us rewire our brains to do things like learn new languages or musical instruments at any age.

However, the repetitive way that many of us are now using our brains, like lab mice hitting a lever for a new hit of dopamine every few seconds, assaulting our prefrontal cortices with an incredible volume and speed of information, makes it impossible for us to process that information and make good use of it. Almost all of our brain power now goes to short-term acquisition of information, of which very little is retained in long-term memory.

This is particularly concerning because long-term memory is what we use as the foundation for the kind of deep thinking on which innovation and creativity depend.

We’re hooked on this highly addictive method of gaining new information, but we’re not processing, retaining and subsequently doing enough productive, creative work with it. As a result, all this online engagement is giving us the sense that we’re accomplishing things, but without having much real-world impact or making long-term contributions toward solving problems.

The internet, and particularly social media, often feels like Groundhog Day. We lose track of time, engaged in a perpetual cycle of outrage, hot takes, grandstanding and demands for attention. But a critical analysis of what has actually been accomplished structurally in our society – by millions of people spending billions of hours to maintain this environment, is dismal.

Carr understands that the Internet isn’t going away. He even supposes that future generations will evolve the ability to process enormous amounts of networked information. But that will not happen in our lifetime. In the meantime, we must learn how to navigate our current information landscape, and do the important thinking, innovating and creating that are desperately needed using brains that were evolved for a very different kind of world. Our collective future depends on it.