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Alarmingly Shallow: The effects of Internet on our culture, community, and social well being
A review of Nicholas Carr's The Shallows

By David Seckman / June 2014

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The paths of technology and human existence have never been as convoluted. Both are so reliant upon one another for continued change and increased effectiveness—with technology inherent in our daily lives—we hardly take a moment to consider the implications and effects of the technology we use. Nicholas Carr, in his book What the Internet is Doing to our Brains: The Shallows, investigates the various ways technology is becoming both enlightening and disturbingly influential in the learning, neurological, and decision-making ethos of the human race. He examines reasons we all might be haplessly ignoring the various side effects this is having on our ability to focus, think deeply, and think critically about the things we read, see, and discuss. Of interest are the ways history seemingly repeats itself as our tools and our intellect continue to evolve.


Carr's theme in this text boils down to one specific question: For all that we are able to gain in connectivity, access, capacity, power to process and communicate, and pace at which we live, what is it that we give up in order to allow these things to come to fruition? This is a courageous question, and it has the capacity to challenge the way we think about and understand the ways in which technology changes us daily. The author is out to consider how the Internet and modern media are reconstructing our brains and our very way of thinking.

After self-examining the personal impacts of technology, Carr discusses the ways personal technology, or "intellectual technologies" as he labels them, influence the way we think. Carr explains how each evolution in technology became part of our society's way of thinking and perceiving; that each technology allowed us to replace our direct interpretations of the world around us with more abstract and practical technology. Though not intended, Carr explains how these tools created a more scientific mindset that focuses more heavily on measurement, cause and effect, and how they each reshaped the course of intellectual history as it has led us into our newly wired and wireless lifestyle. The text is mainly focused on two, more recent intellectual technologies: the book and the Internet. Carr argues these two technologies, even though they are used for similar purposes, have very different effects on thought processes.

It was the invention of the space between words in a written text that broke the history of oral tradition and that changed reading fundamentally. The "wordspace" made reading a more personal, solitary pursuit and it freed our minds to dig deeply and make highly interpretive and emotional connections. Reading forced deep attention to a solitary piece of information. It created an explosion in literary experimentation, higher complexity of narrative, and created more critical narratives. Carr explains these deep experiences transposed themselves into our thinking, and the way we process life. Relationships, discussions, and knowledge became deeper and more meaningful as a result.

The Internet, Carr argues, is almost precisely the opposite effect as an "intellectual technology." If it was the book that greatly shielded humans from becoming distracted and less focused, then it is the Internet that inundates us with the type of stimulations that make it difficult to find focus and gain deep meaning. Carr explains it is a system that promotes multitasking and simultaneous action. Psychologically, we like to be interrupted and distracted. Access to new information is a key driver of the Internet, and it bypasses and overrides the mental processes that key in particular to the formation of deep broad conceptual thoughts. Carr poses that it decreases our ability to move information that we absorb from our working (short-term) memory into our long-term memory; we no longer can pay attention long enough to make connections in meaningful ways. The inability to conduct deep processing of information is a troubling result of Internet evolved multi-tasking. Carr explains the plasticity and neuropathways of the brain are always adapting to environments and stimuli at a deep cellular level. So, as we use one way of thinking we create pathways that become stronger over time, but the pathways that are used less become weaker. Essentially, we are rewiring our brains to neglect deep processing and thinking about what we read, and see, of the real world around us.


It is enlightening and refreshing to hear someone discuss the shortfalls of supplanting the real with the virtual. Being modern is hip, and in giving ourselves up to that lifestyle we are remarkably quick to relinquish time with real communities for time online. Being "real" can be intense. That type of intensity is painful, exciting, and bombastic. Real conversations with real people about emotionally charged moral or political issues can be difficult and present scenarios you cannot run from or embrace fast enough. Carr intelligently identifies the ease at which our technology allows for us to substitute real experiences with virtual experiences. He successfully argues that in the virtual world it is easy to enter conversations; leave witty, damaging, or emotionally charged content; and exit the conversation just as quickly. This is all done while being able to avoid the real emotional, physical, or psychological consequences that would come from similar actions in a real-world conversation; virtual conversations are shallow, and all too easily manipulated to our advantage.

Carr is understandably concerned with the effects the Internet has on contemplative ways of thinking, and the corresponding lessening of value human's associate with difference, ingenuity, and diversity. He discusses how our own adaptability may not leave us in a more fruitful position with regard to scholarship and critical thinking. However, Carr does self-admittedly accept that even he will most likely not be able to follow through on removing himself from using technology. This admission makes him more believable in his demeanor and suggestive tone, as he admits to some of the very real struggles that each of us come up against.

Interestingly, the isolation Carr admits to also points to some of the same problems he fails to address with books. Though books enhanced critical thinking and evaluation, they also had similar effects on society and individuals as we see with the Internet today. In eerily similar ways, books have historically pushed individuals into isolation. The author, in a way, fails to grasp how his own historical overview at the beginning of What the Internet is more of a direct correlation to contemporary society's use of tools, rather than being a time we can look back on with envy. Historically, most of our tools help us to explore our own individual depths of intellect. But the author fails to concede that with introduction of the written text we, as a society and as individuals, also pulled away from a more communicative and verbal nature. What we see now is seemingly only a natural advancement of what has come before, much in the way that papyrus script eventually necessitated an entire book.

Interestingly, Carr focuses mostly on the different ways we process information in relation to our day-to-day intellect and not necessarily how we might be applying new methods of learning toward formal education. The very items he discusses are currently having major impacts on higher education: changing student expectations; changing pedagogical structures; and creating more sociable, energetic, knowledgeable intellectuals within our learning populations. It is hard to ignore the ways in which contemporary tools are altering the basic fabric of teaching and learning, and yet the author simply fails to acknowledge the ways that one of society's largest and most important social systems has evolved to develop more meaningful and fuller pedagogical experiences for learners from the adaptation of our latest tool: the Internet. This happened once before within higher education; with the creation of the book you saw similar growth and intellectual capital, which in turn created meaningful social connection, a true potential for a transformative synergy to take place, and the emergence of ways to use a new tool to augment our intellectual foundations that at the time were produced by the spoken word. It would seem there are great parallels between the historical context Carr presents and our modern day evolution as both teachers and learners.


Carr's self-reflective nature brings forward some of the very real consequences that the Internet has on our intellect and culture. He successfully digs into the psyche of our modern love for technology, exploring how what is right in front of us might be the most obvious, but challenging vice to rid ourselves of. But it is for this exact reason that I would push the author to accept there are more parallels between the written and electronic word than he is likely admitting. Society has always been very elastic, much like emotions, and they change and grow as time moves forward. The reader gains a general sense of the effects that both written and electronic literature have had on our intellectual capacity, but the book is too heavily focused on reasons why what we are currently experiencing is leaving us in a worse position as a society and as a people than why it might also be helping us evolve in better ways. The author seems reluctant to move beyond some of his own discomfort, which may be why he most likely defends what he is most familiar with. This ignores some of the reasons why technology has taken such a foothold within education, and specifically within our own drive to learn and absorb information as individuals.

Certainly, anyone who values a more introspective, contemplative, or solitary mode of thought needs to consider how connected they want to be; there needs to be balance or you run the risk of diluting culture, science, and literature in your own life. The author clearly wants the reader to know what is at stake. What we're losing in exchange for our interconnected, fast-paced, net-driven social world. Carr makes it clear that technology has both intended and unintended impacts on the psychosocial, social, and cognitive aspects of our lives. Not only are we unquestionably accessing, accepting, and using technology, but we often fail to take time to see the glaring and less than subtle ways that it has consequently changed us. Not necessarily in ways that we can understand and not always in ways that are healthy. It has become frightening how undiscerning and apathetic we have become with technology, but we also need to continue to be aware of the ways in which these tools can lead to more effective cognitive modes of teaching, learning, and thinking. We use tools to process our world, and over time tools change to fit the needs of an evolving society. The Internet is our most recent tool, and the power it carries may seem overwhelming, but then again we are still learning how we can use books in their most effective way hundreds of years after their inception. There is still a lot to be gained from the Internet as learning evolves and as we all evolve; we are still learning how to use those as tools for meaningful learning and intellectual evolution.

About the Author

Presently, David Seckman is a doctoral student within the School of Education Urban Education Doctoral Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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