On Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains"

So in between dressing up stuffed animal rabbits as Rapunzel and noticing that leopard-skin tights, boots, and earmuffs seem to be popular among mallrats, I’m reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010). It’s complex, not simply “the internet is bad” or anything that reductive. He gives a reasonable and well-balanced discussion of how internet usage (and ebooks, I would also argue) are changing the way we read and think, and that while there are some who argue the effects are largely beneficial, he does focus on the difficulty of being immersed in a long text, after being accustomed to the shorter bites of information on the internet. The Shallows was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and that seems a well-deserved honor. He begins with a discussion of Marshall McLuhan, hugely influential in the 1960s, now a bit of a cultural relic, but who makes some good points about the technological innovations and changes: “What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in th elong run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it—and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society. ‘The effects of technology do no occur at the level of opinions or concepts,’ wrote McLuhan. Rather, they alter ‘patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.’ The showman exaggerates to make his point, but the point stands. Media work their magic, or their mischief, on the nervous system itself.”
At one point Carr admits to having less and less patience for longer books, and for longer periods of reading in one text, skipping around a lot, intellectual multitasking, to some extent. If that’s a crime, I’m guilty too. And I agree there are great benefits to internet-based reading and learning, but drawbacks as well. Two examples I can cite from my own experience: The origin of the Magna Carta (signed in 1215) and the Gutenberg Bible (printed in 1450-51, it’s believed) are a couple topics I’ve looked up recently, that stick in my head. Add those bits of information to the snowball of information we see in any day, and it would be easy to argue that we’re gaining much for what we lose. I’m not so sure. I asked my students in a senior course some basic questions about history, and, for example, few of them could name the dates of the Civil War. Is that important? I’d say yes. But as Carr notes, there’s no going back.

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