Against the enthusiasts who praise the internet for its "democratization" or culture and the skeptics who condemn the internet for "dumbing down" culture, Nicholas Carr argues that the greatest danger of the internet is that it is changing the way we think - and not in wholly positive ways.
The medium matters more than the message. The content of the internet does not matter as much as how the medium is influencing how we think and act. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, new media is "altering the patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance" (3). Carr writes in order to encourage a healthy resistance by recognizing both the advantages and limitations of digital media.
New media offers real advantages, but always at a price, for "media aren't just channels of information... they also shape the process of thought" (6). And what is the process of thought the internet rewards? The internet rewards swift skimming and undermines deep concentration and contemplation.
If the onslaught of cheap electronic media in the twentieth century (radio, cinema, phonograph, and television) displaced the written word, the new digital revolution does so even more, and with greater consequences to our cognitive habits.
In the past we may have recoiled at being interrupted by email throughout the day, viewing it as a distraction. Now, we welcome it. And yet even though it is now part of our lives, the distraction remains a distraction.
In the past we may have rejected the idea of doing more than one task in multiple windows, but now we embrace multitasking. Nevertheless, multitasking continues to undermine the cognitive focus necessary to do one thing well. Whether we recognize it or not, juggling between tasks "imposes what brain scientists call 'switching costs' on our cognition. Every time we shift our attention, our brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources" (133).
Single-minded concentration sounds quaint in our day, and yet, without it, we remain superficial. Possessing a lot of information is not the same thing as becoming smarter or wiser. When we go online, "we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It's possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it's possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that's not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards" (116). And because of "the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted--to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we're away from our computers. Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering" (194).
Carr fears that our immersion in digital media may cause us to lose what makes us human: "What makes us most human... is what is least computable about us--the connections between our mind and our body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy. The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers--as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens--is that we'll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate... is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly 'tasks that demand wisdom'" (207-208).
We shape our tools and then, for better or worse, our tools shape us. Because our technologies become extensions of us, they tend to distance us from ourselves and numb the parts of the body they amplify. Carr offers the following examples: "When the power loom was invented, weavers could manufacture far more cloth during the course of a workday than they'd been able to make by hand, but they sacrificed some of their manual dexterity, not to mention some of their 'feel' for fabric... Farmers, similarly, lost some of their feel for the soil when they began using mechanical harrows and plows... When we're behind the wheel of our car, we can go a far greater distance than we could cover on foot, but we lose the walker's intimate connection to the land" (210).
Carr fears that just as a soldier using binoculars can see only what the lenses allow him to see, thus lengthening his field of view while simultaneously blinding him to what's nearby, we may also gain some breadth from digital media while also losing the depth that makes us human (209).
Almost every religious tradition, including the Christian tradition, calls for attentiveness of mind in order to deeply reflect upon and contemplate ourselves, reality, and God. To lose this would be to lose something very special.
How can we gain the advantages of digital media without losing our souls in the process? How can we take advantage of the great amount of information available without becoming superficial? What can we do to encourage deep and wise contemplation in an age of endless distractions?
Quotes excerpted from The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
© Richard J. Vincent, 2010