The Shallows (a Review)

[updated on 12 May: I was in a bit of a bad mood when I wrote the original version of this review, and I think I got a bit too snarky at points. This obviously irritated a few people (see comments below), and probably made it more difficult to understand what I was saying. I’ve updated this to remove the snark, and clarify a few things that were missing from the original review. My apologies to those who found the original irritating; hopefully this version will be less so.]

The ShallowsScattered. When I talk with friends about their lives these days, I often hear that word. They feel like there’s far too many things vying for their attention, too much information to absorb, too many things to keep track of. They wonder what happened to all that time that our labor-saving devices were supposed to reclaim for us. But more importantly, they worry about how their constant flitting from one thing to another is altering the ability to concentrate, to focus on one thing for an extended period of time. They are concerned that the manifold distractions that seem to multiply like furry tribbles are keeping them from contemplating and reflecting on what really matters most in life.

Similar concerns underlie Nicholas Carr‘s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Carr states in the introduction that over the last few years, he had noticed that he was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on one particular thing for any length of time. It was much harder for him to sit down and get lost in a book, or to follow an extended argument in an academic paper. Instead, he gravitated towards the short snippets of information he received via his various information technologies: emails, blog posts, web pages, tweets and the like. Although he was getting older, he suspected that the real cause of his increasingly scattered mind was those chaotic and insistent flows of information, so he set out to research what neuroscience has discovered about the ways information technologies effect our brains.

Carr’s book is essentially an attempt to put some scientific muscle behind one of Marshall McLuhan‘s most provocative statements: “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios and patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance” (Understanding Media, 31). Carr argues that these changes in “sense ratios and patters of perception” are actually material, structural changes that occur within the brain, changes that affect the way our brains work, and the kinds of tasks we are able to do.

It turns out that our brains have a certain degree of “plasticity.” That is, our brains are constantly changing, physically reacting to the stimuli we receive, the tasks we do often, and the tools we use to do those tasks. Like water carving out a channel, neural pathways that fire often become stronger and more conductive over time, making it easier for us to leverage that part of our brain in the future. Sometimes this even causes a physical enlargement of our brain cells. For example, Carr discusses how cabbies in London have a measurably larger posterior hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for storing and manipulating spatial information.

But this plasticity can also have a “dark side,” Carr asserts. If we spend more and more time consuming small bits of disconnected information, our brains will physically restructure to optimize for that kind of thinking, and thus we will lose our ability to perform what he calls “deep reading.” Such a loss, Carr declares, will be detrimental not only to our creative engagement with the world, but also our general cultural wisdom.

Carr does an excellent job reviewing the scientific evidence for neuroplasticity, leaving little doubt that the things we use to convey information shape the physical makeup of our brains. He also stresses that these changes happen very rapidly, regardless of age or prior education/experience. He highlights a study in which the brain patterns of those who had not previously used the Internet began to resemble long-time users after just six days of exposure (121). In the afterword, he also makes it clear that generational differences, or the kind of education one has had, should make no difference:

I’ve always been suspicious of those who seek to describe the effects of digital media in generational terms, drawing sharp contrasts between young ‘Internet natives’ and old ‘Internet immigrants.’ Such distinctions strike me as misleading, if not specious. If you look at statistics on Web use over the past two decades, you see that the average adult has spent more time online than the average kid (226-7).

In many ways, we really shouldn’t be all that surprised that our brains physically change to accommodate new tools. Each new technology requires some getting used to, and over time we develop new skills and abilities that we didn’t have before. The question is, however, do these physical changes actually affect the way we think and behave? If so, do they do so deterministically? If six days of exposure to the world wide web were enough to make the study subjects’ brain patterns look like long-term users, does that mean that those subjects would now start to think and act just like those long-term users as well?

Carr seems to answer this in the affirmative, but I think this is where his book is the weakest. Although he includes a paragraph to acknowledge that technological determinism is problematic, he nevertheless argues like a determinist throughout the rest of the book. His basic premise seems to be that reading books always creates a linear, logical, focused, detached mind, while using the Internet (in any shape or form) always creates a non-linear, reactionary, distracted, tribal mind. This assertion, of course, is based on similar ones made by McLuhan and Ong, but I’ve always been rather suspicious of it. In addition to being a bit insulting to pre-literate societies and those who don’t typically read books, I think it also suffers from a lack of necessary distinctions.

Carr echoes the media studies claim that reading printed books always results in the same kind of psychological and cultural effects, regardless of the content of those books. He notes that “Whether a person is immersed in a bodice ripper or a Psalter, the synaptic effects are the same” (72). The implication is that synaptic effects result in psychological and behavioral effects as well, so he would expect that someone who reads mostly escapist fiction, or even pornography, should end up with the same sort of mind as someone who reads mostly philosophy. Carr takes this even further, however, and says that these same changes happen very quickly and regardless of age or previous education or experience. The implication is that if you stop reading printed books and only read on the web, you will quickly become a distracted, shallow thinker.

I remain unconvinced by this argument for a few reasons. First, Carr seems to be lumping a wide array of information technologies into what he calls “the Internet.” He makes no distinctions between demand-pull media (such as web pages and ftp file downloads) and instant-push media (such as SMS text messaging or Twitter); instead he just declares that all of it is designed to convey a constant, unstoppable stream of distractions. He also discusses eBook readers without making any distinctions between genre; escapist fiction might work perfectly fine as an eBook, while other genres might not.

Second, Carr also seems to be assuming that all people gain wisdom and creatively engage with the world in the same way. Recall that his argument hinges on the idea that physical changes to the brain will result in particular psychological effects, regardless of age or prior education/experience, and this, he warns, will result in a loss of cultural wisdom and a decline in creativity. But I have known many people that I would not hesitate to call ‘wise’ who no longer read books at all. Instead, their wisdom is of a different kind, and comes from a long and persistent engagement with the material world: gardening, farming, fishing, etc. To say that wisdom comes only from reading printed books seems to me to be a bit problematic.

Third, I find his claims about a loss of creativity to be a bit surreal given the explosion of creativity enabled by digital tools and social media. Yes, much of it is inane and derivative, but one must also consider the degree to which these tools have also enabled talented artists to make new kinds of work, and get that work in front of more people. One might try to argue that on the whole, average cultural creativity is declining, but I think that would require some harder data, and I don’t think Carr provided them.

Lastly, my own experience with the book also raises questions about his thesis. I’ve used a computer since 1980, have programmed them for a living for many years, and have spent quite a lot of time on the Internet. Yet I was able to sit down and read Carr’s book over the course of a few days. I followed his argument closely, engaged critically with his claims, and creatively wrote a review of it on this blog. If, as he claims, the Internet will quickly turn me into a shallow and uncreative thinker, regardless of my age or previous experience/education, how was all of this possible?

Despite these shortcomings, Carr’s book will no doubt remain an enduring fixture in the debates surrounding the Internet, mobile communications, and social networking. Those interested in the topic will no doubt want to become familiar with the book, which is very easy to do, as Carr’s writing style is easy to read and very approachable.


10 thoughts on “The Shallows (a Review)

  1. blfrd

    Having read and enjoyed the book, I would say Carr’s concern has some merit. You and I did not grow up with the internet and our brains were shaped by traditional learning. Children or young adults that grow up with the internet will certainly have their brains wired differently. That is the difference between yourself and children/young adults. You had to learn to read deeply and construct your ideas because there was no internet. Younger people spend more time online than older people do.
    And just like Carr’s book certainly doesn’t spell doom for EVERY person using the internet, your personal experience certainly doesn’t de-bunk the premise: the internet is re-shaping the very way our culture thinks.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Hi Bill, thanks for the comment. I should clarify that I did enjoy Carr’s book, and do think that his primary claim—that the tools we use alter our brains in physical ways—is well substantiated. But that really shouldn’t be surprising, as our brains are always changing in response to what we experience and do. The real question is, are those changes in our brains resulting in observable social changes? If so, his argument would imply that we should be seeing those changes in young and old alike, regardless of whether they grew up with the Internet or not. Recall that Carr himself relies on a study that found it took non-Internet users only a week of web surfing to start demonstrating similar brain patterns to long-term Internet users (p 121). If that is the case, then we should be seeing common behavioral effects very quickly across the age spectrum.

      This is why I think his analysis would have been much stronger if he had made the kinds of distinctions I note in the post. “The Internet” comprises a wide array of information technologies, each of which have important differences, and not everyone uses a given tool in the same kinds of ways. What we need to do now is determine which kinds of tools are contributing to which kinds of social effects, and whether the problematic behavior of those tools is essential to its function, or only accidental. Only then can we domesticate these tools so that they better suit our stated cultural values.

      Lastly, I’m not sure I understand your final comment. If the Internet is “re-shaping the very way our culture thinks,” shouldn’t I, as a member of that culture, also experience the effects that Carr is predicting? Again, it’s his claim that this change happens rapidly and has little to do with generational differences.

      1. David Stearns Post author

        P.S. Carr also argues directly against the claim that those who grew up before the Internet should experience different effects than those who grew up with it. On page 226-7 he writes: “I’ve always been suspicious of those who seek to describe the effects of digital media in generational terms, drawing sharp contrasts between young ‘Internet natives’ and old ‘Internet immigrants.’ Such distinctions strike me as misleading, if not specious. If you look at statistics on Web use over the past two decades, you see that the average adult has spent more time online than the average kid.”

  2. blfrd

    Thanks for the input. As far as observable changes go, I can provide one example: On any weekend at a drinking establishment, you’ll see people glued to their phones. Conversations are interrupted or conversations that might have started between strangers, don’t occur at all. That’s just an observation.
    Others I’ve spoken to, have noted that when they meet friends, in person, they struggle with conversations, because their friends know everything they’ve been up to, because they’ve posted it online.
    As far as the ‘changes’ to our society, I think you’re probably right. Carr’s book could’ve gone further and made more distinctions. However, I do believe there will be ‘some’ evidence to support a negative effect. But probably on a smaller scale. My two cents. Thanks.

  3. Michael Giobbe

    Professor, alas you demonstrate the proposition you seek to refute: You criticize McLuhan, Ong, and of course Carr as “media determinists.” They are not: They are media ecologists. Media determinism is itself a shallow reading of the media ecology literature. (Eric McLuhan writes that one who accuses his father of media determinism proves only that he did not understand his work.)

    At the risk of ad hominem attack, which is not my purpose at all, let me point out that you have an earned doctorate from one of the oldest and most storied universities in the world–and as such are far more steeped in the habits of literate culture than the average reader or writer. Yet you are satisfied with a superficial reading of McLuhan and Ong. (Might this not be prima facie evidence of the effects of your immersion in digital media?)

    In your Figure/Ground interview with Laureano Ralon, you suggest that Christians writing on technology and culture would do well to move past the perspective of technological determinism. I couldn’t agree more–and I would recommend that they do so in part by undertaking a more full-orbed and in-depth study of media ecology. Beginning, perhaps, with McLuhan’s The Classical Trivium and Ong’s Ramus, Method And The Decay Of Dialogue. These are McLuhan’s doctoral dissertation at Cambridge and Ong’s at Harvard, respectively. This is the best antidote I know of to the attitude that the media ecology writers themselves are the source of the shallowness.

    Our challenge in understanding the effects of technology in the 21st century is not to supplant the works of the theorists of the 20th century, but to understand them well enough to build upon their work. This, so far, has been left substantially undone.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Ouch. I’m not really sure how I could take your second paragraph as anything but an ad hominem attack. I most certainly welcome correction of anything that I have misunderstood or misrepresented, but to accuse me of being “satisfied with a superficial reading of McLuhan and Ong” despite having studied at Edinburgh is a personal attack on my character, and a rather poor assumption about my motivations as a scholar. Since you don’t know me and I don’t know you (though it does seem we have a few common friends), perhaps we should refrain from assuming things about each other’s characters and motivations, and just stick to discussing the ideas.

      I also should clarify that I am a historian of technology, not a media ecologist, and as such, I probably read McLuhan, Ong, and even Carr with a different sensitivity than you do. When historians read such works, statements that seem to reduce historical causation to one or a simple set of forces will tend to stand out. It is these kinds of statements that I object to because I think they are misleading.

      This is where I think historians and media ecologists often miss one another. I am not an instrumentalist. I agree that the media/tools we use shape the way we think and relate to one another. I just don’t think that they shape us in deterministic ways, nor that they are solely responsible for large-scale cultural shifts. I’m guessing (or at least I hope) that you also agree with that. What historians are trying to do is add more nuance to the provocative and (I think) overstated historical claims that one often finds in popularizations of McLuhan and Ong (such as the book this post is about), and sometimes finds in the works of these scholars themselves.

      Now, it sounds like you think McLuhan, Ong, as well as those who have popularized their ideas (such as Carr) are not really espousing technological determinism. I find that interesting, and would like to hear more about why you think that, as well as what you think the term ‘technological determinism’ means. As you probably know, there are many different interpretations of that term, so we should clarify what we mean by it (you can read my understanding of it in this post).

      It is entirely possible that I am misrepresenting McLuhan as a technological determinist. It sounds like you’ve read more of his work than I have, so I welcome your insights. But when I encounter statements like “Print created individualism and nationalism in the sixteenth century,” (Understanding Media, 19-20) I have to wonder how one can interpret this in any other way. The rhetorical construction “[technology] created [social condition]” certainly implies one-way deterministic influence.

      From what I’ve read, it doesn’t appear that I am the only one who has gotten this impression of McLuhan. Since this post was about Nicholas Carr’s book, let’s start with him. Carr writes, “In the most extreme expression of the determinist view, human beings become little more than ‘the sex organs of the machine world,’ as McLuhan memorably wrote in the ‘Gadget Lover’ chapter of Understanding Media” (The Shallows, 46). So if both McLuhan and Carr are not media determinists, why is Carr saying that McLuhan is?

      I’m also currently reading a fascinating set of essays about Elizabeth Eisenstein’s work entitled Agent of Change, edited by Sabrina Alcorn Baron, Eric N Lindquist and Elanor Shevlin. In the introduction, the editors pay complement to an essay by Andrew Hadfield, in which he wrote: “What Eisenstein’s analysis highlights is that the rising hegemony of printing did not precipitate a transformation based on a change in the means of intellectual production, as technological determinists like Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan would claim” (8). Later on in that introduction, the editors note that Eisenstein herself was often placed in “the technological determinist company of Marshall McLuhan, whom Eisenstein acknowledges as an inspiration but from whom she has nevertheless distanced herself” (10).

      Andrew Murphie and John Potts, both media scholars from Australia, had this to say in their insightful review of the field entitled Culture and Technology: “McLuhan is emphatically a technological determinist, defining history by technological change…. McLuhan’s writing is deliberately provocative and often simplistic; it also ignores the socio-economic factors underpinning these cultural developments, as his many critics have pointed out” (13-14).

      The noted historian of technology David Nye had this to say in his book Technology Matters: “For McLuhan, innovations in communications, notably the printing press, radio, and television, had automatic effects on society. Unlike Ogburn, McLuhan paid little attention to reciprocal effects or social inventions…. Although the details of their analyses varied, both McLuhan’s arguments and [Alvin] Toffler’s were externalist, treating technologies as autonomous forces that compel society to change” (27). Nye goes on to describe how externalist histories take a technological determinist approach, which he finds problematic.

      I could provide more examples, but I think you get the point. One must ask, if all these scholars (and more) got the impression that McLuhan is a technological determinist, are they all just “satisfied with a shallow reading” of his work? Or does McLuhan make problematic historical claims that are open to this kind of critique?

      Lastly, I have no wish to “supplant the works of the theories of the 20th century.” In fact, I am currently organizing a conference to do just what you suggest: to understand and build upon the work of Ellul, McLuhan, Postman, Ong, and Borgmann. If you are interested in attending, let me know and I’d be happy to send you some information about it.

      1. Michael Giobbe

        I owe you an apology, at the least. I misread your comments concerning McLuhan, whom you have clearly made an earnest and sustained effort to understand.

        I do believe that most scholars get McLuhan wrong, in that they read his work with no poetic ear at all, but only as a set of propositional statements to be verified or falsified. In a 1976 interview with Tom Snyder, McLuhan was asked why he was sometimes difficult to understand. To which he replied, “Because I use the right hemisphere when they’re trying to use the left hemisphere. Simple.”

        Likewise, most scholars do not read McLuhan on his own terms, but on theirs. Nye’s quote above is typical of the genre–almost true, certainly defensible, and nearly completely misreads McLuhan’s work. McLuhan argued not for the “automatic” effects of media, but for environmental changes wrought by media. In other words, it is not that a new communication medium “causes” the culture to change, but mediates the communication of the culture differently than the previous medium did, and so the ground rules do change. If we understand communication as the means through which a culture creates and defines itself, then any shift in the ground rules of that communication therefore changes the entire culture defined by it. And, not coincidentally, those changes inevitably resemble the physical features-of-use of the new defining medium, which becomes the major metaphor and organizing principle of the culture. It’s not automatic. But it most certainly happens.

        (And so it is, for instance, that the major contours of church history follow fairly directly the major contours of communication history. The argument here is not quite “this caused that”, but rather “this follows that–every time. Always has.”)

        A fuller understanding of this would entail reading more of McLuhan than most scholars are comfortable with. And in that reading, McLuhan draws heavily on his early work on the classical trivium, which most of his critics have no knowledge of. Instead, they essentially accuse him of cheating, in one form or another. And where he demonstrates paradox, his critics often faulted him for mere contradiction. Or voodoo. Or worse.

        Reading McLuhan is as much an exercise in poetry and of Lectio Divina-style meditation as it is a study of sociology or history. In the course of that reading, McLuhan explains why this is so. He also explained that the most effective way to counteract “determinism”–the “automatic” effects–is to understand them. To do this effectively, however, one must at least temporarily let go of the “home field advantage” of one’s own worldview.

        This is precisely what the majority of McLuhan’s critics, to this day, are unwilling to do.

        I apologize, for I mistook you for just such a critic. And I was wrong.

      2. David Stearns Post author

        Thanks for the apology, Michael. I read your article about the role of media ecology in church history (“How Wide and How Long…”) and enjoyed. You are very good writer. Perhaps we could collaborate on a post about McLuhan and Ong. I would like to understand them better, and it sounds like you have spent a good deal of time reading them. We can work out the details on email.

  4. Pingback: Sherlock, or Why Engineers Need to be Involved in the Christian Commentary on Technology | tech.soul.culture

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