Once you have the basics of a given technological leap in place, it’s always important to step back and focus on the people for a while.
Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget

Nicholas Carr, a widely regarded journalist and author, experienced a rude awakening when he realized that he could no longer drum up the concentration required to read a book. He soon discovered that many of his friends and colleagues reported being similarly unable to calm their minds and read at length anymore, preferring the rapid pace of the Internet to the quiet solitude of the book. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Carr synthesizes the history of intellectual technology with today’s burgeoning understanding of brain plasticity, in an attempt to allay his fear that “the tumultuous advance of [the Internet] could…drown out the refined perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that arise only through contemplation and reflection” (222).

Carr writes that the Internet and its effects on human consciousness cannot fully be considered without viewing the Internet as the most recent invention in a class of innovations knows as “intellectual technologies,” which have delineated the path of human consciousness through history:

The map and the clock…might best be called…“intellectual technologies.” These include all the tools we use to extend or support our mental powers–to find and classify information, to formulate and articulate ideas, to share know-how and knowledge, to take measurements and perform calculations, to expand the capacity of our memory. The typewriter is an intellectual technology. So are the abacus and the slide rule, the sextant and the globe, the book and the newspaper, the school and the library, the computer and the Internet. Although the use of any kind of tool can influence our thoughts and perspectives…it is our intellectual technologies that have the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think. They are our most intimate tools, the ones we use for self-expression, for shaping personal and public identity, and for cultivating relations with others (44).

Five-hundred years ago, the printing press unleashed the greatest intellectual technology to date–the book–on the minds of humanity, redefining intelligence as a trait marked by “solitary, single-minded concentration” (114). Carr calls the dominant mode of thought fostered by a given intellectual technology its “intellectual ethic,” citing calm, meditative, linear, and deep thinking as the dominant mode fostered by book reading.

One tricky aspect of the intellectual ethic of a technology, notes Carr, is that it is not immediately apparent to the inventors or even the users of the technology, who are usually intent on making scientific progress or gaining practical benefits, respectively. On the intellectual ethic of the Internet, Carr writes,

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: 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 or rewards (115).

Drawing upon recent advances in our understanding of neuroplasticity, Carr explains how the intellectual ethic of a technology actually reshapes the human brain at the biological level, in turn altering consciousness. The intellectual ethic of the book promotes deep thinking, and the brain responds by optimizing for that mode of thought. Unlike books, many features of the Web, such as hyperlinks and multimedia, activate the prefrontal cortex, maximizing cognitive load and making screen-based reading a “cognitively strenuous act” (122). This precludes “[o]ur ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction” (122).

Finally, Carr claims that our brain’s adaptation to the presiding intellectual technology of the day is a qualitatively neutral process (222), and that we owe it to ourselves to find a balance between the narrow, slow, and deep intellectual ethic of the book, and the broad, fast, and shallow ethic of the Internet.

This book is fascinating, easy to read, and full of great science and history of technology, conceived broadly. Carr infuses his narrative with just the right amount of nostalgia for the pre-Internet mind–he is at times romantic for the past but never hopeless for the future. If you want to understand the difference between book reading and Internet browsing at the level of the brain, start here.

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