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Dead From the Internet

Reading is the most obvious casualty of the digital age.

By 8.10.10

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The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
By Nicholas Carr
(W.W. Norton, 276 pages, $26.95)

Nicholas Carr has written a deep book about shallow thinking. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains relies on scientific studies, troubling anecdotes, and societal trends to show that online culture has resulted in offline brains. "A new intellectual ethic is taking hold," Carr holds. "The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted."

The human brain is malleable, plastic, ever-changing, Carr posits. Just as clocks, mass-produced books, and typewriters affected the way people behave and think, the Internet is again changing the way the brain works. Citing scientific research, Carr notes how the Internet stimulates once dormant mental pathways but closes down previously traveled ones. And when it comes to retaining and understanding information, scientists are finding that stimulation doesn't necessarily equal smarts. The sensory overload of a graphically aggressive video game or of a pornographic image stimulates the brain. But it anesthetizes the mind. And it is not as healthy for the brain as a simple book. "When it comes to the firing of our neurons," Carr holds, "it's a mistake to assume athat more is better."

Technology has made communications, media, research, and so many other sectors more efficient. But what drawbacks have accompanied the benefits? "I don't read books," Carr quotes a Rhodes Scholar and recent president of Florida State's student body. "Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn't make sense." He googles his way to expertise. Similarly, The Shallows reports an English literature professor at Duke candidly confessing, "I can't get my students to read whole books anymore." These aren't dropouts scorning literacy, but the young people touted as the best and the brightest. Smart people are using reason to rationalize intellectual laziness as progress and to ridicule time-tested methods of acquiring knowledge and wisdom as outdated. By this way, a literary culture is giving way to a passive digital culture -- and a literary subculture that may appear to posterity the way monocles, duels, and arranged marriages appear to us. Intuitively, intelligent people sense that this is not advancement. But the agents of the technological juggernaut, whose billionaire bottom lines are at stake, tell us it is progress. And who can compete with their advertising/propaganda?

Reading is the most obvious casualty of the digital age.

People generally don't read online. They skim. Since the Internet increasingly serves as the source of newspaper, magazine, and even book reading, the differences between reading from a screen and reading from a book are profoundly important. Researcher Jakob Nielsen studied the eye patterns of web users, discovering that web surfers generally scan the text in an "F" pattern. For every 100 words added to a web page, surfers will spend an extra 4.4 seconds. This is enough time to grasp very few words -- even for a speed reader. Nielsen advised his clients that surfers will read less than 20 percent of the posted words. It's not called a web "browser" for nothing.

Reading online doesn't encourage concentration. The reader is bombarded with links luring him away from the text, pop-up adverts averting his eyes elsewhere, and sonic notifications of incoming mail demanding attention. The background noise flashes brightly and the visual distractions hum loudly. "Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle," Carr counsels; "that's the intellectual environment of the Internet."

The Internet has legitimized a Cliff Notes version of reading, in which mining Google, Wikipedia, or other online sources for information passes for comprehension of a given subject. Context and understanding lose out to the utility of possessing a collection of disjointed facts. Pre-internet, such uncouth practices as the "index read" and passing off reading a review for reading a book marked one as a poseur. Post-internet, the Google Expert, the Lexis-Nexis Archivist, and the Wikipedia Wizard are no longer figures of scorn who mistake a fragmentary knowledge for a thorough understanding. The Shallows posits:

A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text, a few words or sentences that have strong relevance to whatever we're searching for at the moment, while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole. We don't see the forest when we search the Web. We don't even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.

In the proximity of its release date, likeminded mixed-bag view of the digital age, and jarringly similar invocation of such works as Plato's Phaedrus, Seneca's Letters from a Stoic, and Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows invites comparisons to William Powers's Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. Though derivative of Powers's famous 2007 "Hamlet's Blackberry" research paper, Carr's book compares favorably with Powers's book.

"We want friendly, helpful software," Carr concedes. "Why wouldn't we? Yet as we cede to software more of the toil of thinking, we are likely diminishing our own brain power in subtle but meaningful ways. When a ditchdigger trades his shovel for a backhoe, his arm muscles weaken even as his efficiency increases. A similar trade-off may well take place as we automate the work of the mind." The relevant question is: What will humanity look like after it delegates its mental exercise to electronic gizmos, gadgets, and doodads? 

Nicholas Carr mixes neuroscience, pop culture, technology, education, psychology, and other seemingly disparate topics into a gratifying stew. It is light reading on a heavy subject. In its crowd-pleasing style of separating weighty chapters with brief "digressions," and its topicality in focusing on an issue that affects virtually everyone living in the virtual world, The Shallows makes for good beach reading. Just leave the Kindle behind and bring the hardback. You'll still be able to read it after exposure to sun, surf, and sand -- and you might actually read a book instead of skimming one.

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.