Nicholas Carr: The Internet is Hurting Our Brains

The man who famously asked if IT matters is back with a loaded question: Is the Internet, and especially Google, physically hurting your brain functions such as memory? His new book, The Shallows, is no Luddite rant, but it raises some interesting questions.

How familiar is this? You're reading an online newspaper article on the Gulf oil spill, but before you get half through, you've clicked on links that lead you to fascinating pieces about marine biology, Sarah Palin, and Moby Dick. As you return to the original story, a pair of alerts tells you that a buddy has updated his Facebook page and your son has Tweeted something from the ballpark, which in turn links to a really cool video about Barry Bonds. Got to check those, of course, and by the time you return to the newspaper article, you've forgotten the point of the story and don't bother to finish it.

In an often-quoted, 2008 essay in The Atlantic, author Nicholas Carr asked "Is Google Making Us Stupid." At the time, my feeling was, yes, the Web can distract us and keep us from doing important work, but stupid? No way.

Now I'm not so sure. Carr has expanded his essay into a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains that delves into the structure of the brain and the effect that constant stimulation has on our ability to concentrate, remember, reason and even empathize. As you probably assumed, he doesn't think the Internet is making us smarter.

"Over the last few years, I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory," he writes.

And Google, says Carr, is a big part of the problem.

Your Brain on Google

"Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention — and it's in Google's economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible," he writes. "Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction."

Before I go further, I should say that The Shallows is not an anti-technology rant or Luddite manifesto. Indeed, if the book has a very obvious failing, it's the lack of direction or solutions for readers who agree with the conclusion. Carr, a prolific blogger and commentator on technology, is hardly pining for some golden age of contemplative intellectualism, and notes that major new communication-related technologies, from Gutenberg's press to television are disruptive and invariably met with cries of alarm.

Consider this complaint made more than 400 years ago: "One of the great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world," the English writer Barnaby Rich moaned in 1600.

If Carr had only talked about the Internet and digital technology as distractions, his book might still be interesting, but not very significant. It's no great insight to realize that texting while driving is stupid, or that responding to every Tweet and clicking on every link will keep you from getting anything done.

Carr marshals a good deal of evidence drawn from recent, and not so recent experimental work, which shows, he believes, that the use of digital technology is actually changing not just what we do, but how we think.

He refers us to the work of Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA development psychologist who studies the use of media and its effect on learning: "Every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others. Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of simultaneous signals, like air traffic control. But that has been accompanied by new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes, including abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination."

Or as Carr puts it: "We're becoming, in a word, shallower."

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