The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Well, I finally did it. After a year of private grumbling and modest pushback against the devotees of Nick Carr's The Shallows, I finally read it for myself. I did so as an act of intellectual humility, in part, and to accommodate another act of intellectual humility--I had invited some Carrites to present their buzzkill take on the Internet era at a retreat I was coordinating, and all we retreatants had effectively committed ourselves to reading it in advance. So I read it. And my opinion has not changed by much.
What I never really doubted was the strength of Carr's writing and research. He's almost literally voluminous, drawing on insights spanning millennia and a variety of professions and disciplines to offer what is necessarily a preliminary critique of the Internet as a cultural phenomenon. You have to admire Carr's capacity to synthesize these disparate data and anecdotes, even to find them and intuit their value to his argument. What bugs me about The Shallows is what a buzzkill it really is.
The premise of the book comes from Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid," and his most journalistic material is a sort of corporate philosophical biography of that organization. Google is admittedly audacious and self-righteous in its quest to efficiently collect and disseminate all the world's information, and Carr rightly wonders what is lost when Google becomes the de facto conduit through which all the world's information--from protons and neurons to War and Peace--funnels into our sensory and meditative minds. We become less researchers, less readers, less inquirers, and more, well, googlers.
That much is obvious; what's most interesting about Carr's book is what that evolution/devolution entails, which is a radical rewiring of our brains. I'm reminded of a scene from The Office, in which Michael Scott is challenging the new web-oriented sales pitch of his paper company. Eager to prove the enduring strength of good old fashioned pressing the flesh and hand-delivering fruit baskets, Michael sets out in his Chrysler Sebring convertible, and the car's GPS promptly instructs him to drive into a lake. Any idiot would have stopped the car, but Michael is not just any idiot; no matter how much he protests his enslavement to the virtual gods of computer code, he does what they tell him and suffers for it.
This is not exactly Carr's point, but he does suggest, in Mcluhanite form, that as we enjoy the benefits of the Internet and its recalibration of information-gathering, we are also forsaking/abandoning/being stripped of intellectual capacities that don't fit the mold of the online age. Principal among these capacities are deep analytical and meditative thinking, empathy and moral judgment, long-term memory, and whatever else of the classic intellect requires time and nonlinear inefficiency to flourish.
I know, right? Buzzkill. Especially because Carr doesn't offer any clear suggestions for mitigating this remapping of our brains. They're there, I suppose--go for walks in nature, read booklength treatments on paper, sleep regularly--but they're not pointed suggestions, and they hardly seem adequate to combat the Internet juggernaut. I found myself thinking that someone read Carr's article on Google and thought These five thousand words were good; I'll bet fourteen times as many words on the same topic would be great! Carr writes, I suspect, mainly to impress, to remind us that human beings can think and process information and make alarmist prophecies better than any old Internet. That he does; what he doesn't do is give us any guidance into keeping our brains appropriately nimble and sharp and deep and strong.
I probably came to the book with this assessment from the beginning, I'm willing to admit. Carr's reminder is that while something is gained via new technologies, something is also lost. He needs to be regularly reminded, of course--especially given the futility that charges throughout the book--that while something is lost, something is also gained. Maybe it's my profession--as an editor at a Christian publisher--but I've been trained and charged to regularly present "payoffs" in the pages of a book. We call them "cookies," and we try hard to "put the cookies on the bottom shelf" so that people are sure to find them and put them to good use. Carr's book is cookie-less; it's seventy-thousand-some words of drinking castor oil in the vain hope that it will somehow fix what ails us. Knowledge is power, Carr agrees with Google, but unlike Google, you leave Carr's book without a good sense of what to do with the power you've been given.
The Smothers Brothers once recorded a take on the story of John Henry, who laid tracks for cross-country rail. John Henry was the fastest, strongest worker on the line, but one day the powers that be brought in a steam drill to do the line-worker's work. It could outpace everyone, and to prove it, John Henry was challenged to a duel. "Wop wop wop," the Smothers Brothers sang, giving voice to the tense drama of man versus machine, the futile battle against human obsolescence. Their song ended as follows:
"Well, John Henry said to the captain,
'By God, I ain't no fool.
Before I die with a hammer in my hand
I'm gonna get me a steam drill too.'"
Nick Carr uses Google. He may well be on the Internet right now. To him, to the powers that be, to myself, to all of us, I say: Keep exercising your brain in a variety of ways. And when new technologies present themselves and threaten to rewire us in their image, well, shut up and deal with it.
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