“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”
– Frank Costello, from The Departed
“Today, at last, the mists that have obscured the interplay between technology and the mind are beginning to lift. The recent discoveries about neuroplasticity make the essence of the intellect more visible, its steps and boundaries easier to mark. They tell us that the tools man has used to support or extend his nervous system – all those technologies that through history have influenced how we find, store, and interpret information, how we direct our attention and engage our senses, how we remember and how we forget – have shaped the physical structure and workings of the human mind. Their use has strengthened some neural circuits and weakened others, reinforced certain mental traits while leaving others to fade away. Neuroplasticity provides the missing link to our understanding of how informational media and other intellectual technologies have exerted their influence over the development of civilization and helped to guide, at a biological level, the history of human consciousness.”
– Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, pg. 48
(Personal Note: I have been constantly pondering and wrestling with the ideas in Mr. Carr’s book ever since I read it back in February of this year. There is a certain amount of irony that this book review of mine is being published on an internet website (with pictures and hyperlinks and everything else that goes along with a web page). I have come round to the conclusion that Mr. Carr is touching upon something incredibly important and fundamental to how modern day culture works and influences us. This book review, as a result, is long and has taken me months to write. I would be very surprised if even 1 out of 20 of online readers who see this review can manage to read through the entire thing. And this fact alone is further evidence in support of Mr. Carr’s conclusions. After all is said and done, I would strongly recommend that you take the time to read and think through Mr. Carr’s book (even, if you are willing, before you read this review). Then, if you return to this review afterwards, it will summarize and discuss the ideas of the book and the primarily objections that have been made against it over the last couple years.)
It is a debate that ranges all the way back to the days of the ancients. It’s the debate between determinists and those philosophers who believe in the free will of man. The determinists argue that our choices, our desires, and our lives are predetermined by an outside force: fate, the gods, a Calvinist God, the bourgeois, or the behaviorist influences of your genetic code, social power constructs, upbringing, or outside environment. The adherents to free will argue that our own fates and the paths in life that we take are chosen by the exertion of our own wills; that we make real choices and decisions that form who we are. I’ve personally always fallen somewhere in the middle of this debate, which I think is naturally the result of making just a few logical distinctions.
First, through the use of reason, thinking people can deduce their way to the reasonable conclusion that man does, indeed, possess free will. This is the conclusion of most mainstream Enlightenment philosophers and orthodox Christian theologians. It is ultimately based on what it means to be self-conscious beings. But, secondly, I would still allow for the fact that the determinists are not all wrong. In fact, I would even admit that the determinists are at least apparently right for a large number of people. For most people who don’t bother to think for themselves, who are too lazy, who are not interested in thinking through their own decisions – their lives are often lived as if they did not have free wills of their own. Their desires and choices are shaped by mere mood swings, pop culture fads and thrill-seeking, and everything else that they just passively allow to influence and form them.
Nicholas Carr, with his book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains , is essentially making these same distinctions. But he does so in a way that is more informative than most likely anything you have ever read (unless you are in the habit of reading Neil Postman or Marshall McLuhan, who both seem to be Carr’s intellectual godfathers). Carr takes a close look at the determinist/free will debate in the context of how the technology that we use actually wires and forms our brains.
“For centuries, historians and philosophers have traced, and debated, technology’s role in shaping civilization. Some have made the case for what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen dubbed ‘technological determinism’; they’ve argued that technological progress, which they see as an automonmous force outside man’s control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history. Karl Marx gave voice to this view when he wrote, ‘The windmill gives you a society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.’ …
At the other end of the spectrum are the instrumentalists – the people who, like David Sarnoff, downplay the power of technology, believing tools to be neutral artifacts subservient to the conscious wishes of their users. Our instruments are the means we use to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own. Instrumentalism is the most widely held view of technology, not least because it’s the view we prefer to be true …”(pg. 46)
Instrumentalism does have far more appeal. I would like very much to object to the idea that surfing the internet or watching TV determines what sort of person I am. I’ve tried to argue, in the past, that it is, in fact, choosing the content that really matters. But, Carr is not arguing that content does not matter. Instead, he’s pointing out that good or bad content aside, the use of a technology still affects the neuron pathways in your brain. Repeated use strengthens some of the wiring in your brain. Disuse weakens neural pathways in your brain.
Carr refers to McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and points out what cannot really be denied. The use of a medium even helps shape the content and the depth of a message.
“What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it – and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.” (pg. 3)
Now, I admit to being initially uncomfortable with the idea that the content matters less than the medium. But then I took a second look at what Carr is applying this to. He is applying this insight to howwhat we do forms the way that we think. The use of one medium, even in the service of good content, can encourage poor thinking skills. The use of a different medium, even in the service of objectionable content, can cultivate patterns of deeper thinking. Carr anticipates our wanting to focus on the content first:
“Our focus on a medium’s content can blind us to these deep effects. We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads. In the end, we come to pretend that the technology itself doesn’t matter. It’s how we use it that matters, we tell ourselves. The implication, comforting in its hubris, is that we’re in control. The technology is just a tool, inert until we pick it up and inert again once we set it aside.” (pg. 3)
For the rest of his book, Mr. Carr carefully crafts a take-down, assisted by both philosophy and science, of the assumption that quality of message is always more important than the effects of its medium. The internet, he argues, is changing and shaping us. Your use of the internet is making you into a different sort of person. The time I spend browsing webpages is wiring my brain differently (for specific thinking abilities) than other people who spend less (or no) time browsing webpages. Some of these effects are good and useful. But, some of them are not. Mr. Carr begins, logically and naturally, with the recently scientifically established idea of the plasticity of the human brain.
The Neuroplasticity of the Brain
It turns out that another of our assumptions about the brain has been disproved by science.
“Even as our knowledge of the physical workings of the brain advanced during the last century, one old assumption remained firmly in place: most biologists and neurologists continued to believe, as they had for hundreds of years, that the structure of the adult brain never changed. Our neurons would connect into circuits during childhood, when our brains were malleable, and as we reached maturity the circuitry would become fixed.” (pg. 20)
In other words, we used to think that how our faculties were developed in childhood, that there was a certain young age at which point our brains were more suggestive and where our neurons were formed to establish thinking habits that we were to keep for the rest of our lives. Thanks to modern medical science that began with the study of brain damage and treatment, this assumption has turned out to be false.
“The brain is not the machine we once thought it to be. Though different regions are associated with different mental functions, the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They’re flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need.” (pg. 29)
“Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created. ‘The brain,’ observes [James] Olds, ‘has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.” (pgs. 26-27)
This makes sense when you think about it. When you are taught, for example, how to drive, your form new habits (instincts, even) that make much of the process unconscious. This is because repeated physical and mental activity wires neural pathways in your brain. For this same reason, a person with brain damage who loses the use, say, of his right arm, can regain use of that arm by practice as his brain rewires itself.
“The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring but that it doesn’t. Natural selection, writes the philosopher David Buller in ‘Adapting Minds’, his critique of evolutionary psychology, ‘has not designed a brain that consists of numerous prefabricated adaptations’ but rather one that is able ‘to adapt to local environmental demands throughout the lifetime of an individual, and sometimes within a period of days, by forming specialized structures to deal with those demands.’” (pg. 31)
This fact about our brains has consequences that are worth understanding. If you know how your brain “wires” itself, then you can choose to do things that will wire your own brain in particular ways. Most of us have always known that repeated, sometimes forced, conduct will teach us how to perform an act more easily. Men and women have always purposefully taught themselves habits. This is also a regular and common sense goal within any educational system. But, if we can do things to form particular pathways in our brains to help ourselves, then we can obviously also do the opposite.
“But the news is not all good. Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits of our brain strengthen through the reptition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. The paradox of neuroplasticity, observes Doidge, is that, for all the mental flexibility it grants us, it can end up locking us into ‘rigid behaviors.’ The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain, Doidge writes, ‘we long to keep it activated.’ That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away.” (pg. 34)
Often if you repeatedly engage in an activity, you will begin to find yourself wanting to do it again. The desire to do something can be created by doing it. How’s that for the determinist/free will debate? To a certain extent, we can even create some of our own desires. Carr continues –
“The potential for unwelcome neuroplastic adaptations also exists in the everyday, normal functioning of our minds. Experiments show that just as the brain can build new or stronger circuits through physical or mental practice, those circuits can weaken or dissolve with neglect. ‘If we stop exercising our mental skills,’ writes Doidge, ‘we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.” Jeffrey Schwartz, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s medical school, terms this process ‘survival of the busiest.’ The mental skills we sacrifice may be as valuable, or even more valuable, than the ones we gain. When it comes to the quality of our thought, our neurons and synapses are entirely indifferent. The possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains.” (pg. 35)
Perhaps most readers knew this sort of thing already, but I had never heard or read a description of it this practical before. Mental circuits in the brain are either cultivated and therefore strengthened or abandoned to disuse and weakened. This is why habits can form or die. This is why practice of any skill, physical or mental, perfects the performance of that skill – and why little practice weakens it. If you strengthen communicative circuits in your brain by learning a different language, like Spanish, then learning a third language like French will be even easier. If you get into a pattern of lazy behavior, like using a calculator to perform simplistic mathematical calculations, then your mental ability will weaken.
These principles apply to reading as well. If you don’t read as often as you used to, then it will be more difficult for you to concentrate on a book for very long periods of time. Carr explains how this works in more detail. But first, he uses a historical shift in how people used to think as an example. The technology of writing fundamentally changed the brains of our ancestors.
On the Historical Transition From the Oral Culture to the Literate Culture
“… around 750 BC … the Greeks invented the first complete phonetic alphabet. The Greek alphabet had many forerunners, particularly the system of letters developed by the Phoenicians a few centuries earlier, but linguists generally agree that it was the first to include characters representing vowel sounds as well as consonant sounds … The Greek alphabet became the model for most subsequent Western alphabets, including the Roman alphabet that we still use today. Its arrival marked the start of one of the most far-reaching revolutions in intellectual history: the shift from an oral culture, in which knowledge was exchanged mainly by speaking, to a literary culture, in which writing became the major medium for expressing thought. It was a revolution that would eventually change the lives, and the brains of nearly everyone on earth …” (pgs. 53-54)
Just so that we’re clear – writing, and reading, are learned habits that, when you learn them, form neural circuits in your brain. These are circuits that will strengthen or weaken during your lifetime. But, if you realize that “…[r]eading and writing require schooling and practice, the deliberate shaping of the brain …” (pg. 51), then you can actually choose to weaken or strengthen them. Decide to watch more TV, your reading and concentration abilities will get worse. Decide to read even just one book a week, and your reading and attention span will increase in power.
But this means that, beginning in ancient times before writing, people developed other mental circuits in their brains instead. In the oral tradition, other mental powers were exercised.
“In a purely oral culture, thinking is governed by the capacity of human memory. Knowledge is what you recall, and what you recall is limited to what you can hold in your mind. Through the millennia of man’s preliterate history, language evolved to aid the storage of complex information … Diction and syntax became highly rhythmical, tuned to the ear … Knowledge was embedded in ‘poetry,’ as Plato defined it, and a specialized class of poet-scholars became the human devices, the flesh-and-blood intellectual technologies, for information storage, retrieval, and transmission … The oral world of our distant ancestors may well have had emotional and inuitive depths that we can no longer appreciate. McLuhan believed that preliterate peoples must have enjoyed a particularly intense ‘sensuous involvement’ with the world. When we learned to read, he argued, we suffered a ‘considerable detachment from the feelings or emotional involvement that a nonliterate man or society would experience.’” (pgs. 56-57)
Reliance upon technology always results in the loss or disuse of a human ability. With the technology as his tool, man will be more efficient or effective. But, without the technology, man’s reliance upon it will mean that he has not had to perform the tasks (for which the technology was invented) himself. In ancient times, people’s memories were exercised more. Today, our memories are weaker. We commit little to nothing to memorization. In ancient times, men memorized the equivalent of whole books.
Carr next takes the reader through a logical progression that, by the time he’s through, began to convince me that he was on to something historically important. There are a few facts about writing and reading that you may not have known.
1 – As Writing Began, Everyone Always Read Out-Loud
Did you know when people first started reading historically that they didn’t read silently? I didn’t. But, when you think about how an oral culture would treat the written word, it does make sense. Before writing, the purpose of words was speech. There is no reason that it would be readily apparent to someone who is used to an oral tradition that written words could be read without speaking them.
“Even as the technology of the book sped ahead, the legacy of the oral world continued to shape the way words on pages were written and read. Silent reading was largely unknown in the ancient world. The new codices, like the tablets and scrolls that preceded them, were almost always read aloud, whether the reader was in a group or alone. In a famous passage in his Confessions, Saint Augustine described the surprise he felt when, around the year AD 380, he saw Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading silently to himself. ‘When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still,’ wrote Augustine. ‘Often, when we came to see him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.’ Baffled by such peculiar behavior, Augustine wondered whether Ambrose ‘needed to spare his voice, which quite easily became hoarse.’” (pgs. 60-61.)
St. Augustine’s surprise is humorous to us today, but Carr brings it up to remind us how a technology like writing can change and shape us. Writing has given us the ability to see and think words without speaking them, to allow a writer’s voice to work its way through our minds as we digest his story or argument. You often remember far more of what you read than what you hear. A person reading silently is using his or her brain a little differently than a person who is reading out loud. More on this later.
2 – There Were Originally No Spaces Between Words or Any Standards for Word Order
or, in other words – twotherespacesbetweenwordsnowereoriginallyorwordorderstandardsany
Actually, that’s not really what Carr wrote. Here it is instead –
“It’s hard for us to imagine today, but no spaces separated the words in early writing. In the books inked by scribes, words ran together without any break across every line on every page, in what’s now referred to as scriptura continua. The lack of word separation reflected language’s origins in speech. When we talk, we don’t insert pauses between each word – long stretches of syllables flow unbroken from our lips. It would never have crossed the minds of the first writers to put blank spaces between words. They were simply transcribing speech, writing what their ears told them to write. (Today, when young children begin to write, they also run their words together. Like the early scribes, they write what they hear.) …
The lack of word separation, combined with the absence of word order conventions, placed an ‘extra cognitive burden’ on ancient readers, explains Paul Saenger in Space between Words, his history of the scribal book. Readers’ eyes had to move slowly and haltingly up to the start of a sentence, as their minds struggled to figure out where one word ended and a new one began and what role each word was playing in the meaning of the sentence. Reading was like working out a puzzle. The brain’s entire cortex, including the forward areas associated with problem solving and decision making, would have been buzzing with neural activity.” (pg. 61)
Even having read the above paragraphs before, if I still go directly from reading the spaceless paragraph to the regular word spaced paragraph, it is like a weight is lifted that was impeding and dragging down my reading. And, remember, that paragraph still has standard word order. Ancient writing didn’t. In reading a page of spaceless unordered text, your brain has to work much harder in order to decipher it. You are using problem solving parts of your brain that now, we no longer have to. It is Carr’s point that there are different kinds of reading. He explains it in more detail elsewhere in the book, but the type of engagement that a spaceless text has with your brain is not unlike the type of engagement that a web page has with your brain.
“In a very real way, the Web returns us to the time of scriptura continua, when reading was a cognitively strenuous act. In reading online, Maryanne Wolf says, we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible. We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged.” (pg. 122)
But, let’s keep following Carr’s groundwork.
3 – You Would Figure Out What You Were Reading by Sounding It Out
“The slow, cognitively intensive parsing of text made the reading of books laborious. It was also the reason no one, other than the odd case like Ambrose, read silently. Sounding out the syllables was crucial to deciphering the writing. Those constraints, which would seem intolerable to us today, didn’t matter much in a culture still rooted in orality. ‘Because those who read relished the mellifluous metrical and accentual patterns of pronounced text,’ writes Saenger, ‘the absence of interword space in Greek and Latin was not perceived to be an impediment to effective reading, as it would be to the modern reader, who strives to read swiftly.’” (pgs 61-62)
4 – Adding Spaces and Word Order Allowed for Deeper Reading
“By the start of the second millennium, writers had begun to impose rules of word order on their work, fitting words into a predictable, standardized system of syntax. At the same time, beginning in Ireland and England and then spreading throughout the rest of western Europe, scribes started dividing sentences into individual words, separated by spaces … Writing, for the first time, was aimed as much at the eye as the ear …
The placing of spaces between words alleviated the cognitive strain involved in deciphering text, making it possible for people to read quickly, silently, and with greater comprehension. Such fluency had to be learned. It required complex changes in the circuitry of the brain, as contemporary studies of young readers reveal …As the brain becomes more adept at decoding text, turning what had been a demanding problem-solving exercise into a process that is essentially automatic, it can dedicate resources to the interpretation of meaning. What we today call ‘deep reading’ becomes possible. By ‘altering the neurophysiological process of reading,’ word separation ‘freed the intellectual faculties of the reader,’ Saenger writes; ‘even readers of modest intellectual capacity could read more swiftly, and they could understand an increasing number of inherently more difficult texts.” (pgs. 62-63)
All the book reviews of The Shallows that I’ve read have essentially ignored this logical progression. But, I believe Carr’s description of the shift from the oral to literary traditions is vital to the main point of his book. Each of these points are worth prolonged discussion in and of themselves. Imagine only being able to read by sounding the words out loud, by not being able to immediately recognize them by eyesight alone, by needing to speak in order to read. The entire activity of reading would be different.
Carr is arguing that deep, undistracted reading of the printed word encourages a depth of thought that, as a general rule, we do not find encouraged by other mental activity. Many of the reviewers of Carr’s book criticized it because they questioned the value of what he calls “deep reading.” But the fact remains that the act is possible only through practiced discipline and that it forms neural pathways in the brain that prove to be extremely valuable.
“Readers didn’t just become more efficient. They also became more attentive. To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to ‘lose oneself’ in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible.” (pg. 63)
“The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply … Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was – and is – the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading.” (pg. 64-65)
The ability to concentrate, the ability to meditate upon and to ponder meaning, the faculty of reason is inherently strengthened by depth in your reading habits. Studies that Carr cites later show that the very act of reading a page of writing with spaces between the words frees up most of the rest of your brain to think about and process the meaning of the author with your past ideas and experiences. Before word order and spaces, most of your brain was engaged in the pure problem-solving task of deciphering the text. Rules of grammar freed us from this. Our eyes recognize the words on the page in mere fractions of a second. We aren’t thinking about sounding out the words, instead we are thinking about the ideas that the words convey to us. This is how a good author is able to engage and grip our attention in ways that he or she couldn’t before.
“The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer’s work … Our rich literary tradition is unthinkable without the intimate exchanges that take place between reader and writer within the crucible of a book. After Gutenberg’s invention, the bounds of language expanded rapidly as writers, competing for the eyes of ever more sophisticated and demanding readers, strived to express ideas and emotions with superior clarity, elegance, and originality. The vocabulary of the English language, once limited to just a few thousand words, expanded to upwards of a million words as books proliferated. Many of the new words encapsulated abstract concepts that simply hadn’t existed before. Writers experimented with syntax and diction, opening new pathways of thought and imagination. Reading eagerly traveled down those pathways, becoming adept at following fluid, elaborate, and idiosyncratic prose and verse. The ideas that writers could express and readers could interpret became more complex and subtle, as arguments wound their way linearly across many pages of text. As language expanded, consciousness deepened.” (pgs. 74-75)
If you think about it, language expands consciousness. A smaller vocabulary limits our ability to communicate with each other. Therefore, a person in possession of a small vocabulary is going to express his or her thoughts in a more limited and superficial fashion. It follows that a larger and ever expanding vocabulary allows you to make distinctions and to express ideas and emotions with more depth and meaning. When the technology of writing became more prevalent, our vocabularies expanded exponentially. By reading with depth, we improve our ability to think and communicate with concentration. A short attention span, a limited ability to concentrate for long periods of time, and a small vocabulary is, now that we’ve seen glimpses of what we are capable of, like living in a prison.
This is where electronic media has the ability to hurt us. The critics of Mr. Carr’s book argue that the internet’s full engagement of our brains, with all it’s multiple distractions, is better than the limits of mere printed words on paper. But –
“It is the very fact that book reading ‘understimulates the senses’ that makes the activity so intellectually rewarding. By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking. The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one. When it comes to the firing of our neurons, it’s a mistake to assume that more is better.” (pg. 123)
The nature of the internet is to stimulate us and make numerous tasks easier for us. As our use of the internet for everything, such as the publishing of “e-books,” continues to expand we don’t always pause to think what we might be losing.
5 – On the Editing of Written Works
“Authors also began to revise and edit their works heavily, something dictation had often precluded. That, too, altered the form and the content of writing. For the first time, explains Saenger, a writer ‘could see his manuscript as a whole and by means of cross references develop internal relationships and eliminate the redundancies common to dictated literature’ of the earlier Middle Ages. The arguments in books became longer and clearer, as well as more complex and more challenging, as writers strived self-consciously to refine their ideas and their logic.”(pg. 66)
In the oral tradition, you couldn’t go back in time and edit out what you just said. Even the process of dictation was not as conducive to the speaker or writer’s ability to look back at the nature of his narrative or argument. Ironically, while the technologies of writing have enabled us to do this today, the nature of the internet discourages the use of this ability.
“The provisional nature of digital text also promises to influence writing styles. A printed book is a finished object. Once inked onto the page, its words become indelible. The finality of the act of publishing has long instilled in the best and most conscientious writers and editors a desire, even an anxiety, to perfect the works they produce – to write with an eye and an ear toward eternity. Electronic text is impermanent. In the digital marketplace, publication becomes an ongoing process rather than a discrete event, and revision can go on indefinately. Even after an e-book is downloaded into a networked device, it can be easily and automatically updated – just as software programs routinely are today. It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitudes toward their work. The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with the artistic rigor that the pressure imposed. To see how small changes in writers’ assumptions and attitudes eventually have large effects on what they write, one need only glance at the history of correspondence. A personal letter written in, say, the nineteenth century bears little resemblance to a personal e-mail or text message written today. Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.” (pg. 108)
6 – The Technology of Writing Increased Individual Creativity
“For centuries, the technology of writing had reflected, and reinforced, the intellectual ethic of the oral culture in which it arose. The writing and reading of tablets, scrolls, and early codices had stressed the communal development and propagation of knowledge. Individual creativity had remained subordinate to the needs of the group. Writing had remained more a means of recording than a method of composition. Now, writing began to take on, and to disseminate, a new intellectual ethic: the ethic of the book. The development of knowledge became an increasingly private act, with each reader creating, in his own mind, a personal synthesis of the ideas and information passed down through the writings of other thinkers. The sense of individualism strengthened. ‘Silent reading,’ the novelist and historian James Carroll has noted, is ‘both the sign of and a means to self-awareness, with the knower taking responsibility for what is known.’ Quiet, solitary research became a prerequisite for intellectual achievement. Originality of thought and creativity of expression became the hallmarks of the model mind.” (pg. 67)
7 – Reading Becomes Available to Everyone
Once Gutenberg’s printing press entered the scene in the 1430s, the number of books increased at an incredible speed. Other printing presses were built all across Europe. Books became cheaper and cheaper. Various classic works like Plato’s Dialogues were cheaply printed for everyone to read. Reading and writing ceased to be only an occupation for the upper classes or for monks in the church. The number of books in common languages rapidly overtook the number of books in Greek or Latin.
“According to on estimate, the number of books produced in the fifty years following Gutenberg’s invention equaled the number produced by European scribes during the preceding thousand years.” (pg. 69)
There is another potential objection to Carr’s description of how writing and reading fundamentally changed the way that people thought. The objection is that, while a new writing tradition may have eventually replaced the old oral tradition, most people simply didn’t read with any depth. There were newspapers and popular bestsellers even back in the early days of the history of the printing press. Just because a large number of books were being printed and sold does not meant that the larger middle and poorer classes were reading the classics or that a majority of people were really reading sophisticated works of philosophy or theology.
But this objection fails to understand Carr’s main point. Nowhere in his book does Mr. Carr deny that the quality and depth of some writing is better than that of other (or even of most) writing. But higher or lower content does not change the neurological effects that the medium of writing itself has upon the human brain. Even if a person is immersing himself in a ten-penny romance or action-adventure novel, that person is still reading differently that either (1) an ancient or Medieval reader before spaces between words were used, or (2) a modern e-book or web page reader. It is the medium that affects the way that our brains wire or rewire themselves. Quality of content matters, but is secondary to actual neurological effects.
Furthermore, early education since the times of the Enlightenment Age involved the reading of the classics. The very poorest of schools still taught Greek and Latin. Popular reading for the common people has always involved works by authors like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. Just because the common people may not have deeply read the works of Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas does not mean they were reading intelligently and masterly written works of literature. If you look at the bestsellers, even among the poorer classes, the works of Shakespeare, the King James Version of the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan made the very tops of most bestselling lists.
“Even a person of fairly modest means could begin to assemble a library of several volumes, making it possible not only to read broadly but to draw comparisons between different works. ‘All the world is full of knowing men, of most learned Schoolmasters, and vast Libraries,’ exclaimed the title character of Rabelais’ 1534 best seller Gargantua, ‘and it appears to me as a truth that neither in Plato’s time, nor Cicero’s, nor Painian’s, there was ever such conveniency for studying, as we see at this day there is.’” (pg. 70)
If You Haven’t Been Paying Attention, A Revolution Just Happened
If repeated acts strengthen neural pathways in our brains, then we are all currently heavily wired to surf the internet. It’s funny, but I often forget just how recent this really is. I didn’t used to spend this much time staring at a computer screen. I get up in the morning and check my email (at least). At use a computer 8 hours a day or more at work. When I think about it, a significant amount of my time on evenings and weekends is also spent staring at my computer. It is quite rare to spend even a whole day without any time on the internet. We don’t think about how this affects us.
“As the uses of the Internet have proliferated, the time we devote to the medium has grown apace, even as speedier connections have allowed us to do more during every minute we’re logged on. By 2009, adults in North America were spending an average of twelve hours online a week, double the average in 2005. If you consider only those adults with Internet access, online hours jump considerably, to more than seventeen a week. For younger adults, the figure is higher still, with people in their twenties spending more than nineteen hours a week online. American children between the ages of two and eleven were using the Net about eleven hours a week in 2009, an increase of more than sixty percent since 2004. The typical European adult was online nearly eight hours a week in 2009, up about thirty percent since 2005. Europeans in their twenties were online about twelve hours a week on average. A 2008 international survey of 27,500 adults between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five found that people are spending thirty percent of their leisure time online, with the Chinese being the most intensive surfers, devoting forty-four percent of their off-work hours to the Net.
These figures don’t include the time people spend using their mobile phones and other handheld computers to exchange text messages, which also continues to increase rapidly. Text messaging now represents one of the most common uses of computers, particularly for the young. By the beginning of 2009, the average American cell phone user was sending or receiving nearly 400 texts a month, more than a fourfold increase from 2006. The average American teen was sending or receiving a mind-boggling 2,272 texts a month. World-wide, well over two trillion text messages zip between mobile phones every year, far outstripping the number of voice calls. Thanks to our ever-present messaging systems and devices, we ‘never really have to disconnect,’ says Danah Boyd, a social scientist who works for Microsoft.” (pg. 86)
Is this crazy or is it just normal for us now? It sure doesn’t sound very healthy to me. It’s already been proven to be physically unhealthy. The question Mr. Carr is essentially interested in is whether it is perhaps also unhealthy for the soul. We have finite lives. Arguments against watching too much television have always been based on the fact that you are losing something important if you allow yourself to stare at the TV for what adds up to years of your life. There are some of us who, by the time our lives our over, will have literally spent over a entire decade watching television. However, and this has further implications for the state of our culture, the question has occasionally been raised in the media whether time on the internet is beginning to replace time spent in front of the television. According to Carr, studies are showing that this is not the case.
“It’s often assumed that the time we devote to the Net comes out of the time we would otherwise spend watching TV. But statistics suggest otherwise. Most studies of media activity indicate that as Net use has gone up, television viewing has either held steady or increased. The Nielsen Company’s long-running media-tracking survey reveals that the time Americans devote to TV viewing has been going up throughout the Web era. The hours we spend in front of the tube rose another two percent between 2008 and 2009, reaching 153 hours a month, the highest level since Nielsen began collecting data in the 1950s (and that doesn’t include the time people spend watching TV shows on their computers). In Europe as well, people continue to watch television as much as they ever have. The average European viewed more than a dozen hours of TV a week in 2009, nearly an hour more than in 2004.
A 2006 study by Jupiter Research revealed a ‘huge overlap’ between TV viewing and Web surfing, with forty-two percent of the most avid TV fans (those watching thirty-five or more hours of programming a week) also being among the most intensive users of the Net (those spending thirty of more hours online a week). The growth of our online time has, in other words, expanded the total amount of time we spend in front of screens. According to an extensive 2009 study conducted by Ball State University’s Center for Media Design, most Americans, no matter what their age, spend at least eight and a half hours a day looking at a television, a computer monitor, or the screen of their mobile phone. Frequently, they use two or even all three of the devices simultaneously.” (pg. 86-87)
The speed at which internet/iPad/cell phone/smartphone/Facebook/Twitter use is exponentially growing is demonstrated by statistics in the time of mere months. Carr published The Shallows in June of 2010. In this ‘Afterword to the Paperback Edition,’ written in May of 2011, he wrote:
“In the months since I completed The Shallows, Facebook membership has doubled from 300 million to 600 million; the number of text messages processed every month by the typical American teen has jumped from 2,300 to 3,300; sales of e-readers, tablets, and smartphones have skyrocketed; app stores have proliferated; elementary schools have rushed to put iPads in their students’ hands; and the time we spend in front of screens has continued its seemingly inexorable rise. We may be wary of what our devices are doing to us, but we’re using them more than ever.” (pg. 228)
This is the world in which we now live. These are the people we have become. These the friends and family that we now have. We are, most of us, all chronic internet addicts. It logically follows that we are going to read less books and the quality of our writing is going to be affected by the medium in which we write. It also logically follows that this transformation of our culture in just the last couple decades is going to affect and shape the nature of our public discourse. But it is also shaping the quality and content of our relationships with other people. The neurological wiring of our brains has been changing over the years because of what we spend all of our time doing. It is going to have an affect on art and education, on political and dinner conversation, and on how we relate to others.
It is high time that someone wrote the book that Nicholas Carr just wrote. Carr goes into extensive detail on why he believes our attention spans are now shorter, on how our brains are working differently, on how modern thought in our culture is changing, on how our personal tastes are changing, on why e-books are not as good for us as printed books, and on the conclusions about ourselves to be drawn from all this. Deep thinking is worthwhile, but not everyone agrees with such a proposition anymore. Other book reviewers of The Shallows have questioned why reading classic works of literature (as well as history, philosophy, theology, poetry, etc.) are worth the time it takes to read them while you could be doing something else instead that is more suitably with the times. What will we really lose if people stop reading books? These are challenges and questions worth pursuing further.