‘The Shallows’ – The Web Is Changing Our Brains

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr is one of the books we are considering for the One Book program at Purdue University Calumet. Our criteria for the selected book are loose. It has to have fairly broad appeal. It should spark discussion. It should lend itself to a variety of programming activities so that reading the book becomes a campus-wide event, not just a classroom activity. When the selection committee meets to decide, Carr’s book will be one of my top recommendations.

Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr

Because The Shallows is about a timely topic, one that students and faculty alike are interested in, it will have broad appeal. The book is also relevant for a wide range of disciplines, psychology, philosophy, history, communication studies, and computer science to name a few. From Socrates to current learning theory, Carr looks at how the medium of transmitting information is as important as the message (McLuhan, 1964) and how the medium shapes and influences our cognitive processes and our worldview. Carr contends that the brain actually changes and adapts to these different media so that we not only cognitively process things differently but our brain physically makes space for and handles informational transmission differently. 

Carr begins by addressing one of the issues that the book selection committee discussed, the fact that our students rarely read entire books. Carr admits that he also has trouble focusing long enough to read an entire book, and he no longer believes it is a function of aging. He contends that his lack of focus is due to changes in the brain created by the use of the Web. One does not have to remember large amounts of information because it is readily available and easily accessible on the Internet. Also, one tends not to engage in sustained reading when using the Internet, but looks for what one needs, then clicks the next topic of interest. Carr contends this type of interaction has reshaped our brain so that it cannot engage in sustained reading.

Another point that Carr makes later in the book, which grabbed my attention, was people’s perceptions of computers as thinking entities. ELIZA, a program created in the mid 1960s by Joseph Weizenbaum, analyzed language and could give the illusion of carrying on a conversation. He quickly found that a wide variety of people attributed intelligence to these “talking” computers. There were also suggestions of using such programs in psychotherapy and for treating the mentally ill. Carr points out the use of computer software to grade writing exams as the extension of this application and expresses concern that a computer algorithm cannot distinguish between non-adherence to the formula and creativity.

In the ten (fairly short) chapters, Carr provides enough material to generate interest, and to challenge and provoke. Some readers will argue that Carr is making too much of an issue of an inanimate technology while others will say he doesn’t go far enough. There will be others who say that any risks outweigh the benefits. Instructors and guest speakers will show us, using PowerPoint slides that they have accessed from their DropBox account, how Carr’s arguments are or are not valid.

Regardless of one’s attitudes toward various technologies, we cannot ignore the changes that technology is bringing to our lives. Rather than just accepting these changes, we should examine and discuss them to help us become more informed consumers and more thoughtful about what we are using and how we are using it. As Carr points out, we may be wary about what technology is doing to us, but we certainly are embracing it.

6 Responses

  1. […] The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr is one of the books we are considering for the One Book program at Purdue University Calumet. Our criteria for the selected book are loose. It has to have fairly broad appeal. It should spark discussion. It should lend itself to a variety of programming activities so that reading the book becomes a campus-wide event, not just a classroom activity. When the selection committee meets to decide, Carr’s book will be one of my top recommendations.  […]

  2. […] ‘The Shallows’ – The Web Is Changing Our Brains (etcjournal.com) […]

  3. Just think about how writing changed the way we think. We could have lazy brains that no longer had to memorize things that we could just read if we forgot them. Tomorrow’s to-do list — no problem; just jot it down.

    Maybe I’m just too old, but I read entire books — unless they’re boring. Just read five of them all the way through. It’s not about what I would like to know for immediate use but about what’s interesting and intellectually stimulating. If the book’s just about some course you’re taking or is not well written, then you’ll skip parts or even abandon it entirely.

    On the matter of the change of medium rewiring brains, that’s not such a big deal. Just look at how writing changed things. I don’t hear anyone complaining today.

  4. It’s a fantastic book, and gives us a lot to think about. I’m currently writing some dissertation work, and my problem statement draws heavily from both Carr and Burbules. Will give you a lot to think/talk about.

  5. In The Internet Helps Us to Be Smarter – A Reply to Nicholas Carr, also about Mr Carr’s “The Shallows”, Jim Shimabukuro pointed out the usefulness of distraction and multitasking in focused work.
    So, perhaps, Mr Carr’s problem with the present mass of Read/Write, collaboratively generated online info is that he approaches it from a Read Only perspective. From that Read Only perspective, social tools and networks only produce heaps of indigestible stuff, most of it rubbish, that can indeed clog and numb the brain. But in the focused work perspective described by Jim Shimabukuro, the glut disappears because the structures appear, and distraction can be controlled and used positively.
    About (not) reading entire books, Harry Keller explained it in his comment. Even in interesting and intellectually stimulating and well-written texts, readers would skip some parts, in pre-digital times too: for instance, the “instructional” initial chapters of the several books (in the sense of subdivisions) of Hugo’s “Les misérables” or Melville’s “Moby Dick”.

  6. Unfortunately Carr is misinformed and selects ‘evidence’ purely to support his hypothesis. He even misrepresents the Nobel Prize winning Eric Kandrel whose works actually would say the the Internet is not nor could it have the kinds of impact on ‘our brains’ as Carr puts it. Yes, debate the book, but you need to consider the equally valid antithesis, the web creates extraordinary access to the knowledge of the world, that it improves how we think, learn and express ourselves.

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