What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

I wrote a review for Teachers College Record on Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Check it out on TCR, or read it below:

Nicolas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, offers an extended take on his much talked about 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid.” As with the article, he begins his discussion by using personal experience, noting how the “deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle,” which he attributes to his extensive engagement with the Net (p. 6). As much as he appreciates the advantages of the Web, he argues that it is “chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation” (p. 6). He proceeds to find evidence for his argument in a variety of places, including anecdotal evidence from others, and in published research from cultural anthropology to neuroscience.

Carr make it quite clear–both here and in his previous book The Big Switch–that he intellectually gravitates toward technological determinism, where technology will shape humanity and certain practices will be supplanted by newer practices. For example, the carriage was used alongside the motor vehicle for a time, yet the motor vehicle ultimately triumphed. This view colors all of Carr’s discussions. Carr’s presentation of neuroscience research is used to illustrate the ability of the human brain to adapt to the demands of the environment, allowing some functions to get stronger while others weaken. He includes a discussion of neuroplasticity, which is the theory that the human brain is more malleable and contingent on environment and experience than previously thought. Several studies are used to illustrate the theory, including a year 2000 study that found that London cab drivers had larger posterior hippocampuses than members of the average population, clearly developed through extensive spatial learning. A limitation of Carr’s discussion of neuroscience is that it focuses singularly on research that illustrate his point, which is the potentiality for the human brain to adapt to technological and environmental change. For example, Carr mentions Noam Chomsky, yet neglects to mention Chomsky’s central contribution to linguistics: that all humans are inherently capable of creating and using grammar. Although this strand of research does not contradict neuroplasticity, it does highlight that certain functions of the brain have evolved over ten of thousands of years and are not predicated on environment or experience. Humans are clearly adaptable to their environment, but inherent limitations exist. The case of multitasking illustrates this point. For a brief moment in our present era, there was a perception that humans were developing enhanced multitasking abilities. This view has come under fire as more research indicates that it can’t be done without consequences for concentration, productivity, and safety (e.g., Coviello, Ichino & Persico, 2010; McCartt, Hellinga & Bratiman, 2006).

The declarative tone Carr writes in, combined with the rather sparse citations, can be a bit upsetting for those more versed in academic citation style. For example, to make his case about how technologies have shaped individuals psychological and social realities, Carr’s pages 51-57 very closely mirror chapter four of Walter Ong’s excellent work, Orality and Literacy. He mentions Ong on page 51, then again on page 55, but he does not make it clear the writing in between was indeed a summary of Ong’s work. He attempts to clarify his information source on page 55, nothing that “Implict in Plato’s criticism of poetry was, as Havelock, Ong, and other classicists have shown.” Despite what this style may offer in terms of readability and accessibility, the loose citation (e.g., “other classicists”) can frustrate.

The distinctive contribution that Carr makes is putting social science and neuroscience research together, and having us consider them in light of the Internet. There is a growing assumption by many, whether explicit or implied, that the Internet is having some affect on individual brain development. This is surely the presumption when individuals use terms like NetGen or neomillennials, indicating there is something different about how young people think because of their early exposure to computing technology. Carr’s book has the advantage of bringing this conversation to a larger audience. However, it prompts more questions than answers. For example, the brain is not infinitely plastic: what aspects are more stable and which are more dynamic?

The more pressing problem prompted by Carr’s book is the value of deep reading and the extent to which education will be built around supporting it. Carr cites a number of startling examples of the decline of deep reading, from N. Katherine Hayles saying “’I can’t get my [literature] students [at UCLA] to read whole books anymore” (p. 9) to a 2005 article in the Annual Review of Sociology that surmised that the “’era of mass book reading’ was a brief ‘anomaly’ in our intellectual history” (p. 108). Organizations traditionally associated with deep reading, such as public libraries, are beginning to introduce more media-enhanced programs. For example, the YouMedia initiative at Chicago Public Libraries has transformed a floor of its downtown library to become a youth media production space, in addition to having shelves of books. Similarly, the MacArthur Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services have a new grant program to create 30 such production facilities in public libraries across the country. In high schools, parents, students, and teachers are beginning to raise questions like, do students really need to read X books during their senior year? If we read X-2 books, what else could we be doing with our time? The question becomes, what will or should the role of deep reading be in education?

I would argue, the challenge for educators and librarians is to find the right mix of deep reading with creative and media-based production. To push children in a single direction–deep-readers disconnected from media–would be a drastic disservice and make young people ill prepared for twenty-first century living, not to mention miss out on the wonders of being an Internet citizen. However, if we allow young people to swing fully in the other direction, they will fail to experience the deep interior world that reading makes possible (a case for which is made convincingly by Ong). As a determinist, Carr makes it seem as if it has to be one way or the other: deep readers or Internet savvy media producers. However, that need not be the case. For example, I continue to hear more and more discussion of the idea of lean-forward versus lean-back reading, the first being the kind of reading we do online versus the kind we do when reading a book (Nielsen, 2008). In this schema, different kinds of reading help develop and enhance different cognitive capabilities (e.g., the reflective deep reader and the connected and creative media producer). These capabilities can exist in the same person. I for one feel like I am one: a Facebooking, Tweeting, text messenger but quite comfortable turning it all off to read a novel. As educators we should work to develop individuals who are skillful in both these worlds. Part of the process will be teaching youth greater self-control: when and how to pry oneself from the digital media and allow time for reflection and deep reading. This will be different for each person, and a one size fits all model will not work. Personal trainers don’t usually help gym goers develop a single strength: strong upper body but weak legs. Similarly, why should educators promote one kind of reading and not the other? As researchers, we should strive to find the right mix of reading practices, from media-enabled to deep reading, and build our educational institutions around them. The Shallows reminds us in our haste to use new media for pedagogical gains, which is unduly needed, not to leave deep reading behind.

References

Carr, N. (2008). The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. New York: W. W. Norton.

–. (2008, July). Is Google Making Us Stupid? Atlantic Magazine. Retrieved November 2, 2010 from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/

Coviello, D., Ichino, A. & Persico, N. (2010). Don’t Spread Yourself Too Thin: The Impact of Task Juggling on Workers’ Speed of Job Completion. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series. Retrieved November 4, 2010 from http://papers.nber.org/papers/w16502

Gridwold, W., McDonnell, T. & Wright, N. (2005). Reading and the Reading Class in the Twenty-First Century. Annual Review of Sociology, 31, 127-41.

McCartt, A.T., Hellinga, L.A. & Bratiman, K.A. (2006). Cell phones and driving: review of research. Traffic Injury Prevention, 7(2), 89-106.

Nielson, J. (2008, June 9). Writing Styles for Print vs. Web. Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox. Retrieved November 2, 2010 from http://www.useit.com/alertbox/print-vs-online-content.html

Ong, W. J. (1982/2002). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge.

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