Nicholas Carr: The Shallows

Nicholas Carr: The Shallows

By bringing up Marshall McLuhan in the first chapter of his new book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr humbles himself before the godfather of media theory and neatly forestalls any suggestion of replacing him. The Shallows isn’t McLuhan’s Understanding Media, but the curiosity rather than trepidation with which Carr reports on the effects of online culture pulls him well into line with his predecessor.

Carr’s book posits that regarding “intellectual technologies” like the Internet as tools that aid without shaping the force of human endeavor is a dangerous mistake. The written word was already affecting oral communication in Plato’s day; now, online text is changing the way people read. Its immediacy and capacity for distraction leaks into cognitive process so stealthily, it’s possible for even a Rhodes scholar to admit he doesn’t really read books anymore. Champions of the new connectivity encourage use of online encyclopedias and Google as a shared brain with unlimited storage capabilities and processing power. But Carr argues that no search engine has yet adequately replicated the malleability and mechanisms of the human brain. Additionally, the cognitive resources required to distinguish among links and make navigational choices draws from the same pool as the neurons required for reading, leaving less power available for analysis and the kind of “deep reading” Carr asserts is only possible offline.

The primary difference between The Shallows—an expansion of Carr’s 2008 Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—and similar books questioning the cognitive and logical effects of a life lived online is that Carr doesn’t appear to hate the Internet. Quite the opposite: In a digression between a discussion of Google and his concluding chapters, he describes the steps he took to get away from it (including stepping back from his blog and Facebook) in order to retain the mental concentration needed to write his book—after which he returned to most of his old ways. His analysis comes from a place of habituation to the technology rather than disdain for what he doesn’t feel is necessary; he doesn’t utilize the correct verb form of “to use Twitter,” but he clearly knows what it is. 

Carr’s virtuosic tour of the post-Gutenberg Middle Ages and his clear-eyed assessment of the Kindle coexist with equal weight. At the same time, he isn’t afraid to call out innovators’ creepy pronouncements on the powers of their products, like Sergey Brin’s expressed desire to make Google more like HAL 9000. Carr’s ability to crosscut between cognitive studies involving monkeys and eerily prescient prefigurations of the modern computer opens a line of inquiry into the relationship between human and technology. Hopefully, other writers will follow.

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