Driving Our Man Machines Towards Distraction: Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”

Cover of "The Shallows: What the Internet...

Cover via Amazon

The Sunday Times described it as a “bold reactionary book” – and so it is. I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Carr‘s The Shallows (subtitle: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember). Its main point is a simple one: the Internet is a medium that revolves around distraction and our usage of it is eroding our ability to concentrate and think deeply – even when we’re not using it. It’s turning us into gadflies. It improves our ability to skim and assess disparate information superficially, but it is eroding our capacity for calm and deep thought.

Carr is a former editor of the Harvard Business Review, who usually earns his crust writing for Wired and the FT. A Luddite he ain’t – much of his adult life has been spent heavily engaged with IT and writing passionately about the information revolution. But then he noticed that all his time on the Internet seemed to be changing the way he thought:

It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes … my brain, I realised, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it – and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became.

Man Machine: Kraftwerk replaced by Lego Mini-Figures for added emotion

The book details the growing evidence from psychological research studies about how our online behaviour is changing our whole selves, not just our online selves. Over time, given how neuro-plasticity works (of which I have only the sketchiest idea), using the Internet is not only changing how we conceptualise and interact with the world, it is  physically altering our brains. The busiest areas of our brains develop and get more complex and richer, the ignored areas wither. We are becoming good at the kind of things the Internet needs us to be good at.

That might be OK, but we seem incapable of doing anything but accept the historical inevitability of the process we are all going through. The tail is wagging the dog.

Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with h...

Marshall McLuhan. (Didn’t he turn up in Annie Hall?) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Carr quotes Marshall McLuhan‘s Understanding Media, where McLuhan says that new technologies have always had a counter-intuitive effect: our tools end up numbing whatever part of the body they amplify. Farmers through decades of mechanisation lost their feel for the soil, weavers lost manual dexterity with the advent of power looms, car drivers cover many miles of road but are disengaged from the land they move through. Internet tools numb the very parts of our brains they help.

As John Culkin put it:

We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.

Carr exposes a number of fallacies about the Internet in The Shallows, including one I had unconsciously swallowed myself: that if we outsource the difficult task of remembering facts, we somehow “free up” our brains to focus on more creative thoughts. I suspect many people believe this. But we’re kidding ourselves, if the latest clinical psychology research is to be believed.

We don’t constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion on our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence.

We make the mistake that out-sourcing our learning will make us smarter because we confuse long-term memory, short term memory and working memory. The calculator has genuinely helped us get better at maths, but it’s because it relieves pressure on our working memory. It helps us focus on pulling out the key point from the maths and transfer into long-term memory, where it becomes part of our knowledge. Ergo, some argue, our greater reliance on computers has the same positive effect. Wrong, says Carr. Our interaction with the Internet has quite the opposite effect:

It places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas … The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.

The key to memory consolidation – what helps us build up our knowledge – is “attentiveness”, he explains. And it’s attentiveness that is in short supply when we interact with online information, because the medium is fundamentally about short, intense bursts of concentration, punctuated with multiple distractions.

Don’t try this on humans, it doesn’t work

The brain-as-computer metaphor is pervasive but could be leading us down the developmental low road. It’s a metaphor that seems to be accepted implicitly by many in the IT industry, such as Google’s Larry Page (Carr argues that this kind of mechanistic Weltblick is endemic at Google). But the truth is, our brains are not much like computers at all.

Brains are organic, living things – their workings and development simply do not follow the same rules of finite, built, dead systems. “Outsourcing” our knowledge to Wikipedia – rather than actually learning facts – creates a kind of aridity in previously fecund areas of our brains. It does not “free up space” so much as rip out the vegetation, leaving infertile scars in the landscape. Starved of solid knowledge, areas of our brains that were thriving rainforest turn to scrub. Life goes on, but some of the richness and depth is lost.

When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.

Does it matter? Maybe it’s a good thing that we are leaving the stodgy old ways of learning behind us? Maybe it’s good for us to think more widely even if it does make “deep knowledge” a rarer commodity?

Well, for a start, it is troubling if the direction of human culture is being so influenced by the worldview of organisations like Google, which seem infected by scientistic (as opposed to scientific) values. One worries about the habit of the technologically-minded towards reductive, mechanistic models of human behaviour and motivation. See shorequalblog on RSA Animate: The Divided Brain.

The crucial take-out for me is that our online habit is not just affecting our ability to think clearly – it’s having negative effects on our emotional selves. Antonio Damasio, director of the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, has shown that higher emotions like empathy emerge from neural processes that are characterised by how slowly they emerge.

… the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions.

To get inside other people’s emotional states requires calmness and, crucially, time and reflection.

This struck a chord with me as a qualitative researcher, where immediate reads, and rolling ‘analysis’ are becoming prevalent. Empathy is at the heart of what I do – getting into the shoes of disparate people and seeing an issue or a piece of communication from their point of view. I’m lucky: empathy for me is kind of immediate, as it’s an instinctual thing (to an almost crippling extent – the struggle can be to keep a strong sense of yourself when you inhabit other people’s minds so much of the time). But even for me, the process of fully understanding a discussion I’ve had or a behaviour I’ve observed can take time to gestate into an insight. Time with the research participants, time afterwards reflecting on it, alone and in discussion with other researchers going through the same process.

Turning the world upside down, then stopping it to get off: the Slow Movement strikes a chord, even if it doesn’t offer a coherent programme

Life at 100 miles an hour is exhilarating but very often it’s, ultimately, empty. Just look at your average racing driver. I don’t think we’ll be reading a Lewis Hamilton sonnet any time soon. But we don’t need to go back to the Pre-Industrial Age either. What we do need to do is reflect on where our technologies are taking us and ask whether that’s where we want to go. If it isn’t, let’s find some ways of changing the route and heading somewhere else.

I’m not a believer in historical inevitability. But powerful cultural forces are at play here. Clearly anyone wanting to hold onto aspects of culture that the rise of the Internet threatens will have to fight very hard and very smartly to to ensure their survival.

But the tides of history, as Ulster historian ATQ Stewart put it in The Narrow Ground, have eddies. It’s not impossible that educators will come to a consensus about what constitutes healthy Internet usage; it’s not impossible that we may come to treat our interaction with the Internet in similar ways to how we now treat alcohol consumption – healthy in moderation but with a wary eye on how many units we’ve consumed per week. Could we now be in the middle of an online binge that future generations will regard as naively irresponsible? Victorians’ sensibilities in Britain were in part shaped by their snooty disgust for what they saw as louche behaviours that their 18th Century forbears had indulged in. Could our online behaviour now suffer the same treatment from 22nd Century sociologists?

It’s more likely that the Internet’s diktats will infiltrate more and more of life (with the Internet of Things just the next stage in the process). Future generations may live so hand-in-glove with the Internet and its successor technologies that Carr’s concerns may come to seem quaint chaff blowing in a passing breeze. After all, concerns about the outsourcing of knowledge have been around since Socrates fretted about the widespread use of written texts in a previously oral culture. The die was probably cast back then.

Like Carr, I blog and I do my @ShoreQual tweets and so on. But I’m now thinking carefully about how to make sure the Internet can continue to enrich my life, without losing an important part of myself in the process. Step 1: read more books …


About Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.
This entry was posted in 21st Century Britain, All Over The World, Media, Qual Research, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Driving Our Man Machines Towards Distraction: Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”

  1. Pingback: Susan Greenfield at the RSA on Mind Change | Strangers on the Shore

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