Ron’s #31: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Let me begin with what I think is Nicholas Carr’s main statement in this book:

“What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?…Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards” (115-116).

Carr has written an engaging book that explores how our Internet habits are changing how we think. He tells how he noticed a shift in his concentration levels after his immersion in the Internet world of links, clicks, and tweets. This English literature major found that he had trouble concentrating on a novel beyond a few pages. After years of training his mind to follow links and read news blasts, he was troubled that he could no longer read deeply. This led him to write an article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which he expanded into this book.

The bottom line of his findings is that our brains are malleable, and they will change to fit the environment. When we “feed” our brain a diet of short bursts of information with no contemplation, the neurons and synapses change. In essence, we teach our brains to be distracted. We become shallow thinkers.

This is a matter I have thought about as a teacher. I look out into a sea of brains that have been raised on digital distractions and see that they cannot sustain attention for a short story without pictures and accompanying videos, never mind a longer work of fiction. While many in education hail the Internet as a wealth of information and a Promethean gift from the gods, I do not see that teaching journals are addressing what this bombardment of information is doing to how we think and, in turn, how we behave in and about the world around us.

In my estimation, this book focuses on three main parts. The first is about neurology and the Internet. At times, it was too technical for me, but I was able to enjoy the idea of the “plasticity” of our brains. This section grounds Carr’s premise in scientific testing and research. The second part of the book addresses the history of written text and computer science. As an English teacher and a computer enthusiast, this was my favorite section. The third section discusses the effects of the intertwining of our lives with the Internet. The chapter titled, “The Church of Google” is worth the price of the book, as it gives us a side of Google that causes me to question its company motto, “Do no harm.”

Aside from the intriguing topic, I also enjoyed Carr’s writing style. This book is filled with excellent quotations and stories about books and reading. One story that is particularly vivid is his recounting of Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoying a peaceful time of contemplation in Sleepy Hollow when the noisy locomotive arrives in town. The juxtaposition of these two worlds powerfully captures how we are distracted by the Internet “railroad.” My copy of the book is marked up, and I intend to return to it for these reminders.

This book has given me an impetus to make some changes in my Internet usage. I am online far more than I want to be. Like Nicholas Carr, I have a difficult time concentrating on longer novels or books, due to my constant checking email, Facebook, Twitter, and IMDB. Writing pieces like this are often punctuated with non-stop searches for other distractions and procrastinations. Because of reading many small headlines or articles, I do not have time to process them so I don’t really “know” them. All I have at the end of a surfing session is three fewer hours in my life.

This is not the life I want to lead. In Mark 12:30, Jesus tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Not only do I want to redeem the time to worship Him rather than wasting it on Facebook, but I also want every neuron and synapse to glorify Him as much as it is possible. If I am shrinking those connections that shorten my thinking, something must change. How can I love God with my mind if I am short-circuiting my brain with distractions and interferences?

The Shallows is one of the best books I’ve read on this list of so far. Nicholas Carr has written a powerful book that I’ll think about every time I’m tempted to check my email or Facebook “real quick.” He has also, perhaps inadvertently, offered some spiritual advice to help in my improvement as a Christian. I see that even reading Christian blogs or religious news or even Bible study tools can, in effect, act as a stumbling block in our faith if they are distractions interrupting our mediation or contemplation of deeper things.

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About Ron 173 Articles
I teach English and government in Okinawa, Japan. I love reading theology and fiction, and helps keep me accountable. Reading with three kids under 5 is a bit of a challenge, but I keep trying to find ways to read more. My favorites writers are C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’ Connor, and Raymond Carver.

3 Comments on Ron’s #31: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

  1. What do you think about the amount of negative reviews this book got? I haven’t read it but I know that I spend a lot of time online and I don’t struggle to read books or watch movies or focus. If anything, this type of thing has gotten better for me in many ways. Was there any parts of the book that you felt were contrived?

  2. Ronnie, I thought the internet had changed my reading patterns…but it really just made me near sighted..try a pair of reading glasses you old coot…it makes the adhd you think you’ve aquired from the net go away.
    Seriously though, it has changed patterns, but I wouldn’t say the negatives outweigh the positives…do yourself a favor and review shop class as soulcraft, as the problem that you are witnessing in computer usage v. inteligence runs deeper than you think..damn commies

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