By Jennifer Howard
Sunday, July 18, 2010; B01
What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
By Nicholas Carr
Norton. 276 pp. $26.95
A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age
By William Powers
Harper. 267 pp. $24.99
I'm your only friend
I'm not your only friend
But I'm a little glowing friend
But really I'm not actually your friend
-- They Might Be Giants
The song is about a nightlight, but it might just as well be about a smartphone, that little glowing friend so many of us thumb lovingly all day and sleep next to at night.
Are our iPhones and BlackBerrys and Droids -- and their larger brethren, iPads and netbooks and notebooks -- really our friends? Or are they false (if sometimes useful) friends, as the technology writer Nicholas Carr argues? In "The Shallows," which builds off his rather alarming 2008 Atlantic article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", he attempts to explain what he sees as the brain-corroding side effects of our digital devices. To make the case that the Net is scrambling our neurons and eviscerating our ability to think long and clearly about anything, Carr draws on studies of neuroplasticity and the sweep of human intellectual and technical history from Socrates through Gutenberg to Marshall McLuhan.
The hyperconnected mediasphere that Carr knows so well has been blogging and op-ed'ing "The Shallows" to death for some time now. You could say the book has hit a wired nerve, with tech and consciousness gurus such as Steven Johnson and Steven Pinker weighing in to defend the creative possibilities of the wired life in the New York Times and elsewhere. The ultimate anti-Carr is probably Clay Shirky, whose new book, "Cognitive Surplus," sees promise where "The Shallows" sees peril. So who's right?
Carr leads with what may be his most persuasive evidence: a feeling that something has changed inside his head since he made the jump online. He acknowledges the usefulness of the Internet as a conduit of information and a means of doing research. But he has come to feel there's a price to pay for that convenience. "Over the last few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory," he writes. "My mind isn't going -- so far as I can tell -- but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think."
He feels this most strongly when he attempts to read a book or an essay that requires sustained focus. It's simply harder to pay close attention than it used to be. Away from the computer, he realized, this new version of his brain "was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it," with a diet of clicks, links and e-mail. "I missed my old brain," he writes.
If you spend your days more or less the way Carr does -- if you are a knowledge worker, a trawler of the vasty Interwebz, ever searching for information, diversion and a sense of social connection -- you probably have your own version of his sense that life online is often a life lived in distraction. Goodbye, deep reading and linear thinking; hello, computer-induced ADD.
Beyond that astute diagnosis of what nags at many of us as we trudge through our digital rounds, Carr manages to be scary and yet not quite persuasive. He leans on summaries of recent research into what happens to our brains (and the brains of monkeys and sea slugs) in response to repeated actions like those we perform when we're cycling through e-mail and Web sites. "The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected," he writes. "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."
If "The Shallows" were a piece of reportage, sans polemic, Carr would have third parties put the research he cites in context. As it is, we have to go with his word that it all adds up to what he says it does. There's very little hint that researchers disagree about how our brains are changing in the digital age and whether that's a good thing, a bad thing or something in between. He nods at studies suggesting that activities such as video gaming enhance certain brain functions but concludes that "the Net is making us smarter . . . only if we define intelligence by the Net's own standards." That makes it sound as though he thinks the Internet has a mind of its own. Perhaps your iPad is a distant cousin of the evil Skynet of the "Terminator" flicks. For me, Carr's most genuinely frightening suggestion is that we have outsourced too much of our memory to our machines: Why memorize "Ozymandias" or the causes and dates of the first Sino-Japanese war when a Google search will tell you in a few keystrokes?
I'd be more inclined to trust Carr's conclusions if he didn't also handle history in a way that dispenses with nuance and goes for the reductive stroke. He sweeps through the transition from oral culture to written culture, makes far-reaching statements about how the invention of maps and clocks reshaped the way we think about time and space, and squeezes everything he can out of the Gutenberg moment (which was really years and decades in the making). So he writes, "Books went from being expensive, scarce commodities to being affordable, plentiful ones." Try telling that to all the folks, from the 15th century on, who couldn't read books or couldn't afford to buy them.
This somewhat rough handling of the historical record brings us to one of the biggest problems with Carr's argument. He writes as if the entire world is living glued to its screens, but the truth is that many of us, even those in affluent Western countries, do not live our lives entirely online. A journalist who writes about technology and society is going to spend much of his waking time basting in the electronic juices of the Internet. Maybe American teens do text too much, but not everyone is a tech jockey who lines up at the Apple store for the latest Steve Jobs dream gadget. What about the guy who drives a delivery truck, the lady who sells you stamps at the post office, the mechanic, the farmer, the factory-floor worker, the insurance salesman, the homeless guy at the local public library? They may have computer access, but they are not all leading lives bathed in the glow of an iPad or a BlackBerry. And there are office workers who still read books -- just look around you on the Metro.
Beyond the borders of the developed world, cell phones may now be more or less ubiquitous, but Internet access is not -- at least not yet. So when Carr talks about a new modern brain whose neural landscape is being dramatically reshaped by all our time online, he's not really talking about all or even most of humanity but about a relatively elite segment of the planet's population. Ditto for his worries about what's happened to our ability to absorb long, sustained arguments. It's a real problem for those of us who spend our days gazing into screens, but one suspects that deep reading has always been a rare skill.
The other thing missing from Carr's argument is what, exactly, those of us who are over-users of the Internet ought to do about it. Recycle the iPhone? Give the laptop to the poor? That's where William Powers's book "Hamlet's BlackBerry" has more to say. It's less ambitious, more cheerful and ultimately more persuasive than "The Shallows."
Powers, a former staff writer for The Post, pays far less attention to neuroscience than Carr does, but he shares Carr's feeling that the "caffeinated click-click-click of the mind" has disconnected many people from life's richer intangibles -- what we used to call an inner life. Like Carr, Powers discovers that he misses the possibilities and creative insights that come from reflection, and he describes a powerful need to step out of the digital stream now and again.
For tips on how to deal with today's digitally enhanced neural overload, he turns for advice and inspiration to seven heavy hitters from history and literature: Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Hamlet, Franklin, Thoreau and McLuhan. (Several of them make cameo appearances in "The Shallows," too, though Powers's treatment of Gutenberg turns out to be more nuanced than Carr's.)
The title "Hamlet's BlackBerry" comes from the Elizabethan equivalent of today's handheld devices: tables, "pocket-sized almanacs or calendars that came with blank pages made of specially coated paper or parchment." Notes could be scribbled on those pages with a stylus and later erased; Hamlet mentions them in the play. To Powers, the table is an example of a then-new technology that made the most of an older one -- handwriting -- to help users manage the early-modern equivalent of information overload.
The principle Powers draws from Hamlet's handheld is "Old tools fight overload." In his case, he turned to Moleskine notebooks to help him organize and focus his thoughts offline. From Plato he takes the lesson of occasionally putting distance between oneself and the madding crowd. In one of his dialogues, Plato has Socrates and his young friend Phaedrus take a walk outside Athens, where in the calmer, less distracting countryside they talk about love and rhetoric. (Powers observes that Socrates, apparently an early technophobe, has his doubts about writing versus speech as the best vehicle for thought.) Seneca offers lessons in how to find some inner space in which to focus; Franklin presents a model of how to manage one's time and attention -- and so on down through the ages.
There's more than a little comfort to be had from looking back and seeing that people did manage to cope with the new technologies that came their way, whether it was writing or printing or the telegraph of Thoreau's time. For those who feel they really can't live without their little glowing friends, Powers suggests it's possible to be connected to the digital world and to something deeper as well. For his family, that means going offline on weekends. In "The Shallows," Carr insists that McLuhan was right and that the new digital medium really is the message -- that it doesn't just deliver content but, more and more, determines who we are and how we think. Powers, however, makes a stronger case that it's still up to us to decide how best to live in, and sometimes apart from, this medium we have created.