found drama

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The Shallows

by Rob Friesel

Is this a book about the Internet? Or about neuroplasticity? Is this a gadget-lover’s dirge for “his old brain”? Or a sensationalist portrait of a technological and cultural paradigm shift that lists strongly toward the catastrophic?

The Shallows is all of these things, and quite a few more—some of which marry well with Carr’s thesis, while the kinky red hair of the others show them to be the abandoned-at-the-door-step-children they are. What Carr tells us with the charged and inflammatory rhetoric of his title is that the Internet “as we use it” and/or “as we experience it” may as well be cocaine—something that gives you massive energy and brilliant ideas and feelings of well-being and connectedness while in reality it turns out to be a false promise that is in fact turning you into a zombie and which will quickly alienate and eventually kill you. Toward the end, Carr comes right out and says it: “The price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation.”

Throughout the text, there is this repeating suggestion of “swimming in content”—that through the portal of your computer screen, you have immediate and constant access to an information bombardment. The argument starts early and repeats often. Carr focuses on how much information is out there “on the Internet”, and how quick and easy it is to gain access to that information. In the earliest portions of the book, he uses this as the set up to introduce all the Internet proponents—the folks that coin phrases like “my outboard brain” or otherwise tell us how we “…can’t yet recognize the superiority of this networked thinking process because we’re still measuring it against our old linear thought process.”

These are folks like Rhodes scholar Joe O’Shea whom Carr quotes as saying: “I don’t read books.” So if O’Shea isn’t reading books, what is he reading? He and, according to Carr, many others are instead searching online for items (i.e., via Google), alleging to more quickly find those items of interest without having to wade through “whole books”. Perform a Google search and within a split-second, there is your passage, or your quote, or your facts-and-figures. But therein lies the rub: if you find a passage or a quote in this way, have you really gotten the complete context? If you lack the context, how do you know that it is actually relevant? And even if it appears to be relevant, how do you know that it is accurate? The implicit critique: that we are headed down a path of breadth-only/depth-never search schemas and that this is “reprogramming” us right down to the neural substrate.

Time out for a moment.

That bit of language right there kept jarring me: that the computer provided Carr’s central lexical framework for explaining the brain. To Carr’s credit, he is not the only one that does this—many of the neuroscientists, psychologists, and other thinkers that he quotes, cites, and paraphrases also lapse into these convenient modern metaphors. It seems unfair to hold Carr fully accountable for this bit of irony in the text’s grammar; academic discourse is overrun with this comparison. Apparently this metaphor largely comes out of psychology’s “Cognitive Revolution”—during the 1950s as Skinnerian Behaviorism fell out of favor, a new conceptual framework for the field arose that acknowledged certain unobservable phenomena (e.g., “thought”) while still attempting to put “cognition” into a system with rigorous and scientific mechanics. Allegedly, an important milestone in the “Cognitive Revolution” was its earliest discussions at a conference at Dartmouth. This is an interesting coincidence (if it is a coincidence at all) for us as readers of the book because it gives us overlap both chronologically and geographically with a period of meteoric ascendance in the history of computing—a time when folks were marveling over “thinking machines”.

Now back to Carr’s critique—that we are lapsing into breadth-only/depth-never searches, right down to our neural substrate. As part of this discussion, Carr introduces something I noted as “Doidge’s paradox of neuroplasticity”: that the brain is highly “plastic”, that it is quick to make new neural pathways, to adapt to new situations, to “reshape” itself as new skills are learned or else as it compensates for new damage or other environmental changes; but also that once the brain has assumed some “shape”, that it will “try” to stay that way. Any introductory physics class gives us an elementary principle (expressed with a single word) that we may apply here to resolve the paradox. Doidge’s observed incongruities aside, the fact remains that all brains, even brains presumably damaged beyond repair have shown a remarkable resilience to long-term damage, or even long-term changes. If there is a paradox with the brain at all, it is that despite constant changes, it manages to function in a way that gives us what we experience as memory.

Perhaps that there is Carr’s dreaded Neural Doomsday. In entertaining these popular notions of “the outboard brain” and in digesting the cultural shifts surrounding that, he has come to believe that these changes in the brain—the changes that accompany heavy or long-term computer (“Internet”) use—are permanent and irrevocable. Or even if the changes are reversible (given what we know of neuroplasticity), that our overall cultural habits will shape us to give in to the brain’s own inertia—that we won’t want to “snap out of it”, that we won’t even see anything wrong with what has become of us. We will all become mentally lazy at a biological level, and we will also come to believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that—and worse, that the cultural gestalt will simply reinforce that mode of thinking.

Carr is not totally unjustified in these fears, but he unfortunately seems reticent when it comes to making concrete speculations on the long-term consequences, or means by which we might combat this (to adopt his attitude) terrible trajectory. At one point, he cites Umberto Eco’s assessment of what my notes called “Socrates’ lament”—that “memory from marks” (i.e., writing) would over-shadow and in time annihilate men’s memories and oratory faculties. According to Eco there is an eternal and intrinsic fear of change, especially when that which changes is something that we deeply value. Socrates valued knowledge; the mechanics and media for his knowledge were strictly mental and oral. Writing down your thoughts, your memories, your debate responses—all of that deeply upset Socrates’ applecart. But even Socrates was willing to grant an exception: for writing could serve “as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age”. Some 2400 years later, I challenge you to find someone that would agree with or even entertain that notion for anything but a quaint form of provincial paranoia—the first incidence of futureshock. It’s almost 2000 years later that Erasmus eloquently rejects the memorization that Socrates held so dearly, citing that it failed value’s litmus test for anything but to provide fertile soil in which to plant the seeds of synthesis.

It would not be much of a stretch to believe that Carr is of the same mind as Erasmus here, that memorization has little pure value—that what we (as thinkers, as contributors to the great corpus of knowledge) are really interested in is not regurgitation of knowledge but its digestion and comprehension and ultimately its creation. And this is where I believe Carr plays his text a bit to coyly; in rushing to damn the Internet and Google and perhaps even Tim Berners-Lee, he does not clearly articulate what he believes to be at stake. As the text draws to a close, he draws an analogy that is almost Luddite in its connotations: if a ditchdigger begins to ply his trade with a diesel-powered excavator instead of his shovel, he may find that he can dig deeper and wider and faster but his muscles will ultimately atrophy. Carr lets go of this analogy pretty quickly, moving along and letting it linger only briefly—but the obvious question hangs between you and the page: does the trade-off matter if it is not in conflict with your goals?

In other words, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with your “outboard brain”—but if it makes you lazy, if you stop synthesizing the content that you consume, if you stop having new and original thoughts, then the only thing that you have gained is that you can locate and consume content more quickly. If you choose to remember nothing, then whatever new thoughts you might form are instantly orphaned on the doorstep of ephemera.

Having so closely aligned himself with Marshall McLuhan, Carr might counter that like David Sarnoff before us, we are just blaming the consumer and failing to recognize the powerful and lasting effects of the medium itself. Once set down this path, our brains change—it becomes difficult and then impossible for us to focus or form these new thoughts. That we trap ourselves in this self-rewarding (if ultimately vapid) cycle of Google Suggest results, status updates, one-click shopping, instant messages, and every other distraction that we alt-tab our way through, all the livelong day (and into the night).

But having said that: the counter-argument is a cop-out, and one that is put before us as impermeable, and perhaps even a little self-righteously inviolable. The Internet is here. Using it changes our brains. Quod erat demonstrandum.

If you’re like me, it sounds more like Calvinist predestination than it does like a scientific theorem. On the one hand the Internet changes our brains; on the other hand the brain has a remarkable plasticity. Any activity imprints itself upon the brain; and given this suggestion of neural inertia, the more prolonged that activity, the longer-lasting and more far-reaching those changes are. (Did “everything in moderation” come to your mind as well?)

Where I wind up taking issue with Carr’s conclusions is (as mentioned above) his reticence in making more concrete speculations, but also in how he glosses over or omits some important qualifiers. He talks about the desire to consume Internet content “so much” and “so quickly”, but there was not much discussion of where that desire comes from. Why do we feel so much pressure to consume it? Why do we feel pressured to consume it so quickly? There is also no differentiation of the content we consume—when making his value judgments, Carr appears to give equal footing to instances of in-depth subject-specific factual research as he does to the fleeting and vapid trivia generica. Nor is there much discussion of authoriality nor any discussion of authenticity.

And that last bit is probably the most important to me. Carr touches a few times (albeit obliquely) on the notion of “a new literacy”. Over the centuries we have defined and become comfortable in specific scope when we discuss literacy and consider what it means to be literate. But over the past century, we have very quickly created an entirely new climate for content and media. Maybe this is the distortion of my own liberal arts lens, but when we talk about literacy, we too often stop with reading and writing. These are insufficient on their own and this is wholly evident when Carr writes about Joe “I don’t read books” O’Shea. Context is king and authenticity, queen; if we accept that our brains are shaped by the Internet-as-medium, then we must also accept that to read is not enough. Carr has a point when he says that we do not “read” on the Internet—that we skim and scan and “F” our way through what amounts to a given page’s abstract; and maybe he is even right that this is the inherent mode of consumption for this medium. But perhaps the reason we skim and scan and get distracted is because we are not yet literate in this new medium. We are in the midst of inventing its mechanics, its etiquette, and though we use words and images on the Internet, we are still in the midst of inventing its vocabularies and grammars. Perhaps when we skim and scan, it is because we still have not learned how to make heads-or-tails of what we are seeing, whether it is worthy of being read, whether it passes the right tests for authenticity, and whether it will even be there tomorrow.

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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