When I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it.
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr is a stellar book. The Shallows is about how the distracting nature of the internet is rewriting our brains. It is something that I’ve long suspected. As great of a tool that the internet is for researching and learning, it comes with a cost. We all have working memories used to do reasoning and comprehension. Another way to view working memory is as a short term storage. When we surf the internet, our working memories are being full engaged. Being filled and emptied of information. Without time for reflection, what we learn doesn’t make it into long term memory. Not just me or you, but society as a whole. Some believe that off sourcing this role to cloud computers is a positive thing. Like the author, it concerns me.
If you find yourself too distracted to read The Shallows, at least check out the author’s 2008 article titled Is Google Making Us Stupid? In that article, Carr lays down a concern that I and many people I know have.
Over the past few years Ive had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isnt goingso far as I can tellbut its changing. Im not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when Im reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and Id spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. Thats rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if Im always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
When I first started coding web pages in 1995, the web had more of a magazine feel to it. Longer articles and less use of sidebars. You know what happened next. More photos, videos, sidebars, banners and lists of related articles. Every page got louder with more distractions. Carr details how we are now spending mere seconds on each page. The economics of the web want us to surf faster and faster. More visitors, more page views, more advertisements. Give the user a taste of what they want and then distract them. Twitter and Facebook exploit the fact that our brains are being hard wired for short data bursts. Here is an update. Ahhh!
Today Carr posted a blog titled The unread message about how even the anticipation of data is changing the way we think.
Research shows, for example, that office workers tend to glance at their email inbox 30 or more times an hour, which seems to me to be pretty clear evidence that even when we’re not reading messages we’re thinking about receiving messages – not just emails, but texts, Facebook updates, tweets, and so on.
I’ve written a lot of posts about evolutionary nutrition. What I see as the danger of constant short burst distractions are that they exploit an evolutionary gift we used to survive. The lion moving across the horizon is now a tweet about eating a bagel. I don’t have a solution for using the internet for research while at the same time not becoming a shallow thinker. I tried and failed to pull away from Facebook for 30 days. It’s not like I am a farmer. For the past 15 years my career has been pushing pixels on websites. I am part of the problem.
I highly recommend reading The Shallows. Turn off your computer and read the book.