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Does the Internet Put Us in the "Shallows?"

Updated on May 4, 2014

Media Effects Affects Us

Marshall McLuhan, the guru of media and the patron saint of Wired magazine wrote:

Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. (p. 57)

Media, any media, is going to have an effect on those who use it. Surely this statement is non-controversial. From the Payne Foundation Studies on music, dime store novels, film and any other media you wish to imagine, through the Creel office which provided war propaganda for both domestic and international making a stop with Albert Bandura, bobo dolls and direct effects continuing to George Gerbner’s indirect effect of Cultivation theory, once around Elihu Katz’ uses and gratifications theory (showing Dallas to Israelis in an agricultural kib-butz was a stroke of genius) and stopping today with a look to the past of how physically (mentally? does it make a difference?) media affects its users. Please note, I have left out single and two step flow, agenda setting theory, voting patterns, diffusion of innovation, reflective/projective and anything else that Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton might want to bring me.

But, in accordance with our instant gratification wide world of wiki, let us cut to the chase.

Marshall McLuhan


WNYC Interview with Carr

The Shallows

We build new media technological devices often without considering any possible unintended consequences. All hail the cell phone—it allows us to be in constant contact with friends and family. And possibly causing cancerous and other tumor growth. And dangerous driving while talking or texting in the car. And bad spelling. The laptop is a wonderful device for portable internet use and note taking. But, guys—if you use it on your lap there is a chance that the “sex organs of the machine world” will be neutered.

Nicolas Carr’s the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain examines this issue. The book springs from an article Carr wrote for The Atlantic called “Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?” In it, Carr laments the way that the way the information on the Internet has transformed his reading:

[The media/Internet] supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Hal Varian


And now Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google:

Google will make us more informed. The smartest person in the world could well be behind a plow in China or India. Providing universal access to information will allow such people to realize their full potential, providing benefits to the entire world.

Who is right

Who do you believe is correct here?

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Granted I am being a little unfair here taking two comments out of twenty pages of such (but it is MY article). But this exchange leads to an important idea—both those who agree with Carr or Varian have a couple of things in common—first, people are going to hold strongest to those ideas which best serve them and, second, people absolutely have no clue as to what is going to happen. Futurists are like baseball players and weather persons—get it right 30% of the time and you will earn the big money (or in the case of the weather person, a dog that will lick your face on television and be available at the shelter tomorrow).

Now, as I frequently tell my students, I told you that to get you over here.

Brain change

Carr starts by explaining how he became seduced into the glamorous world of PCs and Internet by being one of the first to purchase Apple’s Mac Plus in 1986. From there, it was all downhill. Flash forward to 2005. Carr becomes a “content provider” (blogger). Then, in 2007, he noticed a change in himself:

I began to notice that the Net was exerting a much stronger and broader influence over me than my old stand alone PC ever had. It wasn’t just that I was spending so much time staring into a computer screen. It wasn’t just that so many of my habits and routines were changing as I became more accustomed to and dependant on the sites and services of the Net. The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, 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. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected. Just as Microsoft Word had turned me into a flesh-and-blood word processor, the internet, I sensed, was turning me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine. A human HAL.

I missed my old brain.

But the Internet was not the first technology that re-tuned and re-tooled our brain.

But first, a clarification or special report. Brain and mind must be used very carefully. Brain is the physical thing in our heads that, unlike Jethro Bodine in The Beverly Hillbillies, often keeps people from blowing into one ear and putting a candle on the other side of the head. When we talk about changes in the brain, we are talking about the physical re-wiring of a lump of organic material.

When we speak of the mind, we are speaking of the consequences of the wiring and re-wiring of the brain. Our thoughts, feelings, ideas and such come from the mind which a result of the wiring of the brain. Descartes was wrong once again—not only the mind and body be separate items but the brain and the mind cannot be separated.

If, as Marshall McLuhan claims that “The medium is the message” and that the technology itself changes the way we do business, what is changed is both the brain and the mind. In chapter three of Carr’s book, entitled “Tools of the Mind,” he uses three examples—the map, the clock and the alphabet. The map helped to change our ideas about space. The clock served to create time as much as explain. And the alphabet preserved for all information. These are not simple recreations of what we see nor just representations of what is there. Early people drew maps with sticks in the dirt as rough representations of a location. Our ability to understand space and the tools we developed to understand space helped us to make more precise maps. Time was marked by cycles of the sun and the moon. By creating a device that more precisely measure the day help to regiment the day making it easier to know when to work, when to eat and when to sleep. (If you have ever lived in a small town you also have the extra help of a horn which blows at 6 am, noon and 6 pm.) Writing, besides being the bane of most freshmen college students, helps us to preserve thought and to change our notion of truth. The tools, initially created to help our understanding, became things that tied us into new concepts of the mind. The medium is not the message but the medium forces a change which is the method. We make wristwatches which allow us to take time with us. We find ways to modify our technologies.

Calgon, Take me away!

Chapter four, “The Deeping Page,” gives us a history of writing and printing. Reading a book deeply, like Calgon, takes you from your everyday existence into the world of the story. But Carr says it better than me:

Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was—and is—the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading.

Reading and the Internet

Do you find it hard to concentrate when you read, especially when you have just used the internet?

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Books and cassettes and PDFs, OH MY!

This is a lovely thought. And anyone with a child who has locked away him or herself in a bedroom hoping to get in a few minutes of meditative reading and relaxing in before bedtime realizes this is also the time that said children decide that the collie should be a rare hairless collie while said collie, through much verbal and non-verbal cues, vehemently disagrees. Either you ignore the stimuli in order to deep read or the stimuli causes you break off of your reading and go save the dog. The former gets you the Department of Family Services, the latter grandchildren. Pick your poison.

Carr also offers a rehash, although a new and different rehash, on the replacement theory. Replacement theory says, very briefly, a new technology causes the death of an old technology. Thus, radio would drive out reading, television would drive out radio and reading and the net, gasp, will usurp them all. The Internet does not just replace time spent on other media, it gobbles it up and incorporates into itself. Records, then tapes, then CDs are now sucked into this big ball of bits and bytes. Pictures and drawings—slurped up like spaghetti at an all you can eat pasta buffet. Video—we hardly knew thee. But all of that stuff is still here. The fact that I read Carr’s book and did not download it from the Internet kind of puts a bit of irony in his theory—the book is replaced by the Internet says the book. Quick, call John Edwards—this book is talking to me from the other side.

Oh, let us not forget the Kindle, iPad, Nook or any its knock off cousins of released such devices. The poor book as we know it does not stand a chance, says the book. A personal note: I was offered the chance to use an electronic book-reader thingee at Barnes and Noble. My reply: how well does it skim across the parking lot. Such a Luddite and barbarian—how can he dare say such a thing. The wave of the future will certainly drown him. Let him eat beta!

The rest of book can be summed up in three parts—what the internet does (hint—the word “forces” appears a lot), the history of Google and its relationship to reading and the “Google books project (it hurts “real” reading and Google may be evil in its unholy attempt to control the written, or at least PDFed word) and the changes that the internet is creating in both the brain and the mind. It is the latter point that has been best researched by people not writing this book. Warning—lots of science terms, but I’ll be gentle. the plasticity of the brain allows for the brain to re-wire the brain around un-used or damaged parts of the brain. The Internet also causes new connections to be made or re-routed. The brain is not a lump of Jello but an active organ changing and morphing to meets its needs. And this is a good thing. While the electromagnetic pulse finally occurs sometime in 2021, our brains will re-wire ourselves to be able to handle books once again. And the plow, mule team, canning and trying to figure out which parts of the chicken to eat and which parts that need to be used for bait. We will be modified once again by an old technology. The medium is not the message but the medium certainly is conditioned by and conditions the world.


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