"The Shallows" Rehashes the Weak Argument That Google Makes You Stupid

By Andrew Moseman | June 7, 2010 12:12 pm

TheShallowsRemember the kerfuffle over “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The 2008 cover story in The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr contended that the barrage of information available on the Web is changing our brains, making us all shallow and deficient in our attention span. It also raised a ruckus across the blogosphere with Web users who didn’t like to be called “stupid.” Now, as if to challenge our cultural ADD, Carr has expanded that article into a book: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

In book reviewers, Carr finds a friendlier audience to his “more books and less Internet” thesis. The Boston Globe is impressed with the argument, if unimpressed with drawing out the argument to such a great length:

Carr’s argument rests on just three chapters (out of ten). He lays out, first, what we now know about the adult brain’s malleability, or “plasticity,’’ and then draws on a slew of recent studies to make the startling case that our increasingly heavy use of digital media is actually changing us physiologically — rewiring our neural pathways. And not necessarily for the better. “The possibility of intellectual decay,’’ Carr notes, “is inherent in the malleability of our brains.’’

Carr, promoting his book with a CNN essay, grabs neuroscience studies to bolster several claims: That people who multitask while online struggle to concentrate when they’re offline, that spending a lot of time on electronic devices hinders creative and critical thinking, and that students who surfed the Web during a lecture retained less information than those who listened with laptops closed. (That last one is kind of a “duh”—people who fill out Sudokus or read “Twilight” books during class probably don’t retain much, either.)

But neuroscience author and blogger Jonah Lehrer is unimpressed with Carr’s scientific rigor, and with his respect for the brain. Sure, Lehrer says in his New York Times review of the book, we bounce around the Internet, distracted at every turn:

But this isn’t really the fault of the Internet. The online world has merely exposed the feebleness of human attention, which is so weak that even the most minor temptations are all but impossible to resist. Carr extends these anecdotal observations by linking them to the plasticity of the brain, which is constantly being shaped by experience. While plasticity is generally seen as a positive feature — it keeps the cortex supple — Carr is interested in its dark side.

In addition, Lehrer says, Carr may have cherry-picked studies to support his argument, but the science is not nearly so one-sided:

What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.”

The key to the Carr argument, then, is not so much scientific rigor as it is an appeal to an extremely enticing romantic appeal. Even among the many Web-savvy people who responded with derision toward what feels like a reactionary attack on the modern way of life, there is the basic longing to disconnect now and then. The Wall Street Journal’s John Horgan says even those who grew up never knowing the absence of the Internet, like his teenage kids, feel it:

Like most American kids, they commune with friends via text messages and Facebook updates (email is so passé), and they spend endless hours trolling the Web for odd videos and cool music. But rather than dismissing Mr. Carr’s thesis as old-fogeyish, as I expected, they confessed that their dependence on the Internet sometimes worries them. My son would like to cut back on his online time, but he fears isolation from his friends.

But the fact that we know too much Web time could have negative side effects, and that we have doubts about the thing that made our lives so much more connected, doesn’t mean it’s making us stupid. As many reviews have noted, it’s hard not to see The Shallows as little more than the latest in a millennia-long line of nostalgia-driven scares brought on by technological revolutions, especially ones in information and media.

For more on this, check out DISCOVER blogger Carl Zimmer’s rebuttal to the initial Carr article, “How Google Is Making Us Smarter,” as well as Vaughan Bell’s Slate article on the history of technology scares. And remember, the power of the Internet allows you to use your brain how you wish. As the San Francisco Chronicle concludes:

Perhaps, way down deep we are becoming superficial. Yet at least this information will be available to everyone, and even with the shallowest of readings, exposure to new information will create its own new and illuminating associations. Internet access is like having the keys to the world’s greatest library. Provided that we do not become slaves to this technology, how we use this library remains our choice.

Hey, look at you, Internet user—you made it all the way to the end.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: How Google Is Making Us Smarter
DISCOVER: You Know Too Much
DISCOVER: Which Brain Games Will Help Your Brain the Most?
Discoblog: And the Survey Says: Google Is Not Making You Stupid

Image: W.W. Norton

  • http://awdesign.110mb.com Andrew

    I thought this article (as well as Carr’s article) was really interesting and thought provok….OH LOOK! Banner ads!

  • http://blog.denniswilliamson.us Dennis

    You should have heard all the “tut-tutting” when Algorp invented the Interbeach and spent all day making marks in the sand on the riverbank with a stick. “Those antelopes aren’t going to hunt themselves, Algorp! Those berries aren’t going to gather themselves!”, yelled his wife, Tipr. [Translation to English provided by translate.Ggggl.beach]

  • http:/teleprestexan.blogspot.com/ Stephen Daugherty

    Al Gore voted for the legislation to privatize the internet, make it something else than just another DARPA defense project. He said as much. He never said he invented the internet, yet this story still has legs.

    Interesting that a claim that would make a man a liar and teller of tall tales is itself an exaggeration and a lie.

  • http://blog.denniswilliamson.us Dennis

    @ #3: Who said anything about AlleGory?

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    Omg the printing press/radio/tv/video games/the internet/something else new is going to destroy our way of life as we know it!

    And you know what, it’s true. It’s happened every time. And every time, for the better.

    If they think this technology is disruptive, they should take a look at 100 years ago and try to figure out what parts of our modern life would be imaginable to people in their primes at that time. Who were busy saying that something new was foolish and ruining kids (probably the new child labor laws that prevented them from working in mines).

  • Katharine

    Correction: Jonah Lehrer is not a neuroscientist.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Andrew Moseman

    @6 thanks for the catch, fixed.

  • John

    I think this ‘Shallow’ review of that excellent book proves that Nick Carr is correct in his assessment.

    Quote from ‘The Shallows’:

    “Considering how much easier it is to search digital text than printed text, the common assumption has been that making journals available on the net would significantly broaden the scope of scholarly research, leading to a much more diverse set of citations. But that’s not at all what Evans [Sociologist of the University of Chicago] discovered. As more journals moved online, scholars actually cited fewer articles that they had before. And as old issues of printed journals were digitized and uploaded to the Web, scholars cited more recent articles with increasing frequency. A broadening of available information led as Evans described it to a “narrowing of science and scholarship.”. In explaining the counter intuitive findings in a 2008 ‘Science’ article, Evans noted that automated information-filtering tools, such as search engines, tend to serve as amplifiers of popularity, quickly establishing and then continually reinforcing a consensus about what information is important and what isn’t.” – The Shallows (page 217)

  • http://bit.ly/DblFeat Michel

    Just in case you’re interested–we have Nicholas Carr coming to speak at the Commonwealth Club on 6/14/2010. He’s part of a crazy double feature that includes the Facebook Effect. check it out! http://bit.ly/DblFeat. Hope to see you there!

  • Rick

    I’ve noticed The Shallows effect in reading young people in internet forums. They regard concentration and deep thought as “obsessive” and call people who still have that ability “creepy”. It makes me wonder if someone isn’t orchestrating this dumbing down to make the next generation better workers who don’t think, they just do as they’re instructed….like robots. Another annoying trait is reading what someone has said and leaving a link to the quote as though that would just settle the matter. No thought, no digging deeper, no exploring an idea for the pros and cons, just acceptance of what you’ve read.


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