Approximately two years ago, I reviewed Nicholas Carr’s book, The Big Switch. At the time, I applauded Carr’s creativity for examining the declining costs in computers, the increasing power of processing through “the cloud” and enormous server farms and his prediction that lower computing cost would enable and empower individuals, not large corporations, to create and control new businesses. Carr wrote that the situation was not unlike the era when the cost of electricity decreased with the development of public utilities.
When I read that Carr had written a new book, The Shallows, I ordered a pre-publication copy. The subtitle, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, did not surprise or alarm me since another one of Carr’s books, Does IT Matter, established his provocative thinking about technology and its potential uses.
In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr weaves the recent findings from neurological studies of the brain demonstrating the impact of Internet usage around an historical narrative of the evolution of learning. Plato, Socrates, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Marshall McLuhan are some of the thinkers whose writings Carr utilizes to demonstrate a linkage between the introduction of new technologies and a change in the way we learn.
Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press led to the widespread dissemination of books, newspapers, and periodicals. The act of reading a book stimulated the mind’s creativity and thought, allowing us to focus our attention on ideas and concepts. The digitization of knowledge and dissemination through the Internet and indexing of that knowledge by Google changes that learning dynamic. Instead of focused thinking, our minds are being retrained to think rapidly, skimming content for relevance. Carr warns that we are losing our ability to concentrate. He bolsters this thought with a small chapter that describes how he found the time to write The Shallows. Because he is a writer, he disconnected from much of the technology that he had grown accustomed to over the years.
Carr writes that major changes in thinking shift over generations as technology becomes more embedded in work, education, and leisure. Carr has thrown a different spin to those books and articles about our children becoming Digital Natives and what the benefits may be to our society. Like Nicholas Carr, I have always been an early adopter of technology. My first personal computer was an Apple IIB in the late 1970’s and I have gone through many upgrades, models, and brands since then as well as many versions of cell phones, smart phones, GPS devices, etc. However, I am not a Digital Native. I embraced reading and writing at an early age and am able to shut out the distractions of technology when I need or want to concentrate. After reading Carr’s illuminating book, I wonder if he’s right about the potential effect of technology to reduce our abilities to think creatively, thoughtfully, and grasp new concepts. I encourage everyone to read it.