Time to review a book. Yes, a book. The Shallows by Nicholas Carr has really had its hooks in me for the past couple of weeks. (If it wasn’t in hardback, I’d have taken it out with me on the train and finished it sooner.) I was told it would scare me. It sort of did, although it tells universal truths which everyone who uses a computer, and especially the internet, already knows but would probably just rather not think about. Carr is an American business and technology writer, and former editor of the Harvard Business Review. He’s clever. He’s readable. What he’s not is a Luddite. You should know that. The Shallows seems to have grown out of an essay he wrote for Atlantic magazine called Is Google Making Us Stupid? Let’s proceed from that starting point.
Carr is roughly the same generation as me – a bit older, born in Cincinnati in 1959, but pretty excited when Star Wars came out and an early Apple adopter; at the beginning of the book, to set out his stall, he describes the way his own life has been gradually changed through an enthusiasm for computers and what used to be called the World Wide Web. He’s as wired today as you probably are. You’re reading this on a blog, probably on a laptop, or a home PC, or an iPad. Why not print it out, if you’re hooked up to a printer, and read it on A4? After hearing the alarm bells set off by The Shallows, you may be tempted to do this more often, even though you won’t. Who’s got the time? Carr brilliantly described the internet, which we all understand, in ways we hadn’t thought of: as a “cacophony of stimuli,” as an “ecology of interruption technologies” … he even mines TS Eliot’s Four Quartets for the phrase “distracted by distraction from distraction.” You know he’s right. You’re probably distracted from reading this already.
By dipping in and out of research conducted largely on humans, he is able to make academic what we already suspect: that constant, daily use of the internet, and search engines, and hyperlinks, is rewiring our brains, and not necessarily for the greater good. Carr understands why computer evangelists over the last couple of decades have worked themselves up into an apparently Utopian lather about how much cleverer we are since PCs became ubiquitous, and how much more efficient our lives are, particularly in terms of sourcing information at the click of a mouse or keypad. But he questions the 1980s orthodoxy that the hyperlink represents “the technology of liberation.” (In fact, experiments conducted in the early 90s disproved this, showing that hypertext readers could often “not remember what they had and had not read”.) Each click or glance is “a small interruption of thought, a momentary redeployment of of mental resources.” The way information is presented on the net is “a concentration-fragmenting mishmash”; it is “an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention.” (By the way, while typing that paragraph, even though it is 07.48am, I checked my emails.)
Carr also reminds us that it is in Google’s “economic interest” that we click as often as possible. “The last thing [Google] wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.” Carr presents a number of compelling images, few more compelling, and depressing, than this one: the internet, he says, “provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards – ‘positive reinforcements’ in psychological terms – which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions … It turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment”
In case we think any of this is new, Carr provides useful potted histories of the advent of the clock (monks, it turns out, divided the day up into units of time and built the first mechanical timekeepers, so that they could follow their regimented regimes of prayer) and of printed books, which caused a moral panic far greater than the one caused by Google; a man called Robert Burton wrote a book in 1628 called An Anatomy Of Melancholy, in which he described, with alarm, “the vast chaos and confusion of books”. This was a century after the Gutenberg press made the printed book a reality. “We are oppressed with them,” he wrote. “Our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.” Books, you see, were destroying the centuries-old oral tradition.
Unsurprisingly, Carr is a fan of the book. His sentiments echo those I expressed in a recent Word column in which I denounced the Kindle. Here’s Carr:
As a device for reading, the book retains some compelling advantages over the computer: you can take a book to the beach without worrying about getting sand in its works; you can take it to bed without being nervous about it falling to the floor should you nod off; you can spill coffee on it; you can sit on it; you can put it down on a table, open to the page you’re reading, and when you pick it up a few days later, it will still be exactly as you left it. You never have to be concerned about plugging a book into an outlet or having its battery die.
Once transferred from page to screen, as so much of the printed word is in the process of being, from academic paper to novel, the “linearity of the book” is, he says, “shattered, along with the calm attentiveness it encourages in the reader.” He gives this example: try doing a crossword puzzle while reading a novel. Can’t be usefully done. (Actually, I find it hard enough to do a crossword puzzle while doing a crossword puzzle, but that’s another blog entry.)
There’s a lot of fairly dense stuff towards the end of The Shallows about how the brain works, which I found hard to follow not because I was doing a crossword at the same time, but because I’m not a medical man. However, in brief, short term memories only become long term memories after a delicate process, one that can be interrupted by, as Carr puts it, “a jab to the head or a simple distraction”. Forgive me, scientists, if I have picked this up incorrectly, but the hippocampus seems to be the ancient part of the brain that acts as our “navigational centre”, a taxi driver’s mental maps are stored there; it also forms and manages our memories. Our brains are not like computers, as sexy as that sounds to people who work on buzzing campuses in Palo Alto and go around on scooters, even though both have capacity for memory storage: “Biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not.”
It’s a scary book, because I know for a fact that my neural pathways have been, and are being, altered by constant attention to the internet. Most of my working day involves sitting at this MacBook, with wi-fi on, writing; and that requires research, which is all done with clicking, even though some days I am working in a library full of books. Anyone else see an irony in that? Google is a lot quicker and more efficient than the British Library, at least in an instant where I want to look up the exact date of the Gutenberg press on Wikipedia, which I just did.
While writing The Shallows, Carr moved to the wilds of Colorado where he had no cellphone signal and only “a poky DSL connection”; he packed in Twitter and Facebook, cancelled RSS feeds and set hs email programme to check for new emails every hour, not every minute. He sort of hated it, but it helped him get his book written more quickly. He’s back on the drip now, incidentally, because, as I said, he’s not a Luddite, he’s as wired up to the electronic teat as you and me. But his book makes you think. And it requires “deep reading”, as he puts it – that skill which is being eroded. The very fact that I read it in book form makes me feel smug. You might, too. I’m lucky, I was raised and educated in a world of books and comics and magazines; I even began my writing career in a world of newspaper cuttings services and typed on a typewriter – I at least appreciate both worlds and what they have to offer, and can toggle between the two; what chance does the generation whose schooling involved doing homework with Google have? None.
I’ll leave you with this erudite but apocalyptic passage from Carr. If there was a loom nearby, you sense he might have kicked the shit out of it. “Those who celebrate the ‘outsourcing’ of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor … What gives real memory its richness and its character, not to mention its mystery and fragility, is it contingency. It exists in time, changing as the body changes.” Culture, he says, “is more than the aggregate of what Google describes as ‘the world’s information.’ It’s more than can be reduced to binary code and uploaded. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers.”
Inspired? I was.