Is the web dumbing us down?


Some fear the internet’s info-bites and quick-links format may be impairing our capacity for in-depth reading and thinking, writes Karlin Lillington

JOURNALIST AND author Nicholas Carr is used to ruffling feathers. His previous books Does IT Matter?(in which he argues that information technology brings no inherent competitive advantage, because it is now as common as a utility and all companies use it) and The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google(a tart analysis of the world’s migration towards a collective plug-in to the web) managed to garner praise and fury in approximately equal amounts.

His new book, The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, just published in Britain and Ireland by Atlantic Books, seems to have every intention of doing the same.

In it, he gnaws at a rather bleak bone – the notion that the internet’s small info-bites and quick-links format is actually affecting the way our brains function over time, making it increasingly difficult for us to dine out on the expansive, intellectual banquets of books, or any writing requiring deep thought.

An enthusiastic user of the internet who writes on business and technology for Wired, the New York Times, the Financial Timesand the Guardian, Carr began to notice his own reading habits were changing. “I really began to realise in a way that frustrated me that I really couldn’t sit down and read, not just a book but even a long article, with any degree of attention,” he says in an interview.

Perhaps it takes someone of a certain age – someone who came to adulthood in the pre-internet, pre-social networking age – to see this shift and, more to the point, to worry about it. For those who spent their teens with their face in a book rather than on Facebook, his opening chapters read worryingly true.

The internet’s very structure allows quick access to concentrated content as well as constant distraction, of endless detours away from wherever it was you intended to go. This, he notes, is very much part of its strength and attraction – it is what makes Google search a marvellous tool and Facebook addictive.

But at what cost? We skim, we extract, we hyperlink, but we don’t bury ourselves in deep thought. He argues, citing many studies, that our own brains are adapting to the expectation of fast streams of data, of “snippets” of information and ideas. Our inattentive, magpie minds don’t know how to read a sustained argument any longer. “The strip mining” of “relevant content replaces the slow excavation of meaning”, he writes.

He finds this alarming. “For the first time since Gutenberg, we’re seeing a fundamental shift in how people read. Even in the age of radio and television, print was still important in people’s lives. But with smart phones and iPads in addition to computers, we can access information all day long,” he says.

“I think we are well equipped to survive in a world of constant distraction and interruption,” he says, “but the idea that it is somehow natural and is better is a strange thing to me.”

The story of human civilisation has been to master and move beyond many primitive instincts, he argues – a primary one being to train the mind for focused argument and deep contemplation.

By contrast, the web is returning us to “the shallows”. “What’s important is only to exchange information on lots of topics,” he says, not to delve deeply into the topics themselves. With new social networking formats like Twitter, even the long standing metaphor of the web “page” is being subsumed into an ultra-brief format.

“The page doesn’t even apply – it’s ‘the stream’ – the perpetual flow of data – where all has to be compressed.”

In such a world, a company like Google will rule, and Carr has written extensively in this book and elsewhere on the company. He notes his own love-hate relationship with Google, admiring the technical brilliance that underlines the company while being wary of what he sees as its almost mechanistic view of intelligence and the mind.

“I have a sense that the company really doesn’t value that contemplative, calm mind. If intelligence comes down to being able to access as much information as possible as quickly as possible, then the goal is to make as much information available as possible. Putting information online so it can be searched is the optimal goal and trumps all other values.”

As a writer primarily on business and technology issues, Carr says he has been thinking about the implications for business of this “shallows” world. “There’s the question of whether, as companies rush toward the expectation of the constant connectivity of their employees, this is a good thing – is this ultimately a mistake? Is it shutting off some modes of creative thought that could be valuable to companies?” he asks.

“I think that is the case. But I also recognise the creativity that comes from being able to constantly share information. But I do think businesses should worry about placing all the rewards on the side of constant distraction. This may cut off the source of some of the deep innovation that comes from quietly contemplating something.”

He notes that there are a number of studies that note that multitasking, the supposed high-productivity value of the information age, may not actually improve productivity at all. “Managers say they’re struggling to get programmers to finish jobs. They sense that when they come up against an obstacle they can switch to something else, and can juggle lots of projects without finishing them.”

One criticism of The Shallowsis that it doesn’t offer any answers. Carr says his publisher suggested a final chapter might do this, “but my inclination was more to analyse the phenomenon. To me, if by trying to explain as clearly as possible I raise awareness, I’ve done my job,” he says. “Also – I think the solutions are obvious,” he laughs. “Spend less time online. Read more books.”

Does he try to take a contrarian approach deliberately – to perhaps needle those who cherish whatever the current received wisdom is about the internet and technology?

“Yeah, sure,” he laughs. “But I think my natural tendency is to come at things as a sceptic. When I find that conventional wisdom may be wrong or limited, I want to look at that more closely.”

There is an irony that Carr quietly relishes about making the argument he makes within the format of a book, the very thing he says that people will not take the time any longer to read. “I want to require people to actually pay attention, to read this.”

But he acknowledges that he doesn’t expect the world to turn around and change the direction in which it is going. And that is where he says some of his critics have not understood the nature of the book, which has more of the requiem about it than the polemic.

“A lot of the coverage has portrayed it as an attack on the internet, but really I wrote it more as an elegy for the literary mind.”