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Review of What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr

Journey away from smartphones

by Tom Johnson on May 20, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

In my ongoing series describing my journey away from smartphones, I decided to read one of the seminal works that kicked off the debate about the Internet's influence on our brains: Nicholas Carr's book What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows. In this post, after a careful reading and dissection of Carr's argument, I try to make sense of the book for my own techno-skeptic journey. My conclusion is to find a balance between online and offline modes, using the computer to find info, but then turning away the monitor to read offline.

A genre of anti-technology books

I’m intrigued by the genre of books exploring the psychological effects of technology. Admittedly, most authors begin in a similar way: something is altering their brain/concentration/focus. What’s driving the change? Technology — the Internet and social media! A list of technological indictments is explored, and the watchdog author concludes with a warning about the new technology. This pattern seems to repeat with each new technology, dating as far back as Socrates and his concerns about writing (a new technology at the time).

Although many people dismiss these alarmists, I’m much more mixed. Based on personal experience, I feel that there’s real merit to the argument about some technology having a negative influence. In fact, dismissing the psychological impact trivializes the power of technology as a force for transforming culture. Since I wrote my initial post, My awakening moment about how smartphones fragment our attention span, I’ve felt, on a visceral level, my attention span broken, and I’ve observed how abandoning my smartphone has essentially fixed me. I went from reading no books per month to reading 6+ books per month. I feel more level-headed, focused, calm, and in control of my life. The effect has been life changing. This spurred my interest in reading more books that follow similar themes.

However, I also agree that web technology has amplified our opportunities, made life much more convenient in ways, opened up access to information in unprecedented ways, and has been a boon to innovation, knowledge, connection, and community. Technology and progress go hand in hand, as many have noted. The trick is to learn how to harness technology’s good while recognizing and rejecting those aspects that do harm.

With that introduction, let me dive into the focus of this post. One of the seminal works in this genre of tech’s psychological influence is Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, published in 2010. The theme isn’t too different from Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attention–and how to think deeply again, published in 2022, except that Carr doesn’t focus as much on social media, since it was still ramping up in Carr’s time. Carr’s book created an incredible stir at the time and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His writing is informed by copious research and clear thinking.

Actually, since Carr’s main argument was first published as a short essay in The Atlantic, titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (2008), his essay has been used by school teachers as a student writing prompt for argumentative essays. Consequently, there are tons of for-and-against student arguments reacting to Carr. Most of them are superficial and reactionary, defending the Internet without getting into the substance of Carr’s logic. I want to give Carr a bit more respect here by going into detail about his argument, providing more detail from his book to explore the nuances of exactly why and how the Internet can make us shallow thinkers.

For fun, try printing this post out and reading it on a printed page rather than a screen. You might find that it’s much easier to read from a page than from a screen.

What question does Carr try to answer?

Carr explains that he’s noticed his brain has been changing. He has the feeling that

“someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. … I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” (5-6)

Carr’s friends say the same thing: “The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some worry they’re becoming chronic scatterbrains” (7). The main quest Carr seeks to resolve is to “figure out what’s been going on inside my head” (115).

This framing gives the author’s book personal meaning and significance. As a fan of personal essays, I love it when authors explain the personal reasons why a topic matters to them.

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What is Carr’s main assertion?

Carr’s main assertion is that the Internet is basically shallowing out our brains. As we offload tasks to the computer, we enfeeble parts of our brain that would otherwise handle those tasks. The Net reduces our ability to read linearly, to absorb and immerse ourselves in books, to think deeply, and more. From memory to spatial awareness, reflection, storage, and more, by having the Net handle these tasks for us, our brain grows weaker.

Ultimately, as the Internet cuts into our emotional depth and compassion, the Internet diminishes our humanity, making us more computer-like. In becoming more computer-like, we process information in short bursts, multi-tasking, moving from page to page as we scan and skim for quick answers, like a high-speed processor managing bits of information in non-parallel threads (142). While this computer-like brain might excel at retrieving easy answers, it doesn’t serve deeper thought processes and connection-making. As technology moves toward artificial intelligence, allowing us to offload even more of our own thinking and analysis to computers, our brain end up a shallow hull of what it once was.

What’s the logic of Carr’s argument?

Carr’s argument goes something like this:

  • Our brain is not fixed but rather plastic, susceptible to influence and change.
  • Throughout time, new tools and technologies (from language to the alphabet, writing, maps, typewriters, and more) have impacted how people think.
  • The Internet is a technology that likewise has an impact on how people think.
  • Although the Net’s screens involve a lot of reading, the screen differs substantially from the page. The reading experience is altogether different on the screen.
  • The Net encourages skimming, scanning, jumping from page to page, multi-tasking, deciding on whether to click each link and generally operating with a short, frenetic attention span. Economics drives the Net’s content model.
  • Our online behavior spills over into offline activities as well, making reading long, linear books problematic. One applies the same Net-trained mind to a book and quickly times out, with no ability to focus in a sustained, immersive way.
  • As a result, the Net discourages long-form reading and thinking. Ultimately, the Net makes us shallow.

I generally agree with Carr. However, there’s an implicit assumption that the Net is to be used as a mode of reading similar to book reading. If you instead embrace the idea that the Net is only for finding or short-form answers — to find, zero-in on, and locate information — and that lengthy texts are intended to be read offline, usually on the printed page, you might avoid the shallowing effects of the web while capitalizing on the advantages of the web. In other words, we don’t need to accept that reading has transitioned from the page to the screen.

Let’s get into the details of Carr’s argument.

Our brain is plastic

Carr says a lot of people think the brain is fixed (hardwired) once you reach adulthood. After those formative childhood years, your brain settles into a permanent state. This isn’t so. The brain is actually very malleable, always active, changing, and reforming. Carr explains, “… the structure of the brain might in fact be in a constant state of flux, adapting to whatever task it’s called on to perform” (21). There’s even a general principle called Hebb’s rule: “Cells that fire together wire together” (27). As your brain starts firing in certain patterns, the synaptic links form neural pathways that enable new modes of thinking.

Carr says, “Every time we perform a task or experience a sensation, whether physical or mental, a set of neurons in our brains is activated. …” (27). If these newly activated neurons fire long enough, the brain eventually undergoes chemical alterations. Neurologists say that “neuroplasticity is not only possible but that it is constantly in action… The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring but that it doesn’t. … Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind — over and over again” (31). In other words, it’s not the brain’s capacity for complex thought that gives humans their dominance, but the brain’s adaptability and changeability for different modes of thought.

It’s important to accept this basic premise: that the brain can experience change. Without support for this premise, nothing else in Carr’s argument follows — for example, if the brain is fixed, technology can have no impact on our thought processes (except perhaps on children, whose brains are still developing). But if our adult brains aren’t fixed but rather in constant flux, actively reforming throughout our lives, then technology can influence our thought processes. What is that influence?

Technologies that have impacted our plastic brain

Technology can influence the way we think. Carr describes two contrasting philosophies about technology’s influence: instrumentalists and determinists. Probably the most common response to Carr’s book is that the Internet is a wonderful tool but used stupidly. The tool itself isn’t making us dumb, some argue. This view, which is an instrumentalist position, is that technology itself is neutral; whether technology enhances or degrades our life depends on how we use it. Instrumentalists believe “we’re in control. The technology is just a tool, inert until we pick it up and inert again once we set it aside,” Carr says (3). Instrumentalists “downplay the power of technology, believing tools to be neutral artifacts, entirely subservient to the conscious wishes of their users” (46).

In contrast, the determinist view holds that each technology entails a certain chain reaction of events that inevitably get set into motion due to the particular technology’s design. Quoting sociologist Thorstein Veblen, Carr writes, “technological progress, which [determinists] see as an autonomous force outside man’s control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history.” Then Carr quotes the oft-cited observation from Karl Marx: “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” (46). (In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly explores a similar train of thought, asking what this emerging “technium” phenomenon ultimately wants, and where we stand in relation to it.)

I find the determinist view interesting to contemplate. Certainly, the design of a free Internet, supported by advertising, entails certain patterns and optimizations as a result. In a chapter titled “The Church of the Google,” Carr explains how the economics of the web, mainly Google’s advertising model, entails certain patterns (short content, everything online, getting users quickly in and out of pages) that inexorably lead to certain outcomes (continuous distraction, interruption, multitasking) by virtue of the economic model driving the technology’s design. If we were to add to Marx’s observation, it might be, “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist; free Internet, advertisements that consume and scatter your attention.”

The Net’s design does makes its imprint on those who use it. This is why determinists argue that “Civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use,” as Carr says (48). Or, referencing Marshall McLuhan, “Every new medium … changes us” (4).

Obviously, Carr aligns more as a technology determinist than an instrumentalist. He says the tools we use become extensions of our thought. Carr says that when Nietzsche switched from longhand to a mechanical writing ball (an early typewriter), Nietzsche observed that the new technology changed his writing style to shorter, pithier forms of staccato-like expression. Nietzsche then concluded, “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts” (19).

Throughout time, technological inventions have shaped and altered how we think. The invention of the map “gave to man a new and more comprehending mind, better able to understand the unseen forces that shape his surroundings and his existence,” Carr says (41). Our tools shape us. Sure, “Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to,” Carr says. But “Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’ requirements” (47).

Even going back 2,500 years, Carr says Socrates was worried that writing — a new technology at the time — would cause people to have weaker memories. Socrates’ concern is often cited as a cliche about older generations fearful of new technology changing culture for the worse. The invention of writing systems did transition society from an oral to a written culture, reducing our ability to memorize and retain lengthy details in our heads, as Socrates feared. But writing systems also greatly enhanced our ability to pass information from one generation to another. Socrates didn’t foresee “the state of mind [writing] encouraged in the reader: logical, rigorous, and self-reliant,” Carr says (56). Writing was “a shift that was set in motion by the invention of a tool, the alphabet, and that would have profound consequences for our language and our minds” (56). Citing Walter Ong, a scholar on oral cultures, Carr concludes that “Writing heightens consciousness” (57). So yes, we traded some memory in the process, but we gained heightened logic, rigor, and consciousness.

Another influential invention over time, the Gutenberg printing press made books and reading widely available, encouraging deep and prolonged immersion in long texts. Carr says the shift we made as we learned to read books was a biological anomaly, as our natural state is one of distraction (64). Carr says, “The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible” (63). Reading deeply and immersively with prolonged concentration is a learned skill. We had to “train [our] brains to ignore everything else going on around [us], to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cute to another,” Carr says.

As we started reading more, Carr says “Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli 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” (65). Books and deep reading, made abundant through the technological invention of the printing press, enabled this shift in our mental processes.

Technological determinists would say that you can see the influence of the book in its design. Books involve a one-on-one reader-to-author experience, offline, requiring readers to follow extended logic expressed through many pages, demanding an advanced understanding of concepts and language. Not long after the printing press revolution do we have books everywhere — apparently as many books in 50 years as scribes had written in the previous 1,000 years (69). And before long we then see a flowering of great thinkers, writers, and philosophers: “Shakespeare, Cervantes, Moliere, and Milton, not to mention Bacon and Descartes” (70).

Surprisingly, some alarmists downplayed the benefits of the printing press because it also brought a lot of trash fiction, romances, gutter journalism, pornography, etc. Even so, Carr says “the arrival of movable-type printing was a central event in the history of Western culture and the development of the Western mind” (73). Books expanded language. The English language expanded from several thousand words to nearly a million (75). And, coming back to Ong, “As language expanded, consciousness deepened,” notes Carr (75).

It would be hard to argue that the printing press didn’t radically transform society. This wasn’t a case of tools having no to little influence on us. The printing press, by virtue of its design, propelled us down a path of intellectual development and scholastic achievement. Carr says, “…as our ancestors imbued their minds with the discipline to follow a line of argument or narrative through a succession of printed pages, they became more contemplative, reflective, and imaginative” (75). In sum, this technology inspired more advanced thought and innovation in the human mind. Technology does influence us, changing how we think and how we process the world around us. The design of technology plays a part in the design of our minds. With that foundation, what is the influence of the Internet on us? Is it akin to the printing press? Or is it different?

How the screen differs from the page

At first glance, one might think that the screen, full of words, mimics the printed page in a book, which is also full of words. However, computer screens are different from books in many ways. The following sections list a few salient characteristics of screens:

Multifunctionality. First, computers have become multifunctional devices. This is in stark contrast to a book, which has just one function: you read it. Multifunctional devices pull you in different ways, encouraging multitasking. This multitasking element alone makes it hard to focus in a linear way. The impulse on the Net is to move towards other tasks, not just reading, but activities that might be more pleasure-inducing or less mentally exhausting. Given that reading long texts requires quiet focus, it’s easy to get distracted or derailed into an easier task (like shopping on Amazon). The screen affords you that opportunity to allow yourself to be distracted.

To put it more concretely, the Net is not just printed words on a screen. As a multifunctional device, the Net is a post office, a VCR, a bank, a shopping mall, a newspaper, a weather report, a radio, a writing slate, a day planner, a video game console, a coffee shop, a back alley, a virtual city, a map, a calculator, a recipe book, a calendar, a tech support kiosk, a translation system, an encyclopedia, a dictionary, a gossip corner, a watercooler, a casino, an old yearbook, and so on. Is it any wonder that our attention drifts on the web and we move from activity to another, often in entirely different categories?

Bidirectional information flows. The internet is also bidirectional. Whereas a book is mostly one-way, from author to reader, the Internet allows readers to interact in full ways. Carr explains, “That’s made the system all the more useful. The ability to exchange information online, to upload as well as download, has turned the Net into a thoroughfare for business and commerce” (85). The Net also “connects us with one another. It’s a personal broadcasting medium as well as a commercial one” (85). All of this makes the Net a much more useful, a full-service kind of tool for doing many kinds of work, not just reading. We don’t just consume, we produce, transact, transmit, and input too. We can be productive on the Net, yielding outcomes of our labor and effort. We work through the Net, producing digital products and services. (In contrast, books have a one-way information flow: from the author to the reader.)

Hyperlinks with infinite sources stitched together. Although we spend hours upon hours reading from computer screens, perhaps reading more, Carr says the type of content we’re reading isn’t the same. We’re not reading a linear work of complex thought. We’re reading little snippets here and there from many different sources. Why do we jump around so much across sources? In part because the basic structure of the Net is the hyperlink. The Net and its links make searching and finding easier but also “make it much simpler to jump between digital documents than it ever was to jump between printed ones. Our attachment to any one text becomes more tenuous, more provisional,” Carr says (90-91). Hyperlinks stitch together documents at any connection point, allowing readers to travel from one context to another in an effortless way. (In contrast, books don’t have hyperlinks. You can’t tap a reference in a book and immediately be transported to another book.)

Unbundling/fragmentation of content. Due to this constant jumping around, Carr says works themselves are fragmenting. We’re reading pieces of works from different sites rather than one long linear text (91). This is called the “unbundling” of content. The Net allows readers to consume parts of many different texts — a paragraph from one page, a section from another site, and so on. As such, authors themselves create more modular, standalone chunks of information. Authors assume that you might arrive from another context, read only a small section, and then continue on your way. As such, texts are written in a more modular way. In books, Carr says the narrative structure provided long texts with a framework to hold the reader’s attention and interest. But now content must stand alone as a discrete entity unbundled from the rest of its content and be consumed in little nibbles here and there by a transient consumer (105). The lack of a larger narrative structure to pull readers through longer texts encourages them to read shorter content.

Economics of distraction. In addition to the links, many ads compete for our attention (whether through graphics, linkbait content, or other mechanisms). Carr says, “whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies,’” quoting Cory Doctorow (91). Carr says Google’s whole advertising approach is designed around click optimization. Which messages get the most traction (as measured through clicks)? That content ranks higher in algorithms of what’s served up to readers. “The last thing the company wants,” Carr says, “is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction” (157). Pages load quickly and allow users to zero-in on answers to their questions. Carr says:

“The intellectual technologies [Google] has pioneered promote the speedy, superficial skimming of information and discourage any deep, prolonged engagement with a single argument, idea, or narrative. ‘Our goal,’ says Irene Au, ‘is to get users in and out really quickly. All our design decisions are based on that strategy.’ Google’s profits are tied directly to the velocity of people’s information intake. The faster we surf across the surface of the web — the more links we click and pages we view — the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements” (156).

In other words, Carr says Google’s business model drives this model of distraction, where profits are maximized by users loading as many pages as possible during their web sessions. It’s distraction by design. The economics of advertising on the web optimize for interruptions. Just as TV programs are designed to bring eyeballs to advertisers, the free content and tools on the Internet bring people online, and once online, they do searches and interact with ads. By bringing all tools online (making the Internet completely multifunctional for every conceivable task), the web becomes a place not just for some activities but for all activities. More time online equals more searches and ads clicked. Search engines mask the distraction by mixing in the ads right next to user queries following the same theme as the ads, so it doesn’t feel like a distraction. Even so, Carr says, “The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention” (131).

Information overload. As noted early in unbundling/fragmentation, the amount of attention we devote to any one source tends to shrink (90). As a result, content producers are shortening their content to fit our reduced attention span. Content itself is changing because people aren’t able to devote the long concentrated focus on the content. Suddenly, several meaty paragraphs of text become a long wall of text that users skip over. Carr says, “Many producers are chopping up their products to fit the shorter attention spans of online consumers, as well as to raise their profiles on search engines” (94). But with shorter content, we also get more abundant content — infinite scrolling of feeds leads to pushing more and more information into our heads. Headline after headline that our minds have to process, each time deciding on the importance of the information, what to do with it, any actions to take, etc. This leads to information overload. Scanning and skimming an over-abundance of short sources results in a firehose of information sprayed right into our brains. Without the ability to intake and process it all, Carr says we end up relying more on computers to do this work for us — saving, storing, filtering, and analyzing the information.

Psychological responses and rewards. Carr says the Net also delivers “responses and rewards — ‘positive reinforcements,’ in psychological terms — which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions” (117). The rush of an email, making a connection on Facebook, getting comments on a blog post, or likes on an Instagram photo all tap into a system of positive reinforcements straight out of BF Skinner’s psychology lab. “It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment,” Carr says (117). The afterword in Carr’s 2020 addition elaborates more on the psychological manipulation of smartphones, noting that they exploit our vulnerability by promoting “four types of simuli: those that are novel or unexpected, those that are pleasurable or otherwise rewarding, those that are personally relevant, and those that are emotiononally engaging” (231).

Overall, on the Net, it’s hard to stay focused because you can jump around to many different sites and explore different themes, ideas, products, and so on. The end result of all this is that we are constantly distracted while trying to do deep work. It’s like trying to do a crossword puzzle while reading a book, Carr says (126). We’re multitasking with many tabs and activities open, chat/email, etc. jumping from site to site rather than the quiet, prolonged, solitary reading experience (113-114). Sure, we might be reading more. “But it’s equally clear that it’s a very different kind of reading,” Carr says (138).

The Net’s impact on our brains

Now that we’ve enumerated the many ways that screens differ from pages, the next question is what psychological impacts the screens have on the brains? Carr says that although we’re doing a lot of reading online, perhaps more than ever before, it’s a different kind of reading, and “…when people search the Net they exhibit a very different pattern of brain activity than they do when they read book-like text” (121). I’ve listed out a few of the salient effects, though undoubtedly one could pick from dozens.

Cursory thinking. Carr says, “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning” (116). We’ve switched “from reading to power-browsing” (137). I’ve observed a similar effect when I’m power browsing the web. I get accustomed to finding answers quickly, and when those answers aren’t immediately present, it’s easy to feel impatient, frustrated, and distracted into doing something else. The quick answers make me lose my patience. In contrast, when I make my way through a book, I feel a more persistent patience that can operate in slow-building way and not exhaust my patience even when answers aren’t immediately available.

Cognitive strain. The constant barrage of links requires constant evaluation, prompting decisions about whether to click or not and more, resulting in more cognitive strain (122). Links alone increase our cognitive load from the screen. Before long, our browser is one long row of endless tabs. When you can no longer read the tab titles, you know you’ve gone too far. Gradually, each new link, new tab, and new message notification (was it Slack, Google Chat, Email, Linkedin, some other service???), places more multitasking strain on our minds, as we try to keep everything in context. Our memory becomes sustained by our open tabs applications that, if we were to close, would make all context evaporate.

Carr says cognitive strain soon transitions to distractedness: “…a high cognitive load amplifies the distractedness we experience. When our brain is overtaxed, we find ‘distractions more distracting’” (citing Torkel Klingberg) (125). This is why it’s so hard to keep on task on the web — as cognitive strain overwhelms us, our resolve against distraction weakens. Carr also explains that our working memory gets overloaded and can’t write to long-term memory. When this happens, “it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information” (125). Quoting Stanford professor Clifford Nass, Carr says, “Intensive multitaskers are ‘suckers for irrelevancy’” (142). In short, cognitive strains moves us toward distraction and irrelevance, which explains why we waste so much time online.

Mesmerized states. Interestingly, although the online mind is one that is operating in cursory, hurried mode, paradoxically there’s a sense of obliviousness to the world around those online. But rather than the type of immersion in a book or in a creative state of flow, it’s almost as if the individual is in a trance-like state, mesmerized. Carr explains: “What you see is a mind consumed with a medium. When we’re online, we’re often oblivious to everything else going on around us. The real world recedes as we process the flood of symbols and stimulus coming through our devices” (118). Sometimes when my wife asks when I’ll be done with a task on the computer, I’ll say 15 minutes. She knows this means anywhere from 1-2 hours. Yet, while on the computer, I hardly notice the time slipping by. 15 minutes feels like 2 minutes. Carr says, “The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively” (119). If the mesmerized state were a creative flow, that would be welcome. But it’s instead more like Odysseus on Calypso’s island.

Immediacy bias. The Net also encourages us to prioritize what’s happening now. Carr says, “The near continuous stream of new information pumped out by the Web also plays to our natural tendency to ‘vastly overvalue what happens to us right now’” (quoting psychologist Christopher Chabris). You see this immediacy bias in the popularity of Twitter’s “Trending now” feed, the way newspapers must update the news every few hours, and more. Carr says, “we crave the new even when we know that ‘the new is more often trivial than essential’” (134). The immediacy bias complements our novelty bias, which is the psychological pull towards anything that is new.

Absence of calm, linear thought. Another effect of the Net is to reduce our calm, linear thinking processes. Carr says, “The mental functions that are losing the ‘survival of the busiest’ brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought — the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on when we reflect on our experiences or contemplate an outward or inward phenomenon. The winners are those functions that help us speedily locate, categorize, and assess disparate bits of information… “ (142). Carr says the type of mental functions prioritized by our time on the computer parallel the same high-speed read/write processes of the computer itself, as the processor moves bits of data quickly “in and out of memory” (142). Instead of the calm, collected state of mind, being on the web puts one in a state of frenzy and rapid but ultimately shallow thought processes.

Undeniably, the Net has prompted a different mode of thought. Carr describes this mode as perhaps being more utilitarian, but it’s not a more reflective mode that allows us to follow more book-length arguments and narratives.

Making sense of the dilemma

Unfortunately, Carr doesn’t come to any definitive conclusion about the right actions to take. He doesn’t blow the trumpet of retreat from the Net, and as far as I can tell, he still maintains an active blog (roughtype.com). He recently published an afterword in a 2020 edition of the book (a 10-year anniversary reprint), in which he adds more info about smartphones and social (to get caught up with the last decade’s technology trends). But he hasn’t retracted his original thinking on the subject. He writes, “I have left the original text of the book largely unchanged. I’m biased, but I think The Shallows has aged well. To my eyes, it’s more relevant today than it was ten years ago” (The Shallows: tenth anniversary edition).

Carr covers the smartphone trends well, though Hari’s Stolen Focus covers the smartphone angle in depth too. In both treatments, smartphones are basically distraction devices, but much more addictive than any previous device.

A balancing act?

I’ve been trying to wrangle how to make sense of Carr’s book for my own life. Peter Norvid, a researcher at Google, recommends striking a balance between skimming on the Net and concentrating on long-form reading. Norvid says:

My conclusion is that when the only information on a topic is a handful of essays or books, the best strategy is to read these works with total concentration. But when you have access to thousands of articles, blogs, videos, and people with expertise on the topic, a good strategy is to skim first to get an overview. Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist (If you’re stupid, it’s not Google’s fault).

If this balance between cursory and deep reading is possible, I’m all for it. With this rule of thumb, I would use the Net for finding information and getting overviews, and then immerse myself in deeper works offline with full concentration. The problem with this approach, however, is that much content online is unbundled/fragmented, and the way you read online is by reading snippets from 20 different sources. It wouldn’t make sense to print all of these pages out, as you’d end up with way more printed pages of fluff than would be worth reading (assuming the web pages even print well in the first place). The printing approach works only if the content is lengthy and modular enough to be worth printing.

Also problematic is that most authors break long articles up across many different pages and sections (think about the last mandatory elearning course you took at work, which no doubt required you to click through snippet after snippet through 60 minutes of annoyance). Authors try to keep you awake by making you progress from short page to short page, and then toggling show/hide functions for content within the same page. In sum, people who optimize content for the web often don’t make that content easily printable, so you can’t always just take longer content offline.

Leaving time for offline reading?

I’m also divided about another point. Carr says that all the reading online reduces the time we spend reading offline: “…the time we spend hopping across links cross out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation…” (120). In other words, we have a limited amount of time and bandwidth for reading. If we spend all day reading online (a different kind of reading), we no longer have the bandwidth for that book. By the time I’ve put in a day’s work, I’m ready to unplug, to sit in front of a TV or decompress in other ways. That time for reading? It’s very thin.

Unless I carve out some time during the workday to read, I don’t make as much progress as I want. But offline reading during the workday — even reading printed-out work email, work website content, and other content specific to tasks I’m doing at work — tends to feel like I’m not making progress on my bugs and other tickets. Like I’m not working.

Web as a distraction machine

Here’s another problem with the balancing act. I might think that I’m only using the Net to find and survey information, but it’s so easy to get sidetracked on the Net, to lose myself in feeds, headlines, and endless shallow curiosities. Pretty soon all my free time for deep reading disappears. One of the reviewers on Carr’s Shallows book page on Amazon expresses this effect in a comical way:

The brain, confronted with a glowing screen and the ability to hypertext its way from one interruption to another across the universe of knowledge from what its buddy in Australia thinks of rutabagas, to the spelling of rutabagas to the history of rutabagas to dishes that can be prepared from rutabagas leaves the brain sliding from one fact of surface interest to another fact even less useful, until it occurs to the brain to pursue the prompt on the pop-up menu and check the weather and get off of this slide onto the weather channel where a five minute video on playful seals on San Francisco Bay can be watched for free which does remind the brain that it could slide over to Facebook and find out if anyone “liked” the picture of the family cat posted an hour ago. And many do. Twenty-three “likes,” praise the Lord. (“Why there are so few worth talking to,” by John W. Cowan)

In other words, sure, if we used the Internet strictly for finding relevant information and reading overviews to orient us toward paths for deeper learning, the Internet would work well. However, the Internet is not optimized to do that. The Internet is optimized to hijack your attention and send you down paths you didn’t want to go down. It’s similar to going to a grocery store to buy milk. As with other core goods, milk is invariably at the back of any grocery store because store designers know that if they can get you to walk all the way to the back of the store, then return to the front checkout, you’ll pick up half a dozen other unplanned items on the way.

The Net experience starts hijacking your attention from the very start of the day: when you check your email. Newsletters vie for your attention as well as countless other messages. You might start off with good intentions (e.g., to do research for a project) only to find that intention quickly derailed, and before you know it, two hours have gone by and you’ve gotten no further in the project and now it’s time for lunch.

Reading as a superpower?

I have an idea that’s been percolating in the back of my mind since starting my smartphone awakening series and reading more. What if reading could be my superpower? In a world where people simply do not read long content anymore, what if I could be that technology worker who can actually read, who can get through enormous amounts of content and be hyper-educated, knowledgeable, and empowered through this information — the same information that seems to remain dormant/locked for so many others? It sounds ridiculous, but honestly, as far as I can tell, people do not read more than two paragraphs from any web page or email anymore. As such, how can they avoid sliding toward a trajectory of superficial knowledge, endless distraction, and fragmented thinking?

With my reading superpower, I could maintain deeper thought, make more connections and innovations in my analyses, and, heaven forbid, I might be able to slip into some states of flow now and then in which the world around me would fade as I immerse myself in a task. With this immersion, I could be uber-productive in ways that those jumping from chat to email to web page after page, with more than 100 tabs always open in their browser at any given time, are not.

How can I make reading my superpower? Can I do this dance of still using the Net as a normal technology worker in the 21st century while also evoking the deep, concentrated reading of a renaissance scholar in a cathedral-like library? These days, if you don’t quickly respond to a chat message or email, there’s a fear that others will assume you’re offline, not working. The default mode for working is to sit right in front of your screen, staring directly at it all day. What if my desk didn’t have the screen as its primary focal point? What if the primary focal point were a blank desk, with no screen in front? It sounds preposterous, I know. Imagine walking into a software development shop at Google and finding that, at least for someone, the computer screen wasn’t positioned two feet from their face from dawn to dusk.

Perhaps by displacing the screen as the focal point to work, I could maintain more of a balance between the online and offline modes. A simple swivel arm could accommodate displaying the screen more easily.

My experiment

To attempt a balance between online and offline modes, I’m experimenting with this approach. My computer monitor is on an arm swing. I moved this arm swing mount to the far end of my desk. When I’m working at my computer doing writing, finding, or other interactive tasks, the monitor is front and center, like this.

Online reading mode

When I want to switch to offline reading mode, I move my monitor off to the side, like this:

Offline reading mode

(Please excuse my messy desk. I did not take the time to stage it before taking pictures.)

Before going offline, I was trying to ramp up on some technical info (about Android), and I just copied and pasted relevant sections from about 10 different sites and pages into a Google Doc, which I then printed out (it was ~50 pages, double-sided).

I tried this approach today, and it actually seemed to work pretty well, though admittedly, one day is hardly a good measure. By printing content out, I was able to read and annotate it much more carefully and patiently than when I’m online. I can’t overstate how much different the experience is (at least for me) when I’m reading offline. When I’m reading a printed out page, I’m not tempted to click into hyperlinks, to get derailed into some other activity, to interact with chat or gmail or other apps. I can focus, and I take the information in much more thoroughly. I can also see the information much better as well, so perhaps my glasses and prescription factor into this preference too.

In contrast, if I simply try to read online, I go from site to site to site, skimming and scanning for answers, and then get frustrated when I can’t find the answers. Before long, I grow so impatient that I get derailed into some other activity. But when reading a printed page, it’s different. Granted, copy and pasting from 10 different sites means I don’t have the comfort of a single, coherent narrative. But that is the reality of information (at least the technical, project-related information that I need to do my work). I don’t need to read an entire book on the subject to get the information I need. In fact, entire books aren’t available on the corporate-specific aspect of Android that I need, and if I were to find out, 80% of it would be irrelevant to me. I just need to know a few key sections here and there.

Conclusion

The conflicted feelings about technology and its impact on life have fueled many other authors to wrangle with this subject. I’m now reading Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, and soon after plan to read Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine. I don’t suspect there’s an easy resolution to it all, but I am starting to realize that we can’t wholesale reject the commonly assumed technological tools of our time and still function seamlessly in society, so some compromises must be made.

References

Note that page number references in this post refer to Carr’s first edition book, published in 2010, not to the reprint published in 2020. Unfortunately, I only realized there was a reprint with a new afterword after finishing the first edition.

Continue on with the next post in this series, Six weeks in – returning to smartphone (but not as before).

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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