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

Last updated: May 20, 2022
In my ongoing series describing my journey away from smartphones, I 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 section, after 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.

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A genre of anti-technology books

In the genre of books exploring the psychological effects of technology, most authors begin in a similar way. Something is altering their brain or behavior. 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 that, at the time, threatened to displace the need for memory).

Although many people dismiss techno-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. When I wrote the initial essay about my awakening moment, I felt, on a visceral level, my attention span was broken, and then as I abandoned it, I observed how life improved and my concentration returned. I went from reading no books per month to reading 6+ books per month. I felt more level-headed, focused, calm, and in control of my life. The effect was life-changing. This spurred my interest in reading more books that follow similar themes.

However, despite the negatives, web technology has amplified our opportunities, made life more convenient, opened up access to information, and has been a boon to innovation and knowledge. This left me feeling much more ambivalent about it. The trick, I felt, was to somehow harness technology’s good while recognizing and rejecting those aspects that do harm.

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 and revised in 2020. The theme isn’t too different from Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, 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 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).

What is Carr’s main assertion? {#what-is-carr’s-main-assertion}

Carr’s conclusion is that the Internet is shallowing our brains. As we offload tasks to the computer, we weaken parts of our brain that would otherwise handle those tasks. The Net (as he refers to it) reduces our ability to read linearly, to absorb and immerse ourselves in books, 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 Net cuts into our emotional depth and compassion, the Net 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 brains end up a shallow hull of what they once were.

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 a screen.
  • The Net encourages skimming, scanning, jumping from page to page, multi-tasking, deciding whether to click each link and generally operating with a short, frenetic attention span. Economics reinforces the Net’s content fragmentation model. The attention economy encourages attention disruption.
  • Our online behavior spills over into offline activities as well, making reading long, linear books problematic. We apply 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.

Carr outlines two contrasting philosophies about technology’s influence: instrumentalists and determinists. Instrumentalists believe technology is neutral—the way we use it determines the outcome. In contrast, determinists believe that the design of a technology inevitably sets into motion certain events and outcomes. Carr aligns more as a technology determinist than an instrumentalist and gives examples of how technologies have shaped and altered how we think, including the invention of writing, the Gutenberg printing press, and the Internet. All of these technologies have had an influence on how humans think and process information. The design of technology plays a part in the design of our minds.

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 that Carr outlines:

Multifunctionality. Computers are multifunctional, and as multifunctional devices, they pull us in different ways, encouraging multitasking. 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 by an easier task. The screen affords you that opportunity to allow yourself to be distracted. 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, and so on. Is it any wonder that our attention drifts?

Bidirectional information flows. The internet is bidirectional. Whereas a book is mostly one-way, from author to reader, the Internet allows readers to interact in full ways. This makes the Net a much more useful, a full-service 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.

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 because the basic structure of the Net is the hyperlink. 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, the works themselves are fragmenting. We’re reading parts of works (for example, individual chapters) 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. In books, Carr says the narrative structure provides 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 small nibbles here and there by a transient consumer (105). The lack of a larger narrative structure to pull readers through longer texts encourages us to read shorter content, leading to shorter attention spans.

Information overload. The amount of attention we devote to any one source shrinks (90). As a result, content producers shorten their content to fit our reduced attention span. The content itself changes because people can’t devote long concentrated attention to it. 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. This leads to information overload.

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. “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 quickly find answers to their questions. Carr says the business model of search engines drives this model of distraction, where profits are maximized when users load as many pages as possible during their web sessions. It’s a model of distraction by design. Further, 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.

Psychological responses and rewards. The Net also delivers dopamine hits through positive reinforcements (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 reinforcement 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). Smartphones especially exploit our vulnerability by promoting “four types of stimuli: those that are novel or unexpected, those that are pleasurable or otherwise rewarding, those that are personally relevant, and those that are emotionally engaging” (231).

Overall, on the Net, 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. 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 {#the-net’s-impact-on-our-brains}

Now that we’ve identified the many ways screens differ from pages, how do they affect our brains psychologically? Carr describes the following:

  • Cursory thinking
  • Cognitive strain
  • States of mesmerization (blank stares)
  • Immediacy bias (preferring what’s happening now)
  • An absence of calm, linear thought

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

Action items from the book?

Unfortunately, Carr doesn’t come to any definitive conclusions 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 (

I tried to figure out how to make sense of Carr’s book in my own life. Peter Norvid, a researcher at Google, recommends striking a balance between skimming the Net and concentrating on long-form reading (potentially offline). 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”).

With this rule of thumb, you could use the Net for finding information and getting overviews, and then immerse yourself 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. This not only would be challenging to print, it’s also exhausting to read.

I’m also divided about another point. Carr says reading online reduces the time we spend reading offline: “…the time we spend hopping across links crosses 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, sit in front of a TV, or decompress in other ways. Do I grab a thick book and devour it? No, my brain is too tired.

Here’s another problem with the balancing act (finding online, reading offline). I might think that I’m only using the Net to gather and survey information. However, it’s easy to get sidetracked on the Net, to lose myself in feeds, headlines, and endless shallow curiosities. Pretty soon all free time for deep reading disappears. If we use the Internet strictly for finding relevant information and reading overviews to orient us toward paths to 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 the 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 passed by and you’ve gotten no further in the project, but you did order three items from Amazon.

Reading as a superpower?

After reading Carr, an idea came to mind. Assuming that reading rates (for books and other long-form content) have in fact plummeted, could reading be my superpower? In a world where people simply do not read lengthy 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 remains dormant and locked for so many others? It sounds ridiculous, but honestly, as far as I can tell, people at work do not read anything longer than a pager. As such, how can they avoid sliding toward a trajectory of superficial knowledge, endless distraction, and fragmented thinking?

With my reading superpower, I surmised, I could maintain deeper thought, make more connections and innovations in my analyses, and develop longer periods of concentration. 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.

But figuring out how to make reading my superpower wasn’t clear to me, especially because I was expected to respond promptly to email and chat messages. In fact, if I missed a chat message from an engineer responding to my information needs, it might take longer to finish the documentation I was working on. Even so, I daydreamed about physically removing the computer from my desk. Exactly how and why should the computer be the central focal point on every single employee’s desk? I wondered. Perhaps by removing it, and in so doing removing all distractions, I could focus in deeper ways.

My experiment

To attempt a balance between online and offline modes, I started experimenting with an alternative approach. Because my computer monitor is attached to a swing arm, I could swing it out of focus when I wanted to read. I could then swing it back to center when I needed to type or do other internet tasks.

Online reading mode
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
Offline reading mode

I tried this approach a few times, and it seemed to work pretty well. I also started printing things out (for example, those long newsletters) that I wanted to read. By printing content out, I could read and annotate it more carefully and patiently than when I was online. I found that reading offline magically transformed my patience. I could read much more than a page in a single sitting. I could take in 20+ pages or more, without the distraction of checking my email, interacting with chat, and so on. I could focus and take in information much more thoroughly.

In contrast, when I tried reading online, I quickly grew impatient being on a single site for more than a few minutes and longed to click and jump around elsewhere. When faced with a long document on a screen, I skimmed and scanned it for answers. Or I grew frustrated when a quick search didn’t return the exact information I needed. Before long, I would become impatient and get derailed by some other activity. But when reading a printed page, it was different. I had much more patience, and I seemed to consume each word.

The conflicted feelings about technology and its impact on life have fueled many other authors to grapple with this subject. I don’t suspect there’s an easy resolution to it all, but I began to realize that we can’t reject the commonly assumed technological tools of our time and still function seamlessly in society, so some compromises must be made.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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