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September-October 2010

Volume 98, Number 5
Page 438

DOI: 10.1511/2010.86.438

THE SHALLOWS: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Nicholas Carr. W. W. Norton and Company, $26.95.

“One thing is very clear,” writes Nicholas Carr in The Shallows. “If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.” Carr wants us to think deeply about the effects of this new technology on our cultures, our brains, our social lives and our ways of thinking about knowledge. With masterful ease and winning style, he lays out ideas that will encourage readers to do just that.

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Carr explores past examples of new technologies, beginning with Friedrich Nietzsche’s experience with an early version of the typewriter. And he provides an intelligent observer’s history of the study of how the brain works. A great deal of recent research, he says, points to this conclusion: “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” That’s a scary thought for those who value deep reading and careful, leisurely thinking.

The book also airs out some of our assumptions about the mind. Companies such as Google, Carr observes, apply Industrial Revolution–era ideals of efficiency and mechanization to our thought processes—at the expense of ambiguity, complexity and the gradual emergence of new ideas. It’s this “pinched conception of the human mind” that Carr mourns and resists.

In a chapter on memory, Carr notes the growing perception that we can use computers to store the memories and knowledge we have been accustomed to keeping in our brains. This idea, he shows, is flawed. When we recall an old memory, it moves from long-term memory back into short-term memory. As we contemplate it, it acquires new context and is essentially remade. “What gives real memory its richness and character, not to mention its mystery and fragility, is its contingency,” he writes. “It exists in time, changing as the body changes.”

The Shallows is a book everyone should read. It offers new ideas and much-needed clarity both for skeptics like me, who feel the necessity of maintaining a critical stance toward new technology even as we rely on it, and for enthusiastic adopters, who will be better equipped to use the devices they love with Carr’s practical and humanistic analysis in mind.