In a Shallow Grave

A new book worries over what the Internet is doing to our brains. Scott McLemee scratches his head.

June 16, 2010

Last week I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain, just published by W.W. Norton, in one sitting. That meant indulging no distractions from my desktop computer, and staying out of sight of the Blackberry, with its pulsing red light announcing the arrival, through various channels, of incoming messages.

Concentrating on the book was not always easy. But this was not -- pace Carr -- a result of cumulative damage to my brain circuitry from the seductively instant gratifications of new media. Well that, too, probably; but there was also a distracting sense overfamiliarity with Carr’s argument. He documents things plenty of us have figured out for ourselves. It often felt like a book that appeared five years too late to do me much good.

Its description of the Internet’s capacity for hyper-Pavlovian conditioning does seem right on target:

“It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively,” Carr writes. “It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.… During the course of a day, most of us with access to the Web spend at least a couple of hours online – sometimes much more – and during that time, we tend to repeat the same or similar actions over and over again, usually at a high rate of speed and often in response to cues delivered through a screen or a speaker….The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”

Or rather, perhaps, monkeys who keep pressing the button that delivers a hit of cocaine -- while ignoring the button that gives them food.

That was the image that kept coming to mind when, a few years ago, I found myself cycling through the same few sites between rounds of e-mail correspondence -- sometimes for hours at a stretch.

This realization, as such, did not change anything. Insight never trumps habit. My paw kept reaching out to hit “refresh.”

Nor did it help that, by 2007 -- after two decades of writing for magazines and newspapers -- well over 90 percent of my work was appearing exclusively in digital venues. It was disconcerting to notice this. It still is. My initial impulse was to try to sort out the implications by writing about it in notebooks, which is to say with pen in hand. But that, besides being anachronistic, was an evasion. The depth of the transformation in how we read, write, and think is deeper than we know; maybe deeper, by now, than we can know. As Carr puts it (and here I must paraphrase, calling on what is left of my memory): We program our computers, and after a while, they return the favor.

A feeling of helplessness tends to follow from such thoughts. In spite of Carr's dim hope that “we won’t go gently into the future our computer engineers and software programmers are scripting for us,” The Shallows is a pessimistic book, or at least one colored by deep resignation. The effects of the new-media environment on our cognitive powers and our intellectual ethos are profound, absolute, and irreversible, at least on Carr’s assessment. Our brains will henceforth be itchy, twitchy, and other-directed. We will lose forever the capacity for dream-like concentration while reading described by Isaac of Syria, a medieval bishop quoted by Carr.

“With prolonging of this silence,” wrote Isaac, “the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.”

Not much evidence of such rapture in the comments section of most websites.

But resignation is not a suitable response to the feeling that you are losing parts of your brain to entropy. Anger seems more appropriate.Over the past year or so, my own frustration with the psychic effects of being online too much finally reached a point where something had to give. This change of perspective came in part from recalling (with even more frustration, actually) what William James said more than a century ago: that it makes less sense to speak of having habits than of being habits. We are what we do repeatedly.

Carr borrows from James the term “plasticity” to describe the receptivity of the brain to the patterns of thought and feeling imposed by a new medium of communication or interaction. Yet he doesn’t pay attention to James’s advice. It is impossible to deny the convenience of going online. The trick is to cultivate a willingness to spurn that convenience, to ignore the benefits, to develop habits that deliberately negate the ethos of new media. This doesn't mean rejecting the 21st century, as such. But it does require swimming against the stream, sometimes, rather than floating on it.

“Keep the faculty of effort alive in you,” wrote James, “by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty, so that, when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But, if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin.”

The “gratuitous exercise” required to preserve mental energy from new-media entropy takes several forms: staying offline and otherwise unavailable for hours (and sometimes days) at a stretch….tracking down a remembered passage from the hard copy of a book rather than by searching its Google simulacrum….drafting something on paper rather than in Word….ignoring the churn of chatter in comments sections -- or at least paying attention to it only under very controlled conditions….

These efforts amount to an individual policy -- not an effort to change the whole culture, which doesn’t ask my advice in any case. But they’ve kept my brain from turning into a jumping bean.

“We forget,” said William James, “that every good that is worth possessing must be paid for in strokes of daily effort. We postpone and postpone, until those smiling possibilities are dead….. By neglecting the necessary concrete labor, by sparing ourselves the little daily tax, we are positively digging the graves of our higher possibilities.” And a shallow one, at that.


Back to Top