What if he’s wrong? Children would keep reading printed books. Adults would keep writing them. Amazon would keep selling them. We’d all read Dickens-length novels and not jump up to check our email halfway through each chapter. In fact, we wouldn’t check our email more than twice a day. We’d read the works of philosophers and poets, instead of sampling their Wikipedia pages. We’d stop incessantly clicking on links. We’d spend more than the customary seven seconds on any page. We’d think about problems, questions and answers longer, rather than letting fly with any old gut response; online debate wouldn’t be a kind of half-arsed global quiz show.
Nick Carr’s The Shallows stakes it all on the opposite: we’ve crossed the threshold — attention isn’t what it used to be. We’re endlessly distracted. We’re thinking, reading and remembering in shallow ways. We’re becoming “pancake people” — flat and wide, with no depth to our thought. There’s no way back.
So far, so broadsheet.
Why is there no way back? Carr’s contention is that this isn’t a mere cultural shift. Our very brains have been moulded by the experience of using computers. The internet is our new reality, so the brain’s reacting, reconfiguring itself.
A long line of neuroscientific hypotheses and results are assembled to demonstrate the case. The adult brain, we’re told, is not a static array of grey-pink matter, our neural circuits are built to adapt to our environments. Carr uses the details of many neuroplasticity experiments to bolster his argument. This means that, at times, reading The Shallows feels like sitting through a semester of first-year psychology: “The cyclic AMP in turn activates a protein called kinase A, a catalytic enzyme that spurs the cell to release more glutamate into the synapse, thereby . . . ” etc. etc.
Not only is the nuts-and-bolts psychology tough-going, it’s also unnecessary to understand Carr’s basic contention. (You can tell it’s slightly redundant because Carr sets it out in big, worthy slabs of text—then never refers to it again.) But the neuroscience gives an empirical basis to an otherwise humanistic, scholarly account. It also fits in with a tranche of other recent tech-critique books and articles. In all of them, the recourse to cognitive science plays to the current preference for materialist understandings of mind and brain: if a thought happens and EEG doesn’t capture it, does it happen at all?
Remove the scientific sandbagging and The Shallows feels like so many books about new media. It too dwells in the shadow of Marshall McLuhan’s oracular Understanding Media. Like McLuhan, Carr develops a history of technology and its forms. There’s a philosophy expounded here about technology and humanity, and a conclusion arrived at with philosophical finality: our humanising capacity for poetry, rationality and reflection are being bent out of shape by an impersonal medium that prefers thought in shallow forms.
It’s worth remembering that all media, when they’re new, cause a degree of panic. Carr gets quite a lot of mileage, for example, out of the ironic discussion in Plato about the relative merits of writing and speech. It’s normal to describe, as Carr does well here, the new experiences and effects of a shift in media and its destructive effects on old familiar worlds. The description provided by Carr and others is important in reminding us that we’ve changed before and will change again.
Yet Carr’s desire to keep us beholden to a certain vision of life produces a few kinks in the argument. He cites the case of best-selling Japanese “cell phone novels”, written in bursts of 160 characters. In dismissing these books, he nods toward venerable Literature. But he forgets that the novel itself is a product of fairly recent cultural developments, and that it’s up for debate whether this form remains the best one for storytelling today. Likewise, when thinking about new forms of reading, he relies on an idealised picture of the book-reader as a noble, silent, intellectually robust individual concerned mainly with capital-L Literature. Was everyone wrapt in reading all day before the internet? Was it Stephen King or The Critique of Pure Reason they had their noses in? What is all the scribbling on the desks of the world’s libraries if it’s not a million prototypical tweets?
Facebook and Twitter inevitably come up in The Shallows. And Carr does well to concede the pleasures and usefulness of online sites and tools. But he also goes in for a bit of easy point-scoring. It’s a shame so many of the innumerable essays about Facebook end up reading from the same charge sheet: distraction, too many false friends, attention-seeking photo galleries and so on. The conclusions are banal, the philosophical and historical range too narrow. Meaghan Morris in a valuable essay about, well, all those others essays, has dubbed it “grizzling about Facebook.” It’s a genre unto itself by now, full of fretful complaint. Both Facebook and Twitter are sites that condense many concerns about the internet today. But The Shallows doesn’t excel here, it simply gives many of the fretful, familiar complaints another run.
What Carr misses in Facebook and Twitter are their genuine ability to connect people. Yet although he may be right in pointing out the deficiencies of webism and the potential impacts on our reading/thinking/remembering habits, he doesn’t adequately capture the emotional intensities of life online. Essentially, he joins the rush to dismiss it all as so much empty chatter. Yet, as it’s used by 400 million Facebookers and however many tweeters, the internet is an affective medium: a Facebook snub hurts, a message from a friend is a happy occasion. It makes us feel things, it makes us alert to the feelings of others and that’s what lures us back. We are drawn to the net in a way we aren’t to books. Carr needs to account for the why of that success. He doesn’t.
Take new vs old media: the essential difference is that old media seek to deliver a message to an audience; new media just circulate themselves – any “message” is endlessly contested and commented on. Carr does recognise this, noting that much of the reflection done online is hasty and shallow. But what he is missing is a description of how and why we, as browsers and participants, get stuck in the loop. That’s important because without our participation, new media isn’t new. The trademark sites of Web 2.0, in particular, would be much more like “flat,” old media without all our clicking and updating. The internet is the best/worst thing for just those reasons: it’s so satisfying/infuriating to spend six hours whimsically riffing on any theme you like. Why are people perpetuating this version of interaction with the world and others? Because our brains have changed? Really?
Jodi Dean does an excellent job accounting for the subjective experience of the net in her Blog Theory, which was released at the same time as The Shallows and is a good complement to Carr’s work. Dean thinks that there’s a feeling of failure and pleasure in our endless online circling. Why am I looking at this stupid blog, when I could be outside/reading/with friends/overseas/doing charity work/sleeping? The internet steals our enjoyment—we blame it for what we’re missing, when, really, we’re doing exactly what we want to be doing. We enjoy the endless clicking. What we want is about to appear around every corner. . . It never quite does. What a waste of time.
Yet don’t we enjoy this failure? Isn’t it the waves of excitement and dejection we’re surfing as much as anything else? It’s why the analogy between internet use with drug addiction—“Crackbook”—works: both refer to a type of enjoyment that is also a kind of failure, a brief high followed by disappointment. The junkie is always just about to go straight. We’re always going to kick the distractions and do more work tomorrow. And yet, here you are, reading crikey when you should be preparing that report/presentation/quiche.
More importantly, the most popular internet sites today wouldn’t turn a profit without all our nosing around and blabbing on. For a writer who once edited the Harvard Business Review and who is a regular contributor to the Financial Times, Carr is strangely silent about the convergence of these technologies and what Dean has called “communicative capitalism.” One explanation for the rise of Web 2.0 is that it was a solution to the tech crash. If that was a bubble premissed on the idea of capital flowing to exciting new schemes with no measurable market or audience, the business model of the new big players was mammoth “market research” with a front-end of attractive services like e-mail. Extracting information by piggy-backing on private conversations à la Twitter, Facebook and Gmail is a boon for targeted advertising. These sites and companies have an interest in keeping us talking—like astute therapists, they know that we always say more than we think we’re saying. Gather enough data and the patterns are ripe for commercial exploitation.
So Carr misses the way that the very business of Web 2.0 and our self-reinforcing desire for online experience work together. The Shallows is strongest in its familiar erudite accounts of individuals battling distraction, procrastination and technological-cum-intellectual change down the ages. But in his description of change today, Carr needed a way to get from individual cases, like his own experience, to the culture as a whole. Ultimately, he looks for a general pattern in brainscans. The neuroscience he deploys is superficially convincing but ends up displacing and obscuring his main concern: how the internet is affecting our ability to think, read and remember. The book’s conclusions are dissatisfying because they’re circular: “the internet is changing our brain because our brain shows it is changing when we use technology.” Other cultural, social and economic influences are sidelined. The Shallows ends up being, well, shallow in its thinking about what the internet does to us and what we do to the internet.