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What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

A-The Shallows.epsIn 2008, Nicholas Carr, the author of Does IT Matter (2004) and The Big Switch (2008), published the Atlantic Monthly story, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The Shallows extends the main arguments of that essay.

The Topic: Is the Internet’s wellspring of information making us smarter--or is it diminishing our ability to read and think deeply, contemplatively, and creatively? In this expanded version of his Atlantic Monthly essay, Carr relies on studies in neurological science to argue that computers are, indeed, changing the way we process information. Instead of reading books (say, sitting down for a few days with War and Peace), we allow the addictive, distracting Internet to skim text, images, and videos for us every few seconds, to the detriment of the neural pathways that strengthen our cognitive powers. Carr, who goes back centuries to examine information technology from the alphabet to the printing press, explores what we gain from the Internet--as well as what we stand to lose.
Norton. 276 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780393072228

Onion AV Club 4 of 5 Stars
"Carr’s virtuosic tour of the post-Gutenberg Middle Ages and his clear-eyed assessment of the Kindle coexist with equal weight. At the same time, he isn’t afraid to call out innovators’ creepy pronouncements on the powers of their products, like Sergey Brin’s expressed desire to make Google more like HAL 9000." Ellen Wernecke

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"If you retain any residual aspirations for literary repartee, prefer the smell of a book to a mouse and, most important, enjoy the quiet meanderings within your own mind that can be triggered by a good bit of prose, you are the person to whom Nicholas Carr has addressed his riveting new book. ... As a book reader’s fairy tale, this is a lovely story well-told--an ode to a quieter, less frenetic time when reading was more than skimming and thought was more than mere recitation." Robert Burton 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While The Shallows does present a good case for the richness of organic, biological memory over the crude information storage of digital media, I would have appreciated a more concerted effort to show the advantages of linear thinking over the scattered, skittering, browsing mind-set fostered by the Internet. What will we lose if (when?) this mode of thought passes into obscurity?" Laura Miller

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"This is a measured manifesto. Even as Carr bemoans his vanishing attention span, he’s careful to note the usefulness of the Internet, which provides us with access to a near infinitude of information. ... What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind." Jonah Lehrer

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"Sadly, though, what originated as a provocative and important magazine article has become an unsatisfying book. ... But more profoundly, Carr sells short our ability to choose our fate." Wen Stephenson

Critical Summary

One of the major issues dividing the critics was whether Carr’s claim that the Internet has shortchanged our brain power is, essentially, correct. Many bought into his argument about the neurological effects of the Internet, but the more expert among them (Jonah Lehrer, for one) cited scientific evidence that such technologies actually benefit the mind. Still, as Lehrer, in the New York Times Book Review, points out, Carr is no Luddite, and he fully recognizes the usefulness of the Internet. Other criticism was more trivial, such as the value of Carr’s historical and cultural digressions--from Plato to HAL. In the end, Carr offers a thought-provoking investigation into our relationship with technology--even if he offers no easy answers.