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The Shallows

Is the Internet making us intellectually shallow?

The Shallows:
What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
By Nicholas Carr
W.W. Norton
276 pp., $26.95

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I sit down at the computer to work, but after two minutes my e-mail in-box pings. Two new messages! I read them, write quick replies, and get back to work. But then I check to see how the Cardinals did yesterday, and then I decide to open a Pandora station. I return to my work, but three minutes later I check on the stock market and then skim headlines on Google News. I work for another minute, and then...

I’m not complaining – not entirely. I like getting information and getting it fast. But I think I’m losing something, too – concentration, focus, and patience. Do you know what I mean?

In The Shallows, technology writer Nicholas Carr offers a measured but alarming answer. He concludes that the Internet is changing not only what we think about (gossip, up-to-the-minute news) but how we think. “Media ... supply the stuff of thought,” he writes, and “also shape the process of thought.”

Scientists have studied this change by examining neural pathways in the brain. They have concluded, says Carr, that “virtually all of our neural circuits – whether they’re involved in feeling, seeing, hearing, moving, thinking, learning, perceiving, or remembering – are subject to change.” The Internet, along with cellphones and television, is changing our brains, these scientists conclude.

Carr examines various historical advances in communication – from standardized writing to the printing press – to show how they, too, changed us. For example, literate people can better understand language, process visual signals, reason, and memorize than can illiterates. Furthermore, different languages produce different kinds of thinkers. For example, studies show English readers develop the part of the brain associated with deciphering visual shapes more than do Italians, probably because English words often look different from the way they sound, whereas Italian words are spelled just the way they are spoken.

Consider how different correspondence by letter is from text messaging or e-mailing. One arrives slowly; the other is immediate. One is developed in large, sometimes complex, paragraphs; the other is often composed of single sentences. As a result, says Carr, “our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.”


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