Is the Internet Changing the Way We Think?

Cover of "The Shallows: What the Internet...

Cover via Amazon

Nicolas Carr published a headline piece in the Atlantic in 2008 that asked ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’. He expanded this article into a book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The basic hypothesis of the book is that the nature of the way that we use Internet is changing the way we think.

Carr looks at how we use the Internet and compares it to the way we learned before the Internet. Everybody who loves books knows that feeling where you sink so deeply into a book that your mind is fully immersed in the book’s world. To quote Carr:

Even the earliest silent readers recognized the striking change in their consciousness that took place as they immersed themselves in the pages of a book. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria described how, whenever he read to himself, “as in a dream, I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of my memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.” Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, or the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was—and is—the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading.  

By contrast, using the Internet is the opposite of reading a book and the experience is a million miles wide and an inch deep. The Internet purposefully interrupts you, distracts you, gives you constant reasons not to delve deeply and think hard. Rather it is easy to flit from topic to topic, from distraction to distraction. Described by Carr:

What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

As somebody who has probably read a few thousand books in my lifetime I doubt that I am ever going to want to give up the experience of reading books. But I also now spend a lot of time on the Internet and I acknowledge that Carr is right about how I use my brain during that experience. I know when reading web news stories that I rarely even read a complete article, but rather quickly skim for the gist of it and move on.

This book makes me wonder about two things: if there is anything negative in the way that most people use the Internet, and particularly is this bad for our kids?

Carr suggests that there is something wrong with using the Internet the way we do. He says we are essentially using the Internet as our long-term memory and that it doesn’t force is to undergo the mental processes necessary to place new ideas into our long-term memories. Reading and thinking about the ideas in a book establishes a series of long-term memories in a way that skimming news stories on the web does not. Think back on how you feel about your favorite book and you will see that you have retained a lot of details of the book, but you also will have retained the thoughts the book invoked in you. Observing myself I see that this same thing is not true from web browsing. But this ignores the huge benefit of the web which is that the information of the human race at our fingertips, meaning we can find out things faster and more accurately than ever before.

Reading books and talking to people about ideas lets you take the time for your brain to process ideas, form conclusions and to gain a deeper understanding of your life. Says Carr, “We become, neurologically, what we think.” I have benefitted by my lifelong love of reading books and I now look at the Internet as an enhancement to the way my brain already works.

But my real concern with the Internet is the effect on our kids. We are now creating the first generation of humans 2.0 who are being raised with the Internet as a constant background. Are we raising a generation of kids who cannot or will not be deep thinkers because they are not being forced to think deeply? Like any other human act, the very act of thinking deeply trains our mind in how to think even more deeply in the future. Are we creating a generation of kids whose brains will mimic the shallowness of Internet and who will constantly flitter from one topic to another, always ready for the next distraction? I really don’t know, but it is certainly possible and it is a bit scary.