The Shallows by Nicholas Carr: Review
Think about what you did last week. You might remember the nice meal, the chat to the cousin, the blazing row. But odds are, you spent the most time doing the same thing as the rest of us: staring at a screen. According to the latest data from Ofcom, the average Briton spends 45 per cent of his time gazing at pixels, whether delivered via a TV, a phone or a computer. The youngest, and best at multi-tasking, can monitor so many data streams that they effectively squeeze five hours’ exposure into just two hours.
As Nicholas Carr argues in his latest book, The Shallows, all this is having a profound effect on our thought processes – what he found to be “the uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain”. Every time we surf the web, he argues, we are literally rewiring our synapses, training them to skip from topic to topic and task to task rather than focusing on one solitary goal or thought. And we are powerfully rewarded for this behaviour, via the torrent of new insights and facts offered by sites such as Twitter or Facebook, or the simple chemical hit that comes from seeing the “new mail” message pop up.
Many writers have regarded this process as a relatively unmixed blessing, with Google and its ilk training us in high-speed cognition, not to mention giving us access to an enormous library of information that we no longer need to ferry around in our heads. Carr, however, is more sceptical. The brain, he points out, is not a computer, which can be filled up with a limited amount of data. The very act of remembering, of consideration, builds up the capacity to think deeply. We are, he fears, entering a superficial age, when the ability to devote attention to long and challenging thoughts will be lost.
He cites studies which show that we learn better and retain more when focusing solely on the words of an article or lecture, rather than being given the chance to access connected material at the same time.
Such worries, as Carr admits, are not new. Nietzsche found his prose style becoming harder and terser as he moved from pen to typewriter. Centuries before, Socrates lamented the damage that a move to the written word would do – it was, he argued, “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder”, for minds “filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom”.
This idea that, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “things are in the saddle / and ride mankind”, is an intriguing one, and Carr makes some interesting points, for example that the medieval transition from lingua continua (unpunctuated sentences of unbroken words, dictated to or read by a scribe) to our modern grammar created a kind of writing that was more personal, open and honest. He has some challenging ideas, too, about how written style will develop in the future, raising the dread prospect that authors will sculpt paragraphs and chapter headings to be “SEO-friendly” rather than rigorously accurate.
Yet it is hard to avoid the feeling that Carr is over-egging things – or rather, applying his worries too widely. For example, he tells us that the recent sustained global rise in IQ is evidence not of our becoming more intelligent, but of concentrating on different things. Why, then, should we worry about that rise tapering off? Isn’t it just a sign that the web is training our brains for different tasks? There is also the problem of format. If we are losing the ability to concentrate, asking us to trawl through a 224-page book feels like a heroically counter-productive way of addressing the problem. Indeed, to this reader at least, Carr’s argument felt stretched at this length – though he would no doubt blame that on my inadequate attention span.
The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr, 276pp, Atlantic,£16.99 T £14.99 (PLUS £1.25 p&p)