Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Shallows

It's pretty easy to take something like Google or the Internet for granted. Every day you use it to communicate with friends, get caught up on the latest news stories, and obtain valuable information on subjects important to you. However, we have never really sat down and thought about how the internet is changing not just our society and culture, but our very brains.

It is for this exact reason why Nicholas Carr wrote his book, “The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains”. In this book, Carr explores the effects of the internet on our brains and how it changed the very way we think. After reading this book, I can't help but feel a bit of an existential breakthrough, as I am now a bit more aware of how my own brain works and how it is affecting me as a person.

The book starts out simple enough, as Carr talks about his history, and how computers weren't even much of a mainstream thing until late in his college years. Before then, people read books, wrote notes, and occasionally called each other on a landline telephone.

As the book goes on, it explores some of the technologies that facilitated a change in our behavior and our thought processes. It starts with the earliest Sumerian kuneiform tokens, goes through the invention of Gutenberg's printing press, and eventually touches down on some of the things weare a bit more familiar with, like Google.

One huge part of this book is the discussion of neuroplasticity, the idea that certain behaviors bring about a physical change to our brain. As we all started using the internet, we began to get used to multitasking, doing multiple things at once on the computer, as well as skimming through a sea of text for key words and sentences that seem relevant to our interests. This caused a change in our Hippocampus region of the brain, the region associated with short-term memory. As we kept using things like typewriters and computers and smartphones, the hippocampus began to grow and strengthen, just like the muscles of a bodybuilder strengthen with each lifted weight.
This is changing, and there's nothing you can do about it.

In terms of basic opinion, Nicholas Carr is worried that the internet is shortening our attention spans, making it harder for us to focus enough to write a book (admittedly, he may have a point here; this book was a bit of a tough read!). We no longer need to read and memorize copious amounts of text when it has become so easy for us to copy a word we don't know, paste it into a search bar, and find the definition. In this, Carr is a bit pessimistic, as he sees this as a degeneration of our brains.

So, is Nicholas Carr right? In many ways, yes. The internet is indeed changing our brains and how we think, there's no two ways about it. But is it detrimental to us? Maybe. At least at the moment. We are still struggling to get used to this new mode of thinking, so naturally I'm going to feel like I am getting “dumber”. However, this is just what people said about the printing press, and look how that turned out!

If given time, we as a species will be able to adapt to this new more of thought to become smarter and more clever than our ancestors, and in turn, there will be an even more advanced technology that will bring this debate on again. This is what it means to progress as a society. No matter what hurdles come about, we will eventually adapt and become stronger and smarter than ever before.

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