Live Well, Do Good

Surfing World Wide Web Breeds Shallow Thinking

Brandon Sun, April 2, 2012 - David McConkey

I am a super Internet enthusiast. So I approached with much interest the recent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

As a citizen, as a father, and as a writer, I greatly appreciate the Internet. It has opened up whole new worlds: in enlightenment, engagement, entertainment, and employment.

The Shallows author Nicholas Carr also recognizes the wonderful advantages of the Internet. A writer on technology issues, he calls the Net a “godsend” for his research and work.

“Even when I’m not working,” Carr says, “I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the web’s data thickets – reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, following Facebook updates, watching video streams, downloading music, or just tripping lightly from link to link to link.” 

But he became concerned when he noticed that the Internet seemed to be reducing his “capacity for concentration and contemplation.” That led him to write an article in 2008 for The Atlantic magazine, Is Google Making Us Stupid? That magazine piece grew into the book. 

In The Shallows, Carr presents an interesting survey of the history of media from the introduction of writing to the electronics of today. He also includes the musings of thinkers from Socrates to Marshall McLuhan, as well as the latest in brain research.

The Internet is having a huge impact on us. This is independent of the content. As McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” But like fish that are unaware of water, we are often oblivious to what surrounds us. “We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads.”

Neuroscience research confirms this. Using the Internet physically changes our brains. And the Internet is making our thinking more shallow.

The Internet is affecting us in two important ways. First, all that web surfing is influencing the way we think and understand the world. We have become very fast consumers of little bits of information; we stay on any one web page for an average of only 20 seconds.

Second, time spent on the Internet reduces time for other activities. A common assumption is that the Net simply replaces the TV. But this is not the case: TV viewing is also increasing.

Instead, the Internet robs largely from the time we used to spend reading newspapers, magazines and books. And that also changes us. As Carr says, “deep thinking” is often associated with “deep reading.” 

One myth that Carr dispels is that the impact of the Internet is generational. The stereotype? Young people are the most superficial thinkers.

But Carr points out that shallow thinking is now widespread. He notes a huge study that analyzed 30 million scholarly articles published over six decades in academic journals. That study had a very surprising finding. Although the Internet makes reading and referring to more sources much easier, there is actually less research today. Fewer sources are being cited now compared to before the Internet.   

So today even academics are reading less deeply. And perhaps more ominously, academics are thinking less creatively. Ironically, the “broadening of available information” on the Internet has led to a “narrowing of science and scholarship.”

Carr concludes that we are in the midst of an intellectual and cultural revolution on the scale of the introduction of the printing press 550 years ago.

The Shallows We are seeing the transition from the “contemplative, reflective and imaginative” linear mind. A mind that was developed and nourished for centuries by reading the printed page.

But now the Internet is ushering in a “new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts.”

After reading the book, I was left thinking: Can we counteract, even a little, the new mindset of “the shallows”? I sure hope so. Inspired by the book, I drafted my own list of suggestions for deepening our thinking in the Internet age. I posted those suggestions – where else? – on the Internet! (You can find them by doing a search on Google.)

An increasingly important question confronts all of us: What is the Internet doing to our brains?

* * * 

See Also:

"The Shallows" on Amazon.com   (on Amazon.ca)

Deepening Our Thinking in the Internet Age: Ten Tips

Exploring What's Lost in a Connected World

Deepening Our Thinking in the Internet Age: Ten Tips

The Medium is the Message? 

Six Words To Describe A Life?

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