In The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, American Journalist Nicholas Carr argues that instead of enhancing our intelligence, the internet is degrading it. The book is an expansion of his 2008 essay in The Atlantic – Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains! Carr notes that the internet is affecting our ability to concentrate and contemplate. The Web and the internet affect our cognition and ability to do Deep Work.
The Shallows explains why we were mistaken about the Net. When it comes to the quality of our thoughts and judgments, the amount of information a communication medium supplies is less important than the way the medium presents the information and the way, in turn, our minds take it in. The brain’s capacity is not unlimited. The passageway from perception to understanding is narrow. It takes patience and concentration to evaluate new information—to gauge its accuracy, to weigh its relevance and worth, to put it into context—and the Internet, by design, subverts patience and concentration. When the brain is overloaded by stimuli, as it usually is when we’re peering into a network-connected computer screen, attention splinters, thinking becomes superficial, and memory suffers. We become less reflective and more impulsive.
Our focus on a medium’s content can blind us to these deep effects. We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads. In the end, we come to pretend that the technology itself doesn’t matter. It’s how we use it that matters, we tell ourselves. The implication, comforting in its hubris, is that we’re in control. The technology is just a tool, inert until we pick it up and inert again once we set it aside.
Hyperlinks also alter our experience of media. Links are in one sense a variation on the textual allusions, citations, and footnotes that have long been common elements of documents. But their effect on us as we read is not at all the same. Links don’t just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them. They encourage us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them. Hyperlinks are designed to grab our attention. Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause.
The Changing role of public libraries
Today’s library is very different. Internet access is rapidly becoming its most popular service. According to recent surveys by the American Library Association, ninety-nine percent of U.S. public library branches provide Internet access, and the average branch has eleven public computers. More than three-quarters of branches also offer Wi-Fi networks for their patrons’ use. The predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys, not the turning of pages.
“The library’s layout provides, as well, a powerful symbol of our new media landscape: at the center stands the screen of the Internet-connected computer; the printed word has been pushed to the margins.”
The Net also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards—“positive reinforcements,” in psychological terms—which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions. When we click a link, we get something new to look at and evaluate. When we Google a keyword, we receive, in the blink of an eye, a list of interesting information to appraise. When we send a text or an instant message or an e-mail, we often get a reply in a matter of seconds or minutes.
When we use Facebook, we attract new friends or form closer bonds with old ones. When we send a tweet through Twitter, we gain new followers. When we write a blog post, we get comments from readers or links from other bloggers. The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.
The Paradoxical nature of the Internet
The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli. Whenever and wherever we log on, the Net pre-sents us with an incredibly seductive blur. Human beings “want more information, more impressions, and more complexity.
The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.
The Interruption Machine
The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention. That’s not only a result of its ability to display many different kinds of media simultaneously. It’s also a result of the ease with which it can be programmed to send and receive messages. Most e-mail applications, to take an obvious example, are set up to check automatically for new messages every five or ten minutes, and people routinely click the “check for new mail” button even more frequently than that.
The Church of Google
Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention—and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.
Nearly everything the company does is aimed at reducing the cost and expanding the scope of Internet use. Google wants information to be free because, as the cost of information falls, we all spend more time looking at computer screens and the company’s profits go up.
The Mobile Phone
PEOPLE WERE SPENDING a lot of time looking at screens in 2010. Today, they’re spending a lot more. According to the latest installment of the Nielsen Company’s long-running media-use survey, the average American adult can now be found gazing into an electronic screen—television, computer, or phone—a whopping nine hours and forty-five minutes a day. That’s up more than an hour and a half from five years ago.
The recent rise in screen time is the direct result of the explosion in smartphone use. People who own smartphones—around eighty percent of adults and more than ninety-five percent of young adults—use their phones between four and six hours a day on average, according to the latest statistics.
With smartphones, all time is prime time. Because the gadgets are always at hand—whether we’re at home, at work, at school, or walking down the street—they are always intruding on our thoughts.
The Salience Network
At every instant of the day, our nervous system is bombarded by stimuli that may be worthy of our attention—objects in our field of view, sounds and scents, people we know and people we don’t know, ideas and memories, emotions, bodily sensations. From the near-infinite welter of possibilities, the mind has to choose a target. This enormously complicated, enormously important task—nothing so determines our thoughts and behavior as the distribution of our attention—is accomplished through a neural system called the salience network.
In selecting targets of attention, the network gives priority to four types of stimuli: those that are novel or unexpected, those that are pleasurable or otherwise rewarding, those that are personally relevant, and those that are emotionally engaging.
Automated Mind Control
Through the statistical analysis of people’s responses to online content, computers will be able to pinpoint the triggers of attention with a precision far beyond what Silicon Valley’s army of marketers, programmers, and behavioral scientists has achieved to date. Mind control will be automated.
People were able to look up facts long before the Internet came along—there were books, there were libraries—but it required much more time and effort. Now that it’s easy to shift responsibility for memory storage and retrieval to data banks and search engines, our brains have less incentive to take on the work of remembering. Human beings are “cognitive misers,” a half century of research has shown. If we can offload or otherwise avoid mental work, we generally will, even when it’s not in our best interest. Our phones, by giving us immediate access to pretty much every fact ever recorded, allow us to indulge our mental miserliness as never before.
All the Best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.
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