Jim Fleming: A few years ago, The Atlantic Monthly ran a controversial piece called, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The blogosphere exploded in debate, and writer Nicholas Carr expanded his article into a book, "The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains." Carr, himself, was an early adopter of computer technology, and once reveled in the ease with which he could cruise around the Internet. But then, he realized he'd gotten so hooked on quick hits of information, that he was losing the ability to focus on one thing for any length of time. Now, he believes this glut of information is actually rewiring our brains.
Nicholas Carr: What we know about ourselves, is that we crave information; we crave new messages, new stimuli, and there seems to be things going on, deep inside our brains, with the release of chemicals like dopamine, which produces pleasure, that we receive whenever we find a new bit of information. You know, you can understand that as being a very primitive instinct. In primitive days, being aware of everything going on around you probably helped you stay alive, but we've replaced our natural environment with a digital environment that is incredibly rich with information and data, and unfortunately, our brains aren't all that good at processing the amount and the speed of data coming at us all the time now, and we literally overload our short-term working memory. As a result, I think we become more superficial thinkers, even as we have access to more and more information opened up to us.
Fleming: So, give me an example. I mean, you're a reader, you're a writer. You know that in your case, and you make the case in the book, that having more information is - in theory - going to make your life easier. You no longer have to make a trip to the library, you don't have to travel to a different city to look at a document. It's all right there at your fingertips. What's going on that isn't good?
Carr: Because it's all there, all the time, and because we so love to be aware of everything going on around us, we short-circuit our attentiveness. When an important piece of information, whether it's text or video or whatever, comes at us, rather than screening out other stuff, and not paying attention to distractions and interruptions, and focusing on that one, important thing for a long period of time, we simply allow ourselves, because the technology is so good at it, to be constantly distracted, constantly interrupted; we glance at a new E-mail, or a new Facebook message, a new Tweet coming at us. I think the technology puts its emphasis on the gathering of information, the very fast-paced gathering of information, which is one element, certainly, in having a rich intellectual life, but it de-emphasizes, and doesn't really give us any opportunity or encouragement, to pay deep attention to one thing.
Fleming: Well, let's make it practical, too, because you make the case that it is not simply a matter of being distracted while you're at the computer, this bleeds off into other parts of your life. Reading books becomes more difficult than it used to be, because they don't offer up the massive information at the same speed, and with the same variety that we've become accustomed too.
Carr: That's right. And in fact, writing about this subject, I was originally inspired to do it from my own experience of really having problems sitting down and reading a book or a long article. What I found is that, after a couple of pages, or even a couple of paragraphs, my mind got antsy, and it wanted to behave in the way I've trained it to behave when I'm looking at a computer screen. It didn't want to focus on one linear argument or story, it wanted to jump from page to page, to click on links, to do some Googling, to check E-mail. I think what that shows us is how powerfully technologies can alter the way we think, and they do that by changing our habits of mind, changing our expectations, and our brains and our minds kind of adapt very well to new tools, we're very good at using them. The problem is, adaptation can be good or bad, or a mixture. I think the loss of attentiveness, of the ability to concentrate, therefore translates into a deeper loss of the ability to be contemplative, and reflective, and introspective.
Fleming: One of the most disturbing parts of the argument is that our brains are trying to do us a favor by adjusting to this. You talk about the plasticity of the brain, and some of the research that shows that, over the centuries, our brains have had to adapt to new and different things: if you lose a limb you've found, the brain uses the neural endings that it used to use for that limb, and applies them to something else. This is a good thing, except when your habits become so ingrained, in this case with the immediacy of the Internet, that your brain starts to shut off the ways you used to work.
Carr: That's right. I mean, there's all sorts of very good things about the fact that our brains are so adaptable and so plastic, and so ready to respond to changes in the environment. On the other hand, what our brains seem to be interested in, is efficiency. The physical structure of our brains doesn't really make value judgments about how we think, it simply adapts to the way we use it. So if we spend all of our time juggling information and multi-tasking and shifting our focus very quickly, our brain optimizes itself to do that. But if we start to not pay attention, not sustain our attention on one thing, not engage in more meditative thought, our brain is very happy to begin to weaken those processes, even as it strengthens the other.
Fleming: One of the interesting things, for me, was thinking about applying this to my own life. You talk about the way in which newspapers are now available online, and I think you said, at one point, that you no longer subscribed to newspapers, because you could read them all on the web. I still find I read the New York Times differently when I have the newspaper in my hands, than I do when I try to read the same article on the web. I find reading long articles on the computer more difficult. I want it to be over so I can go to the next thing, whereas, when I have the paper in my hand, it feels right and proper to read through to the end of an article.
Carr: And I have to say, I've changed, and I've gone back to subscribing to papers and newspapers for just that reason. I mean, originally, I was reading articles online, like we all do, and the newspaper would come and I'd say, "Gee, I saw this headline already, why am I paying for this?" But I did notice that I wasn't engaging as deeply with news stories as I did when I did have a piece of paper in front of me. You know, the great thing about the printed page, as a technology, is that nothing else is going on other than the words on the page. I think that trains us the pay attention. The computer screen, the networked computer screen, is almost exactly the opposite. It doesn’t shield us from distraction, it makes sure we're constantly receiving these pulses of new information. So, I do think the experience, even when the content is exactly the same, the experience changes depending on which medium or which technology you're using.
Fleming: But again, I want to think about this mass of information that is available on the Internet. It is all but impossible not to want access to that information, even though we're aware that it is changing us.
Carr: You know, I want to emphasize that having access to more information is a good thing. The problem comes in when the way we access that information simply makes gathering information the overriding priority. You know, until recently, when we thought about the use of our mind, thinking had two steps: You gather information, and then you think about it deeply and personally, and make your own connections in your mind. With the Internet, and with digital media in general, I think all the emphasis is shifting to that first step, the gather of information. It's certainly an important step, but we're beginning to redefine our intellectual lives to say, well, that second step when we step back from the flow of information and think deeply and even contemplatively and reflectively about the information, maybe that's not important. Maybe it's all about just the efficiency of gathering information. We have to be conscious and aware of the way we...not only do we adapt our thinking when new technologies come along, but we even begin to change what types of thinking we value, and what types of thinking we think are dispensable.
Fleming: You have some personal experience of this, don't you? In the process of writing this book, you made a conscious decision to reduce the effect of the Internet on you?
Carr: I did. I certainly continued to gain huge value from the Internet as a research tool. As a writer, I can tell you that it speeds up a whole lot of things that used to take a lot of time. But I did a few thing: I dropped off of social networks like, I had had Twitter and Facebook accounts, and I dropped off of those, not because I don't see the value of them, but because they are set up to kind of beam little bits of intriguing information at you all day, and that is incredibly interrupting; and I also made a conscious decision that I'd use the Web for what I think it's very good at, which is discovering relevant and interesting new information, but once I'd found it, I'd make a point of going to a library or a bookstore and actually trying to get the original article or book, and I'd sit down and read it in print. And I found just those fairly small changes in my behavior, actually did have a big effect on me, and I found, in not too long a period, my attention span seemed to be strengthening, and my ability to concentrate seemed to be coming back. So, the good news is that the plasticity of our brain goes both ways, and if we change our habits, we can regain some of the things we might have lost.
Fleming: That's Nicholas Carr. His book is called, "The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains".