The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

“It’s day 45 of quarantine, and I’ve finished Nexflix,” the joke goes.

In these days of physical distancing to protect life and flatten the curve, our working, studying, exercising, shopping—and even connecting—are now done behind a computer more than ever before. We’ve moved online.

Of course, with the advent of the iPhone in 2007, we were already hurtling in that direction.

Have you ever wondered how the internet is shaping us?

In his 2011 New York Times bestseller The Shallows, Nicholas Carr explores “What the internet is doing to our brains.” Even with the ongoing, rapid development of the internet over the last nine years, his book is still eye-opening today.

Shaping Intellectual Technologies

Intellectual technologies extend or support our cognitive abilities. They help us formulate ideas, share knowledge, solve problems, and expand memory.  The alphabet, book, map, clock, and printing press are such technologies. As we create them, culture changes, and so do we.

The invention of clocks and maps altered our interaction with time and space. These natural phenomena were now measured and represented in ways that changed how we related to them. Maps enabled us to interact with space beyond what could be seen, and we perceived the world differently. Clocks replaced a flowing reality with measurements and precision. Now not only did we organize time, but time organized us.

Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1445 made books commonplace. In the next 50 years, there were as many books published as in the previous 1000 years. The accessibility of books drove literacy, and literacy changed language. The English language, once limited to a few thousand words, exploded to around a million words—and new words encapsulated new ideas. Culture shifted.

We have lived in the world of the printing press for more than five centuries, but the advent of the computer and the internet introduced a new era. Of course, there were the precursors of the phonograph, telephone, radio, and television, but those didn’t replace the book or newspaper. New technology brings a new horizon, and culture is on the move again.

Culture shifts because as we work on technology, technology works on us.

Changing Our Minds

The prevailing thought used to be, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But recent breakthroughs in neuroscience disagree. The brain isn’t a specific hardwired circuitry; it’s malleable and ever-changing. The term for this is neuroplasticity. Hebb’s rule says: “Cells that fire together wire together.”

Experiences literally rewire the brain. Whether learning to play the violin or to dribble a basketball, repeated practice changes our brains. A study of London cab drivers, for example, showed that the part of their brains that manipulates spatial representations was larger than usual. Neuroplasticity uses our experiences to shape our behavior and identity.

So how does the internet shape our thinking?

A Distracted World

The internet is a world of distractions that leads to superficial learning. With hyperlinks, ads, and the next article only a click away, it’s constantly interrupting, jumping from one task to the next, which doesn’t permit space for deep thinking. Borrowing a phrase from Eliot’s Four Quartets, it’s a world “distracted from distraction by distraction.” (119)

In the brain, the working memory is to long-term memory as a thimble is to a bathtub. Our brains need to consolidate working memory into long-term memory which requires focused attention and deep thinking. That pours the thimble into the bathtub, which can be recalled later.

But on the internet the thimble takes on so much water it is constantly overflowing. It’s information overload. There’s no time to pour the thimble into the bathtub as we jump from hyperlink to image to the next page, franticly scanning.

Carr says we jet ski over the sea of words where we used to scuba dive. We become intensive multitaskers, easily distracted, and often chasing the irrelevant. And the more we surf, the harder it becomes to think deeply.

A Christian Response

Of course, the internet has incredible advantages—leveraging information and mining resources beyond what I ever thought was possible when my family brought home our first personal computer in the early 1980s. It’s a blessing, especially in this season of quarantine. I’m not proposing we abandon it (and neither is Nicholas Carr).

But as we use the internet, we must heed Carr’s conclusion, on the very last page of the book: “We are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls.” (227)

Our counterbalances, then, are the ancient practices of the Christian life—prayer, solitude, meditating on God’s word (and memorizing it, as we focus our attention), Christian fellowship, and corporate worship.

These practices move us towards a deep peace and quiet joy in the midst of the bombardment of chaos when we turn on our computers. They enable us to flourish, shaping our memory and our identity day after day. They enable us to be deeply human.