A hard look at the Web's 'shallows'

Nick Carr's new book "The Shallows" examines how our brains are changing in response to the Web. While there is cause for concern, it's not all bad.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
5 min read

From the wheel to the router, technology has changed us almost as much as we've changed the world using technology. And each time, we've struggled to balance the positive effects with the drawbacks.

It's hard to imagine that any technology created over the last several decades has had as big an impact on culture, learning, and communication as the Internet and the Web. But in his new book "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains," author Nick Carr argues there's a downside to this explosion in creativity and information: we're becoming shallow.

Watch this: Wading in 'The Shallows' with Nick Carr

Carr worries that in a world where information is available easily and instantly that we are losing the ability to think for ourselves; to reach a deep understanding of a topic through research, reflection, and honest debate. He cites prolific research detailing how our brains have adapted to new stimuli over time, and posits that our current multitasking-hyperlink-overloaded brains are returning to a more primitive state that eliminates centuries of cultural and technological progress produced by the ability of books to encourage deep thought. (Carr sat down for an interview with CNET last week to talk about his latest book. See the video embedded in this post.)

Provocateur is a word you'll often hear associated with Nick Carr. His first book "Does IT Matter?" was loathed by the tech industry for arguing that as every business comes to adopt information technology through falling prices and better equipment, IT becomes a commodity that does not provide a competitive advantage. His second book, "The Big Switch," was about how cloud computing was about to usher in profound change for the computer industry along with all sorts of unintended consequences related to privacy and control of information that were decried as sensationalist hand-wringing by the backers of cloud computing and Web 2.0 technologies.

"The Shallows" picks up right where "The Big Switch" left off, and likewise has provoked both overly simplistic and more considered responses from those who believe expanded access to information has actually made the world smarter, in that many people with a variety of perspectives have access to facts and research previously reserved for just a few.

But Carr argues that this world is moving at such a pace as to prevent people from actually processing all this information. After all, we have little choice but to move onto the next e-mail, RSS feed, or tweet as to avoid being snowed under, something almost anyone working in the 21st century has experienced more than once.

Carr writes:

By dramatically reducing the cost of creating, storing, and sharing information, computer networks have placed far more information within our reach than we ever had access to before. And the powerful tools for discovering, filtering, and distributing information developed by companies like Google ensure that we are forever inundated by information of immediate interest to us--and in quantities well beyond what our brains can handle. ... Information overload has become a permanent affliction, and our attempts to cure it just make it worse. The only way to cope is to increase our scanning and our skimming, and to rely even more heavily on the wonderfully responsive machines that are the source of the problem.

Right now, we can't know if Carr is ultimately right. Just because some of us can feel overwhelmed by the modern media world doesn't mean we're all doomed to a lifetime of "Jersey Shore" clones and Facebook oversharing. It's also possible, of course, that the Internet isn't really making us dumber or smarter but just efficiently exposing how smart or dumb we were in the first place.

But in reading Carr's research and analysis, one thing seems clear: while we're entering an age of information distribution and consumption in which individuals who are genuinely interested in quality thought and debate will have to work even harder to find it, someone will fill the void.

Former FCC Chairman Newton Minow delivered the most famous speech of his career comparing television to a "vast wasteland" at a time when the medium was broadcast over just a handful of channels. "When television is good, nothing--not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers--nothing is better," he said in 1961. "But when television is bad, nothing is worse."

I'm not sure if Minow has updated that thesis to include the Internet, but his statement a half-century ago seems way more appropriate for the media era of today. The Internet has pushed the boundaries of what is both good and bad about human creativity and made that content accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any time. What hasn't changed since 1961, however, is what gets rewarded by the masses.

Ask any Web publisher and they'll tell you that mediocre content--at best--is what sells on the Internet. Companies like Yahoo and AOL love to show their commitment to quality content by talking up their professional journalists and entertainers, but at the same time they are sinking hundreds of millions into content farms like Associated Content or Seed to produce reams of cheap junk-food slideshows, listicles, and celebrity gossip. Sure, books have always plumbed these depths as well, but it's much harder and more expensive to produce junk books than junk Web sites.

Nick Carr, author of The Shallows
Nick Carr, author of 'The Shallows' Joanie Simon

These are the obvious manifestations of the shallows that Carr (rightly) worries about: the tendency to accept a quick and easy answer delivered over the Internet over actual thought, which is hard. Yet there are two sides to this argument: the beauty of the Internet is that it allows people, through search and/or social connections, to find like-minded individuals, be they self-tanning connoisseurs, suffering Mets fans, or 17th-century French-literature critics. These are topics that mass media can't justify covering in depth, yet the Internet allows such communities to flourish without significant investment in the means of production.

In other words, you are what you click on the Internet. When the modern conveniences of the 20th century made us all fat, gyms formed around the world to help people burn the calories they used to burn simply surviving. In the 21st century, the modern conveniences of Internet information are going to force those of us concerned about our mental development to work to keep our brains agile.

Given that two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are overweight, clearly Carr has a point. Yet at the same time, the Internet gives people who are truly interested in deep concepts yet unable to afford education or rich cultural experiences a chance to broaden their horizons.

We don't teach kids to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool anymore. Wading into the intellectual shallows is only a bad thing if we never move on.