The Shallows

ℹ️ This post has become an unexpected part II of Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. Here, the author dissects the very same topic as Postman did, but with the added benefit of having lived through the Internet era.

Written more than three decades ago, the core idea captured in Amusing Ourselves to Death remains astonishingly relevant. Although Postman’s historical landscape ended up at the adage of television, it closely depicts our current state of affairs. At the time of its publication, it might have been perceived as an overstatement, yet with the benefit of hindsight, it has fallen short of dystopia.

Along these lines, I recently stumbled upon The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. His book can be considered a legitimate extension of Postman’s words.

These are some scattered notes I took from the book, plus additional thoughts of mine inserted here and there.

In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.

Carr makes a similar case that every information technology carries an intellectual ethic ― a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and intelligence. In other words, the medium defines the message, and culture is recreated anew by every medium of communication.

Similarly, he explains how the printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. Yet, in stark contrast, the Internet encouraged the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from random sources. This is important because every technology has an inherent bias. It has within its physical form a predisposition toward being used in certain ways and not others. The Internet has nurtured our society with a world of addiction, shallowness, and short attention spans.

As the very excerpt of the book depicts, the Internet’s ethic has become that of an industrialist, an ethic of speed and efficiency, of optimized production and consumption. This is to say that the Internet is remaking us in its image. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

And here it comes the most mind blowing revelation: this societal shift has deeper implications, even in our bodies. As it turns out, the actions and habits we partake in the real world can make real physical changes to our psyche. Our brains, the historical and scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. Hence the technologies we use to find, store and share information can reroute our neural pathways.

This might have something to do with my inability to focus — which initially attracted me to The Shallows. The book revealed that I’m not alone. Unlike before, when we get immersed in a book and focus on it entirely, we no longer focus for long anymore. The Internet not only has dramatically shortened our attention spans but got us addicted in ways we didn’t see coming.

For most of us who transitioned from an “analog youth” to a “digital adulthood”, we are now able to focus less and get distracted more easily. The Internet has changed our brains in terms of adaptation. Continually surfing the web gets us to like it more, regardless of how much you must have hated it from the start — it never stops.

Our brains now live in a permanent state of distraction. For our ancestors, maximum concentration and focus were required for reading. This is why reading helped humans develop the productivity of their brains massively. Unfortunately, we no longer enjoy these quiet spaces in our lives.

One of the reasons mentioned in Amusing Ourselves to Death to justify the printed word domination was its lack of competition. The printed matter was virtually all that was available. However, nowadays it is the Internet the one that enjoys domination since it has been embedded in almost any aspect of our life.

This ubiquity has only worsened by its highly addictive nature. The level of interactivity people experience is continuously engaging our reward system, making us very aware and conscious of our social status. On top of that, the Internet has a way of capturing our attention and not stopping there; it will indefinitely scatter our interests into endless dimensions so that we’ll be drawn to a lot of things.

First published on July 12, 2021