Let's Talk About the Internet
Can we talk about the internet — the thing that for decades has been used to host blogs like this one, the place where you can follow the thoughts of celebrities, learn any skill on YouTube, or make your fortune?
I finished The Shallows a couple days ago. It’s been on my reading list for a while. In the circles I travelled in college, I remember a couple people talking about it. I was skeptical when I heard about it — the title made it pretty clear to me what the author thought about the Internet. And both in college and now I thought the internet was great! Flawed, time-sucking, and divisive, but also a place with great potential, filled with great tools, and amazing content. My post-college career in cyber security and systems engineering wouldn’t be possible without the resources and connection provided by networked computers and the ability to learn new skills on the internet.
But I’ve also grown increasingly interested in the topic of productivity, and specifically the question of how we efficiently organize our knowledge and our attention. And books like The Shallows joins other books on my shelf including Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age in sounding a warning against the inherent bent of the tools which are quickly becoming the primary place we live, move, and have our being.
Nicholas Carr does this in the Shallows by exploring another topic I’ve spent some time on recently — NeuroplasticityThe brain’s ability to rewire itself in response to new information, events, or experiences.. Anytime we use a new tool our brains change to adapt to that tool - maps change the way our neurons fire, the printing press changed our relationship with knowledge, etc. Our brains want to rewire themselves. Much of my knowledge about neurobiology comes from the work of Dr. Curt Thompson in Anatomy of the Soul
And this phenomenon and our wariness of tools that rewire our brains is not new. Socrates famously warns against writing “because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” Neil Postman building off the work of Marshall McLuhan“The Medium is the Message.” warned against the effects of the entertainment industry. Depending on how you look at those warnings they either seem prophetically accurate or a bit of an overreaction.
After reading The Shallows I could put it in either category — an overreaction or prophetically accurate. Nicholas Carr is writing in 2009-2010, before social media rose to the prominence it has today, before the metaverse, heck before the iPhone 4 was even released. At times its age shows. He gives the example of the Kindle and warns that the presence of a built in web browser will prevent deep reading. Anyone who has used the Kindle eReader will know the built in web browser (if they can even find it) is not easy or fun to use. I have found having a separate dedicated device actually helps me focus on reading when using my Kindle.
At the same time it would be naive for me to ignore the primary argument Carr makes — that the internet rewires our brain, especially our attention. I know I’ve felt this for years and this book connected that feeling to neuroplasticity a concept I understood. The internet changes the way we interact not just with the internet but the rest of the world and that matters.
The last thought I had reading the book and the one I’ll end this post on is this: I think neuroplasticity is our greatest weakness dealing with the internet, but it is also our greatest strength. Carr talks about the internet being a tool and as discussed it does shape our brains, but I felt like he deemphasized the role we play in using our tools. Yes, the internet shapes our brains, but I read The Shallows as an invitation to use our brains to shape our tools.
That easier to write than to do and I intend to keep thinking about what that looks like in the coming months.