I’m copy-pasting a short excerpt from something I had written after reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. I think this is the essence of what Carr is trying to tell throughout the book.
> It is redundant to say that the new technologies are changing our minds. Almost everything changes our mind. It is because of our brain’s neuroplasticity, the ability of our brain to change itself during our lifetime. The more we do a particular task, the neurons involved gets closely linked. The less we do it, the links fade away. Scientists explain neuroplasticity with a simple aphorism called Hebb’s rule, “Cells that fire together, wire together.” Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist, popularized the term “Medium is the Message” in his book ‘Understanding Media’. He understood that as every new medium comes into existence, people are enamored by its content: stories in the books, the news in the newspapers, commentaries on radio, shows on television and almost everything on the Internet. We are so engrossed in the flashy new content that the medium vanishes. McLuhan says that in the long run the content hardly matters. It is the medium that changes us. Every medium brings with it a culture of thinking. The invention of clock changed our conception of time. It encouraged punctuality. The invention of maps changed the way we perceive space. Books were the perfect mediums to train our mind to think in a linear way. Books only had texts written in them in a linear style. As we read books, our brains rewired themselves for parsing through long passages, thinking through logical arguments in an almost meditative manner. That was the long term impact of the technology of the book. The medium was the message and the message was clear: solitary, linear and almost meditative reading and hence similar thinking. The culture of thinking that the Internet encourages cannot be more different. Just try to read a news on the Internet. A traditional newspaper has text and images. The cognitive choices are simple: Read the headlines. If it interests you, read the news. Reading newspaper online drains your cognitive energy. A free newspaper website usually has about 40% of its digital real estate covered with advertisement. These advertisements aren’t even static, they change every few seconds. This distracts our mind. Then you get the ‘news flash’ borrowed from Television news channels- a banner that shows you the breaking news. The webpage is strewn with hyperlinks. The problem with hyperlinks is that they do not just require the cognitive efforts of reading. The brain first assess if the link is important. Then it decides if you should click on the link. This apparently requires the brain to work in a similar manner as when you solve a mathematical problem. Studies have shown that as the number of hyperlinks increases, our ability to understand a piece falls drastically. This is a good representation of the entire Internet. We can no longer sit alone & read for long. We have lost our abilities of ‘Deep Thinking’, a term used by Nicholas Carr. We are becoming suckers for irrelevant information.
McLuhan also knew that if we outsource the functions of a body part, that natural part becomes ‘numb’. What he means is that with the invention of power looms, the weavers lost their manual dexterity. When we write on computer for long, our hands lose their ability to write the beautiful cursive we were taught in schools. A modern farmer’s loss of his feel for the soil may just be an irrational nostalgia but when the technology ‘numbs’ our intellectual faculties, it should be a cause of concern. Intellectual technologies like clock, maps, books or the internet cannot be easily abandoned once they are adopted. The intellectual technology once embraced become indispensable. Joseph Weizenbaum, one of the fathers of modern Artificial Intelligence, warned, “The introduction of computers into some complex human activities may constitute an irreversible commitment.” We usually encourages the effective product, the most user friendly product, one that makes our life easiest. We should be wary of which intellectual technologies we embrace because once we accept them, we may not remain in control for long.