Have you found it harder and harder to sit with a good book for long periods of time without getting that itch to check your phone? Well, you’re not alone. My guest today makes the case that the internet has changed our brains in ways that make deep, focused thinking harder and harder.
His name is Nicholas Carr, and he documented what was then a newly-emerging phenomenon ten years ago in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The Shallows has now been re-released with a new afterword, and Nick and I begin our conversation with how he thinks the effect of digital technology on our minds has or hasn’t changed over the last decade. We then discuss the idea of the medium being the message when it comes to the internet, and how this particular medium changes our brains and the ways we think and approach knowledge and the world. Nick then explains how we read texts on screens differently than texts in books, why hyperlinks mess with our ability for comprehension, why it’s still important to develop our own memory bank of knowledge even in a time when we can access facts from an outsourced digital brain, and how social media amplifies our craving for the fast and easy-to-digest over the slow and contemplative. We end our conversation with how Nick himself has tried to strike a balance in keeping the advantages of the internet while mitigating its downsides.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What has changed in the ten years since Nick’s book was published
- What originally got Nick on this path of researching internet use
- The incredible nature of neuroplasticity
- How intellectual technologies (reading, writing, etc.) have shaped the human mind
- How did pre-literate, oral cultures think?
- The ways reading shapes our culture and thinking
- The scientific evidence about what the internet is doing to our brains
- Why reading on a screen is not the same as reading on a page
- The distracting nature of hyperlinks
- Has the internet helped our memory or thinking in any way?
- The metaphors of the brain and seeing it as a computer
- How Nick has managed his digital life
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with Nicholas about why the idea of utopia is creepy
- The Complete Guide to Breaking Your Smartphone Habit
- I Want You . . . To Put Away Your Smartphone
- What Ancient Philosophers Can Teach You About Using Your Smartphone
- Becoming a Digital Minimalist
- The Case for Being Unproductive
- Marshall McLuhan
- Why the King Complex Makes the Internet So Hard to Put Down
- How to Quit Mindlessly Surfing the Internet and Actually Get Stuff Done
- Escape the Algorithm!
- How Navigation Makes Us Human
- How to Read Nature
- How to Read a Book
- How to Read Long and Difficult Books
Connect With Nicholas
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Have you found it harder and harder to sit with a good book for long periods of time without getting that itch to check your phone? Well, you’re not alone. My guest today makes the case that the internet has changed our brains in ways that make deep, focused thinking harder and harder. His name is Nicholas Carr, and he documented what was then a newly-emerging phenomenon 10 years ago in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The Shallows has now been re-released with a new afterword, and Nick and I begin our conversation with how he thinks the effect of digital technology on our minds has or hasn’t changed over the last decade.
We then discuss the idea of the medium being the message when it comes to the internet, and how this particular medium changes our brains and the ways we think and approach knowledge in the world. Nick then explains how we read text on screens differently than text in books, why hyperlinks mess with our ability for comprehension, why it’s still important to develop our own memory bank of knowledge, even in a time when we can access facts from an outsourced digital brain, and how social media amplifies our craving for the fast and easy-to-digest over the slow and contemplative, and we end our conversation with how Nick himself has tried to strike a balance in keeping the advantages of the internet while mitigating its downsides. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/shallows.
Alright, Nicholas Carr, welcome back to the show.
Nick Carr: Thank you, Brett, it’s my pleasure to return.
Brett McKay: So we had you on the show a few years ago to talk about your collection of essays, Utopia is Creepy. Got you back on the show because, 10 years ago, you wrote a book called The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing Our Brains. And it’s been 10 years, you’ve got a new addition out with an additional, like an afterword, kind of an update on how things have changed or not changed in those 10 years. What do you think, what have been the big changes that have taken place on the internet that have affected how we think in the 10 years since you originally released The Shallows?
Nick Carr: I think that what’s changed is the technology of computing. Back 10 years ago, when we talked about going online, that was still mainly… We were still mainly talking about laptops and desktop computers, and the smartphone… The smartphone was there, I think the iPhone was introduced in 2007, but it hadn’t really taken over by 2010, so I was writing a book in the era of the laptop and desktop, and now, not only have smartphones taken over from the cellphone, I would argue they’ve taken over from the personal computer as the dominant form of computing device that people use. So I think, on the one hand, what’s the big change is the smartphone took over, and the other big change is that social media, which was also around in 2010, Facebook was there and Twitter was there, but it hadn’t become so dominant in the way it is now. So that’s the second big change, is what we do with our phones, more often than not, is something involving social media.
Brett McKay: And as we talk about The Shallows, and one thing I think is interesting about the book, the main thesis that you have that you put out there, I think, still holds up, it’s just that I think it’s even been refined even more because, as you note in the afterword, there’s been more research that’s come out to confirm what you were writing about 10 years ago.
Nick Carr: I think, in many ways, the basic themes and the basic messages and research of the book, if anything, is even more relevant today as we’ve switched to smartphones and social media, because if you think about… What I talk about in the book is how there’s a trade-off involved when we go online, when we use the internet. On the one hand, we get the benefit of having huge amounts of information delivered very, very quickly from all sorts of different sources, all sorts of overlapping forms, audio, video, text and so forth, but what we lose is the ability to pay attention, because the internet is a distraction machine, and so we’re constantly shifting our focus, constantly getting interrupted with alerts and notifications. So we have more information, but I don’t think we’re thinking as deeply as we used to because we’re so distracted. And if you think about smartphones and social media, if the internet in general is a distraction machine, smartphones and social media amp up the distractions way more than was true even 10 years ago, so I think, at the level of the basic analysis of the book, unfortunately, things have gotten worse rather than better.
Brett McKay: At the beginning of The Shallows, you talk about… The thing that kickstarted this whole thing 10 years ago, this research project of yours, was that you had noticed that you had had a hard time doing deep, concentrated reading of long form articles or even books, and you started talking about this with other people and they were saying, “Yeah, I got the same thing, I can’t read like I used to.” How did you decide or suspect that the internet had something to do with it back in 2007?
Nick Carr: Right. Well, I’ve always, since I was a boy, I’ve been a big reader, loved books, and around 2006, 2007, after having spent quite a bit of time surfing the web, as we used to call it, I noticed that I was having trouble sitting down and reading, not just books, but even long articles, and what I began to realize is that my brain seemed to crave the stimulation it gets when I’m online, when I’m looking into a computer screen, so I can click on email, go to a website, get a text message or whatever, and it was having trouble… I was having trouble shutting off that desire for this constant information stimulation and concentrate on the text for page after page after page. And what I began to realize is that it really did seem like the time I was spending online was, in a sense, training me to think in a different way, and that was making it harder and harder to screen out distractions and filter out this desire for information stimulation and concentrate on the page, and that was really the spur, because one of the things I ask myself is, “Is this possible?”
I mean, can a tool that we use for a particular purpose actually change the way we think in some deep way that continues even when we’re not using the tool? And so that’s what started me down the research that ultimately became The Shallows. In a sense, it was [chuckle] an exercise in self-diagnosis, at least in the beginning.
Brett McKay: And so, this idea that… I think most critiques… So this is a critique of the internet. Unlike a lot of critiques of the internet, or even television, or whenever you see that people critique the media, they’re typically critiquing the content. Like the internet, there’s porn, there’s violence, trolls, fake news, whatever, but your critique is more meta than that. You’re actually critiquing, or sort of looking at, how the medium of the internet can shape the way we think, and basically who we are.
Nick Carr: That’s right, and to give credit where credit is due, I’m kind of building on the work of earlier media theorists, in particular Marshall McLuhan, from the 1960s, who coined the phrase “The medium is the message.” And what he argued, and what I argue, is that it’s only natural when we get a new communication medium or device to focus on the content. If it’s an old-fashioned telephone, we’re focused on the conversation we’re having with somebody. If it’s a newspaper, we’re focused on the news stories. But really, the deeper change comes from the technology itself. As we adapt to the new medium or the new device, we do, in a way, train ourselves to perceive things differently, to think differently, to have different levels of attentiveness. And I think we tend to ignore that side of things, because we’re so wrapped up in the content, whether we think it’s good or bad or indifferent. And as a result, what happens is, we adapt ourselves to the technology very, very quickly, and only later [chuckle] do we begin to say, “Hold on, maybe I’ve done something to myself and to my mind that isn’t beneficial, and maybe I’ve paid a cost that I wasn’t aware of, but now, all of a sudden, I can’t escape this deficit that I’ve taken on.”
Brett McKay: Now, there’s that quote, I forgot who said it. It’s something like, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
Nick Carr: Right, that was… I can’t remember the guy who said it, but he was picking up on McLuhan thought there.
Brett McKay: Right. And so, McLuhan, he wrote… He came with the idea “The medium is the message.” This was like in the ’50s, ’60s. What was he seeing? Was he seeing like, television changing the way people think or interact with the world?
Nick Carr: Yeah, so he was looking mainly at what he called electric media. And back then, that meant radio and TV, essentially, although he looked ahead to computers and stuff. But what he was… What his big argument was that for 500 years, ever since Gutenberg invented the printing press, around 1450 or so, text, in particular, particularly text in books, or in magazines, and so forth, had been the dominant cultural medium, the dominant way we exchanged information, transmitted information. And text, if you think about text, it’s kind of an anti-social [chuckle] technology, because you can’t read a book with somebody else, you have to kind of set up a barrier, a real barrier, or at least a kind of mental barrier, in order to concentrate on text. And he thought that this really shaped not only the way we read, but also the way we communicate, the way we think about ourselves. He argued that it brought in much more individualism, and also this sense that we’re in charge of our own knowledge, we’re in charge of our own… Of building our own knowledge in our brains through this kind of isolated deep reading.
And he believed that electric media was overthrowing the dominance of text and bringing in a very, very different way of thinking and communicating that, on the one hand, it was much more social and had all sorts of benefits, and I think we see this today, but also, kind of withdrew us from both the practice of deep reading and deep thinking, and the sense that that practice, that very contemplative, attentive practice was even all that important. And I think… So, he wrote this back in ’64, 1964 or so, so that’s a long time ago, but I think that part of his message resonates even more today, when the internet and the various online tools and social media and stuff has really taken over from the book and the printed page as the basic means of cultural transmission.
Brett McKay: And we’ll get into more detail about that sort of transition from, I guess we can call it the literate brain, to the, I guess, an internet brain. But I think one of the things I like about this book is you start off to explain like how is this even possible. How is it that the brain can change, or a tool can change the brain? Because for a lot of human history, there was this idea that once you reach a certain point in your development, after adolescence, your brain is basically like concrete, and you’re pretty much set for the rest of your life. And then, so you’ve got arguments like, “Well, how could it be that if you use the internet in your 50s and 60s, your brain changes, ’cause your brain’s already set in sort of this concrete?” But then you bring in this idea of neuroplasticity to explain how interacting with something like the internet can reshape how your brain functions.
Nick Carr: Yeah, so when I was growing up, and really until just a few decades ago, there was this conception of the brain as being very malleable in your youth, where you laid down your circuits for thinking. And then, at the age of 20, it was believed that that ended. And the circuits you had built up, at that point, were the ones that remained throughout the rest of your life and they didn’t change. The only thing that happened, this was kind of the dark view of the brain, is that your neurons slowly died off, so you had fewer and fewer. But it turns out, brain scientists, since then, beginning in, I think, ’70s, and building up much more recently, have discovered that in fact, our brains are changing at a physical level, an anatomical level, throughout our entire life. So that malleability, or as they call it, plasticity, doesn’t stop at 20, but continues on. And what happens is, we adapt to our environment when we think, just in an analogous way to the way we adapt to our environment physically with our body.
So if you exercise a certain muscle, it gets stronger. If you don’t exercise it, it atrophies. Something similar to mechanisms, different, of course, something similar goes on with our brain. The more we practice certain ways of thinking or exercise those circuits in our minds, they literally become stronger. They literally recruit more neurons, more synaptic connections. But on the other hand, if we don’t practice certain ways of thinking, we begin to lose those, our ability to do that. And I think that… I talked about McLuhan coming up with this idea that media changes the way we think. What he didn’t understand, and this comes more recently, is that there’s a real deep scientific biological reason for that, and that is our brains are adapting to the medium. The medium kind of creates a new environment. We think in ways that the medium encourages. And as a result, we strengthen certain ways of thinking, but we weaken other ways of thinking.
Brett McKay: So to explore this idea of how intellectual technologies… So these are things, like abstract things like maps are intellectual technologies, clocks, books, schools, etcetera. You kinda take readers in The Shallows sort of on an intellectual history to show how these things, these technologies, have probably shaped the human mind. So let’s talk about what was the human mind like before, like an oral culture, before there was even reading and writing. Do we have any idea of how they might’ve have, what that pre-literate brain was like?
Nick Carr: Well, one thing we know is that our sense of sight, in terms of reading the environment, the actual natural environment around us, was probably much, much sharper. Which is why if you look at societies that haven’t kind of come to be dominated by text, you see feats of navigation and kind of reading the natural world that are amazing to us because we can’t contemplate them. And one of the reasons for that is that when we learn how to read, we have to recruit a huge portion of our visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes sight, in order to become efficient readers. If you think… If you watch a kid learning to read, he or she goes really, really slowly, they have to sound out every letter and then put the letters together to make a word. What happens is a lot of our neurons, as we train ourselves to read, get dedicated to recognizing not only letters, but syllables in words and then reading becomes automatic.
And so I think this is a great example of neuroplasticity and the kind of deep influence it can have. So in effect, when we teach ourselves to read, we’re changing the way our visual cortex works in a really quite a fundamental way, and we gain all of the benefits that come with the ability to read, but we lose this kind of ability to read the natural world, because we’ve simply re-dedicated those mental resources to something else. So that’s one example. I think it’s fair to say that in oral cultures, the way we think about society, the way we think about each other is very, very different. To pick up on that earlier theme of reading encouraging individualism, I think people were much less focused on themselves in isolation in oral cultures and thought much more about society as a group of people. The boundaries between them were not so sharp as they became. So my thinking, and I think other people have come up with this as well, and you can look at current societies that don’t have modern technologies and stuff, and see some evidence of this. But I think it’s fair to say that people thought and perceived things in very, very different ways before the alphabet came along and reading and writing came along.
Brett McKay: Well, and speaking of this idea that the medium is the message or the tool can shape your brain, even Socrates, a couple of thousand years ago, he was kind of down on… He didn’t like writing ’cause he said, “I think writing is gonna help us or is gonna cause us to forget things, not having sharp memories, you don’t have to remember anything.” So he was kind of making a McLuhan critique of media technology a couple of thousand years ago.
Nick Carr: Exactly. One thing that that story brings up is that reading and writing… I mean, never mind the printing press, reading and writing are quite new phenomena in human history. They are just a little over 2000 years old when the alphabet was invented during the time when Socrates was alive. And what… Before then, the way people learned was by talking with each other. By going to a wise person or an expert, like Socrates himself, and having a long conversation. And he worried that a couple of things would happen thanks to reading. One is that we wouldn’t be able to challenge the “speaker” anymore, because the speaker would be… We’d confront the speaker through text, therefore there was nobody to ask questions of any more. So the kind of dialogue that he thought was very, very important to having a rich understanding of everything would no longer be available.
And also he worried that because we’d be able to look everything up in books, then we would no longer need to hold all our knowledge in our own memory, and he feared that that would weaken memory, which he very much associated with the richness of thinking. And I think it’s pretty clear that he was right about that, that there’s, I think there’s little question that after the alphabet came along and reading and writing came along, people’s memories, their store of information in their heads, went down pretty dramatically.
Brett McKay: Because you could outsource it to an external memory, a book or a scroll or whatever.
Nick Carr: Right. Neuroscientists often refer to that as transactional memory, because rather than holding it in your own mind, you’re in some way or another transacting with a book or with somebody else to get the information you need.
Brett McKay: But his student Plato, he was a writer. He wrote lots of treatises, like his dialogues, they were written down. I think Plato would say, well, yeah, you might… There’s a trade-off. Your memory might be weakened, but he says when you write the thing down, it becomes objective, so you can point to it and say, “This is what you said.” Because if you rely on your memory, there’s all sorts of things that can happen there where you mis-remember or something, I don’t know, it can change inside you as you’ve processed it, but with writing, you can say, “Well, no, this is what you said, we’re gonna focus on this.”
Nick Carr: Yeah, so the big irony is, of course, everything… Pretty much everything we know about Socrates comes from Plato’s writings. And if writing hadn’t come along and Plato hadn’t written down all these dialogues, we’d have no knowledge of Socrates, or would have no opportunity to be taught by him, even if the way we’re being taught is imperfect in Socrates’s eyes. And so, yeah, I think Socrates… I think he was right in much of his diagnosis about what would happen to memory, but I think he underestimated the power of the written word to expand the facts and opinions and arguments and stories that people would have access to as we build up this huge store of literature that’s suddenly available. And so the written word breaks down the barriers to the transmission of knowledge, speeds it up, speeds it up over space and over time, you no longer have to be a resident of Athens and have immediate access to Socrates to tap into Socrates’s knowledge.
And in a way, this kind of tension between Socrates and Plato is a tension that is ultimately resolved in favor of Plato, the writer, and yet I do think that in many ways our intellectual lives, our store of knowledge, all were greatly expanded by the arrival of the written of word and the persistence of text. That doesn’t mean that Socrates was wrong, it just means he didn’t really foresee all the implications of the new technology.
Brett McKay: And then so the alphabet was developed, books were developed, and as you mentioned, this shaped the way we thought, because writing and reading could become a private affair. You could have thoughts and experiment, which gave way to new ideas. It also, with reading and writing, encourages what you call linear thinking, where everything’s not disorganized, it’s like you have to make an argument so it flows on the paper, and that had big implications for us as a society.
Nick Carr: I think so, and I think it greatly encouraged all sorts of experiments with expressiveness, experiments with arguments, experiments with narrative, everything we benefit from today that was built up through decades and centuries of writing. But I think it also… One thing we take for granted or don’t fully appreciate about the act of deep reading, and here I’m talking about really getting lost in a book or an article, as the saying goes, is that’s often portrayed today as a passive activity, oh, you don’t get to click a like button or you don’t get to comment on it because it’s all just fixed prose. But I think that gets it totally wrong. I think one of the great things that comes from deep reading of something in print where you’re focusing your whole mind on it is that it in a sense opens a clearing inside your mind where your own ideas and your own store of knowledge and your own memory collides with whatever the author’s writing, whether it’s a fictional story or whether it’s an argument of non-fiction, and as we read in that way, we’re constantly testing our own ideas, we’re constantly bringing our own experience into the story or the narrative, and there’s this dialogue, and this is one thing that Socrates missed, I think.
There’s this dialogue between author and reader that goes on that very, very much enriches, I believe, our own… Not only our own store of knowledge, but really our own ability to think deeply and to analyze other people’s ideas and to put new information into a broader context. I think all of that was helped by the arrival of the written word and particularly the printed word, which made it… By over time reducing the cost of books, one important advantage of the printing press was an economic advantage. It opened these works to a much broader portion of the population and encouraged, ultimately, widespread literacy.
Brett McKay: Alright, well, let’s talk about how the internet is possibly changing the way we think, or not possibly, there’s scientific evidence that’s showing that it’s changing the way we think. Let’s talk about just the fact of reading on a screen. So when the internet first came on the scene, the first thing that people put up there, ’cause it was the easiest, didn’t take up that much memory or RAM or bandwidth, was just text. And so the idea was like, well, if it’s just text on a screen it’s just basically like reading a printed book, there’s not gonna be much of a difference, but you highlight all this research that says, whenever text is on a screen we read it differently than we are in a physical, paper book.
Nick Carr: Yeah, and there’s one assumption that is very common, which is that text is text. Who cares if I’m reading it in a book or on a desktop screen or even on my phone? It’s still the same words, and so it… The same meaning, and therefore we shouldn’t worry about it. I think the research is pretty clear that that’s not true, that actually, the medium through which we read influences the way we read. And the reason for that I think is pretty clear. If you think about a printed book, for instance, there’s nothing else going on in the book other than the text and therefore, the book itself, in a kind of almost literal way, serves as a screen against distractions, because there are always distractions in our lives. There are always other things going on, our minds wander all the time. It’s very, very hard for human beings to screen out distractions and really concentrate and focus our mind.
And I think the printed book, by kind of isolating text, very, very much helped train us to pay attention, to not give in to distractions and not let our mind waver all the time as it sort of wants to do. Compare that to a computer screen, any kind of computer screen, whether it’s your phone or your laptop or whatever, sure, there’s the text you’re reading, but then there’s all sorts of other things going on or available to you. There are alerts, there’s notifications, there’s text messages, other messages, there’s social media notifications, there’s all the websites you might click on, and even the text itself is different because there are links in the text. So the links, and this is some of the most interesting, I think, research that I explore in the book, links themselves are little distractions. We’re not even aware of it, but when you come across a highlighted piece of text that you can click on when you’re reading online, somewhere in your mind, you’re evaluating it. You’re saying why is this highlighted, why is this a link? What’s gonna happen if I click on it? Will I get something useful or useless? Should I click on it or not? All of that, which we’re not conscious of, disrupts our attention as we read, and there’s some very good studies that show that people who read the exact same text, if it has links in it, they comprehend less and they retain less.
So all of these differences in the medium itself mean that while we certainly can read online, we still spend a lot of time reading online, the quality of that reading and the depth of that reading is not the same as we get when we’re reading printed material, where there aren’t all of those distractions going on simultaneously.
Brett McKay: Yeah, they’ve done eye tracking whenever, you know, comparing reading in a book and reading on a screen, and when you read on a screen you just skim, like you’re kind of just… You’re like a hunter looking for just sort of big piece of information, and once you get it, you move on. And with a book, you’re more likely just to read the whole thing through.
Nick Carr: Right, yeah, there’s… The eye tracking study showed that we read… On a screen, we read in an F pattern, which means we kind of… Our eyes go across the first couple of lines of text all the way and then we drift down the left margin, then go about halfway across, then just drift down the left margin and continue to drift down the left margin and then click and go out, and I wanna say that there’s nothing wrong with skimming and scanning, even in printed text. I mean, think of how we used to read, still some of us do, printed newspapers. It’s not like we’re reading every article in depth with total attentiveness. There’s all sorts of skimming and scanning going on. The difference, though, is that skimming and scanning becomes the dominant form of reading on a computer screen because there’s so much going on and so many distractions, so we rarely give ourselves even the opportunity to get lost in a text to really engage in deep reading. There are many ways to read and they’re all very, very important. The problem with the computer screen is it steals from us both the practice of and the encouragement to engage in really attentive, contemplative deep reading.
Brett McKay: I wanna go back to this idea of hyperlinks, ’cause this was one of the big selling points of the internet is that you could take all this information and hyperlink it together and give people more context about a particular topic without having to focus on a particular piece, and so if you’re reading War and Peace, for example, the idea is you can lead to different things within War and Peace, like to a Wikipedia article to explain something about Russian history, and the idea is like, this will actually help people know more about this. But the studies say actually hyperlinking all this information together often results in people knowing and understanding less about a topic.
Nick Carr: Yeah, and it all comes down to the fact that links are distractions. They’re distractions when you click on them and you suddenly jump to somewhere else and they’re distractions even when you don’t click on them. So all of these studies, and these are studies from quite a long time ago, because you’re absolutely right that in the early days of the web, everybody was really excited about hyperlinks. For one thing, it was fun to click on them and jump somewhere else, but also there were all sorts of scholars and educators that thought, oh, this is gonna be a big breakthrough in reading because you’ll be able to read contrasting opinions or whatever. And all of that is true, I mean, links can be very helpful, but nevertheless, when you look at the way people… Reading comprehension and the retention of information from reading, they go down when links are incorporated into text, and there was one study I talk about that actually took the same piece of text and just varied the number of links that appeared in the text and then had lots of different people, participants in the experiment, read and what they found is that the more links you get, the lower the comprehension is.
So that created a very clear kind of sign that links are intruding on our ability to read deeply, and as a result drive the benefits that come from deep reading, which are everything from remembering what you’ve read to also getting into that deep state I talked about earlier, where your mind is kind of bringing all of its resources and all of its existing learning into the act of reading and you’re kind of challenging yourself and expanding both what you know, but also expanding the context of your understanding. And as you expand that then whenever you get new information coming into you, then you can fit it into this bigger context and it becomes more meaningful. So there is this big trade-off, I think, with reading online versus reading on a printed page, and unfortunately, as a culture we’re we’re voting for the screen.
Brett McKay: Well, I think you also mentioned another study in The Shallows where they did an experiment… It relates to task switching or trying to multi-task, and that can cause comprehension to go down as well, so they gave people… In one group, they gave people two things to read, but they had to read one first and then the next thing. And then the next group, you could go back and forth between the two with hyperlinks. And what ended up happening was the people who just read things one at a time were able to remember more. The people who were going back and forth, I think they thought they knew a lot about the topic, but when they actually tested them for comprehension, they didn’t actually remember that much.
Nick Carr: Right, they remembered less, and they also… They had a much more superficial understanding of what they read. And also, and this is also important, they enjoyed it less. They thought it was less fulfilling to read it, they didn’t think it was as worthwhile, so this sense we have that, oh, if we could only just do things simultaneously, we’d get the benefits of contrasting and everything, it just doesn’t hold up. What all of this research points to is that, sure, there are times when you wanna be distracted, you wanna be sharing information very, very quickly, but if you really wanna think deeply, you have to focus, because that’s when… It all comes down to this process that scientists refer to as memory consolidation, which is moving information that’s coming into your mind, new information, into your long-term memory.
It’s during that process, memory consolidation, that you create associations and connections between the new information and everything else you know, everything else contained in your brain, and it’s those connections and associations, not the little isolated bits of information, that are the basis for personal knowledge. And one thing we know about memory consolidation is that it really only happens when we’re attentive. If you’re distracted and you’re taking in a jumble of information, you’re not going to develop those associations and connections, those rich associations, and as a result, yeah, you might have quick access to a particular fact, but you’re not going to weave that fact into a broader and deeper context and set of knowledge in your own mind.
Brett McKay: Well, this segues nicely into my next question, which is, another thing that happens with the internet is, because we know that we can just look something up, we can Google it or… Like my email, I treat my email basically like Google now, ’cause I use Gmail, so I just archive everything and I’m like, well, if I need to remember something I’ll just search for it. And one argument is… You’re sort of the pro-internet is that, well, this is great because now that you’re not having to remember all these facts or all this stuff, you’re able to spend… You have more brainpower to expend on creativity and reasoning and solving complex problems. Is there anything to that argument, that having this external memory, like Google, that it gives us more time or more brainpower to focus on higher-level thinking?
Nick Carr: No. I think that’s a misreading of how the mind works. And I’m not making an argument against having stores of information outside of our own memory that we can draw on. That’s one thing books and everything else gave us, and it’s extremely important. But it’s also important to recognize that the depth of our thought, the rigor of our analysis and everything, is all about building context so we can fit new information into this bigger picture. In actuality, what the research suggests is that the more, the richer the store of information you have in your own mind, in your own memory, the more deeply you’ll process new information, and as a result, the more thoughtful you’ll be, the more analytical you’ll be, the better able you’ll be to evaluate the worth of some new piece of information.
So memory, the store of information in your own head, is very, very tightly linked to the depth and rigor of your thinking. It’s not like these are two separate things and, oh, if I spend energy on remembering things, then I’ll have less mental energy to go toward analysis or whatever. That simply gets our thought processes wrong. It’s actually very important to build up this deep store of information in our own heads, in our own memory, and supplement it with the stuff that we can Google or the stuff that’s in books. So if we think of it in terms of supplementing our own rich store of information with all the information that’s outside of us and that is written down somewhere or is on videos or whatever, that’s fine, that gives us the best of both worlds.
But if we think of the web and of Google as a substitute for our own memory, and this is what a lot of people argue, I think mistakenly, then that’s when we get into trouble, because at that point, we no longer develop the context necessary to really fully evaluate all the information that’s coming at us so quickly online.
Brett McKay: Well, that’s interesting, ’cause that kinda goes against… The pedagogy that they’re doing in elementary schools or high schools is like, well, we wanna teach kids how to reason and think, so we’re not gonna spend a lot of time learning facts. But I’m always like, how do you expect a kid to reason about the Constitution or whatever if they don’t even know what the Constitution is? You have to have the building blocks in order to make an argument or analyze something.
Nick Carr: Exactly. And so we’ve been talking about this in terms of the technology, but really there’s something broader that’s been going on culturally and socially where we’ve come to believe that you can separate memory, what you know, from how you think. In actuality, you can’t do that. So this isn’t… I’m not making an argument for rote memorization, for sitting down and just going through a set of numbers or a set of facts and just going over them over and over and over again. What I am arguing for is that we have to recognize that to think deeply about anything, you have to actually know stuff. Otherwise our minds start to work like computers, where you have some particular fact you need to plug into something you’re doing and you grab that fact and then immediately forget it and go on to the next thing. You can do some activities, some mental activities that way, and you can do them quite successfully. But if you really wanna think deeply, you have to know things, because that’s the only way to build the context necessary to connect a new piece of information with the lots of other pieces of information, and it’s only at that point that thinking actually becomes really interesting.
Brett McKay: That’s interesting, you mentioned… You brought up that idea that we treat the brain like a computer. I always think it’s fascinating to study the history of metaphors for brains throughout history, because it says a lot about the technology of the time, so… Back in the Industrial Revolution, the brain was like a machine or it was like a hydraulic pump. And the way you think about your brain, it actually… There’s a tendency for it to influence how you go about interacting with the world. So what do you think are the implications of us thinking of our brain as just a computer? Beyond just what you just said, that, oh, you could just, data in, data out, that’s all it is.
Nick Carr: I think the danger is that we begin to value only those ways of thinking that resemble the way a computer works, and that’s very much maximizing the efficiency of input and output. So we start to think, oh, the more information I can get the more quickly, then that’s all to the good. And what we begin to devalue are the ways of thinking that happen when we’re not being stimulated by flows of information, so things like contemplation, reflection, attentiveness in general, all of those ways of thinking, which are completely… Go against the grain of what computers can do, all of those ways of thinking, we begin to think, are dispensable.
And I believe that’s one of the stories of our times, that not only are we engaging in things like contemplation and reflection less often, but we’re beginning to think we don’t really need those ways of thinking, as long as we’re processing lots of information and lots of messages as quickly as possible, as long as we’re Googling a lot of stuff, clicking on a lot of buttons and icons, then we’re thinking in an optimum fashion, because then we’re thinking more and more like computers. And I think that might be one of the great tragedies of modern times, is that we’re losing even this sense that contemplation and attentiveness in quiet, deep thought has value.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this idea of the social media… The smartphone, obviously, it just amplifies our distractedness. There’s so many things that you can… You’re surfing the web on your phone, you get a notification from your app, and then you’re gonna check Instagram. But let’s talk about, what is this increased social interactivity of the web, what is that doing or amplifying with how the internet is affecting our brain?
Nick Carr: Yeah, and that’s one of the questions I tried to wrestle with when I was writing the new afterword to the book, because The Shallows focuses very much on personal thinking and how having access to all this information online changes the way we as individuals think. What’s become very, very clear over the last 10 years as social media has become more and more popular and become more and more central, not only to how we use computers but how we live our lives, is that there’s very, very much a social aspect that wasn’t as clear 10 years ago. And I think we’re still learning about the effects of this, and there are good effects and there are ill effects. And in some ways during the pandemic, we’re speeding up our learning because now even more than before we’re reliant on social media of various sorts to do things that we used to do in person, whether it’s business meetings or classrooms or cocktail parties or whatever.
And so I think in recent years… Well, let me back up. I think, again, one of the stories here is that in the beginning, we focus on all the good things that come out of having social media and our ability to exchange information with others and to express ourselves. We focus very much on the positive side of that. Oh, we’ve broken down the barriers to media, so each of us can be a producer and a content creator, and we can get our messages out to the world. And that’s very important, I think, and that is a big benefit, but in recent years we’ve learned that there are big negatives as well, and a lot of those big negatives come from the fact that human nature has a bright side and it has a dark side. And to think that if we have this technology that allows everybody to express everything going on in their head all the time, that that’s gonna draw out the very negative qualities of human nature as well as the sunnier qualities of human nature.
And once you create this web of social media, it becomes very, very hard to figure out how to regulate it, how to emphasize the good qualities but get rid of the trolling and the fake news and the vindictiveness and everything else that we’ve been struggling with. And I think companies like Facebook and Google and Twitter, they’re in a position now where it’s quite clear that a lot of the effects of their services are quite negative, but these social media work at such scale and such a speed, it becomes very, very difficult to figure out how do we rein in this information? And I think that’s what we’re seeing today is a lot of struggles with all of these things.
Brett McKay: And what’s interesting too, and thanks to the smartphone, because it’s got a camera, a lot of the way we communicate is very visual or video, so it’s like you share a picture on Instagram, you have a meme, you create these memes on your smartphone, they’re just sort of an image with a few simple words… TikTok videos, YouTube, that’s what people will gravitate… They’re not gravitating towards long-form articles in The New Yorker, they just want the 15-second TikTok video.
Nick Carr: Yeah, it’s been quite a dramatic change, particularly over the last 10 years. We had YouTube, and we had a lot of visual ways of exchanging information online 10 years ago, but that’s all accelerated greatly. If you look back at the early days of Facebook, it was very, very text-based, that’s no longer the case. And so, again, I think there’s good and bad things here. I think one of the things that’s going on is that the way we communicate is changing to respond to the fact that with our phones or other computers connected to the internet, there’s a super-abundance of information, and it’s all streaming by very, very quickly, so you have to grab a person’s attention and get as much information across as quickly as possible, and I think videos, photographs, and certainly memes, which are this new form of expression that often intermingles text and pictures, images, I think all of these are a response to the need to make a point very, very quickly because you know that the audience is not gonna stay focused on one thing for very long.
And so what you get is a great deal of creativity in expressing things visually with maximum efficiency, and sometimes with great humor and wit and stuff. But what you lose, I think, is the depth of engagement. So you have to not only design communications to fit within the medium, but you have to make them more and more superficial because you know that that’s about the best way you can grab a person’s fleeting attention, superficial, and also amp up any emotional content, because that’s what stands out in the flow of information.
Brett McKay: Well, how have you… So I think the case… You’re critiquing the internet, but you’re also saying, okay, there’s some good things about the internet too, we’ve just gotta be aware of what it’s doing to our brains and to our minds and the way we think. How have you personally tried to balance the benefits of the internet while also trying to downplay or mitigate its downsides, and keep that literate brain that you once had?
Nick Carr: Yeah, and so… As I said, my writing about this subject and the inspiration for The Shallows initially came out of my own experience, struggling with maintaining my ability to be attentive and to be contemplative and things I value. And it’s still, even after doing the research and writing the book and coming to, I think, a better understanding of why I and others are experiencing this, it’s still a struggle. In fact, it’s probably even more of a struggle. For a long time, I held off and didn’t get a smartphone, and then finally I gave in, and of course, now, like everyone, I carry it with me all the time, it’s always on, it’s always kind of… Even if it’s not actively distracting me, part of my brain is saying, gee, I should pull out my phone and see what’s going on, and so even that is a distraction. So I guess what I’ve done is tried to at least moderate some of the biggest sources of distraction, so I’ve turned off notifications on my apps and other phone functions and stuff to the extent possible.
They still come through, because it’s almost a full-time job turning off and keeping off notifications because companies who develop these apps really want to keep you distracted. And also, I try, at least, and sometimes I’m successful, sometimes not, to actually not take my phone with me all the time, because it… And there’s some recent research that I talk about in the afterword that shows that even when your phone’s in your pocket and you’re not using it and it’s not buzzing or anything, it’s still a major drag on your attention, major draw on your attention. So I try to… If I’m gonna go out to have dinner or something, I’ll say, do I really need to bring my phone with me? And more often than not, the answer is no, and so I’ll leave it behind, or if I’m going for a walk or… So I’m trying to be more disciplined in choosing when I have my phone with me and when it’s gonna distract me, rather than simply take the course that I think as a society we’ve accepted without thinking, which is, you should have your phone with you all the time.
So those are a couple of things, but I have to be honest, it’s a constant struggle, and I still find it distressingly difficult to shut off this craving for stimulation and sit down and do something that requires concentration, like reading a long article or a book. So I think very much this is the new environment, cultural environment, social environment, intellectual environment we’ve created for ourselves, and it values some ways of thinking and devalues others. And for those of us who want to try to maintain an ability to think deeply and read deeply, it really does mean that we’re gonna be constantly, in a sense, working against, pushing back against not only the technology, but the set of cultural and social norms that has developed around the technology and is constantly telling us we have to be always online, always exchanging messages, watching messages, replying very very quickly. Our culture has changed in a way that is very much a process of adapting to the technology.
Brett McKay: Well, Nick, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the new book, the update, and the rest of your work?
Nick Carr: Well, I have a website, so you can go there and be distracted, it’s nicholascarr.com, and that has a list of my various books as well as some of the articles and essays I’ve written over the years, so that would be the best starting point.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Nicholas Carr, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Nick Carr: Thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Nicholas Carr, he is the author of the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website nicholascarr.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/shallows, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you could think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com to sign up. Use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or IOS and you can start to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast.
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