One of the book’s primary concerns is whether new technologies are making us more intelligent. While almost every expert and scholar agrees that the Internet has changed the way we interact with the world, there is large disagreement about whether or not this change is actually making us smarter. While the Internet has many mental and social benefits––connectivity, accessibility––Carr warns that we are at risk for a bad trade. Diehard defenders of the Internet, in Carr’s view, may be mothballing intellectual skills of greater depth. As we become increasingly proficient at multi-tasking and calculating thinking, the neural pathways wired for complex emotion and thought are falling into disuse.
The question of whether or not new technologies are a boon for intelligence depends on what the user really values. The Internet and computing devices allow us to access a seemingly infinite amount of information, but the historical tradition of linear thinking and intimate, individualized study is becoming obsolete. In the same vein, the development of computer programs and Internet publications depends on what the creators see as valuable, which might not line up with what we see as valuable. Monetary gain, clicks, and increasing demands for efficiency are guiding forces behind the Internet’s growth, and so the Internet maximizes precisely those things, but not necessarily human intelligence or intellectual value.
While we might be able to multitask, skim, and scan better than ever, Carr argues that our technology has not been developed to make us think deeper. Instead, we are adapting to an environment that values a new, “shallower” type of human intelligence. Carr believes we are trading in the skills that make us human––wisdom, creative connections, deep problem solving––for skills that make us better at using our machines.
Value, Depth, and Intelligence ThemeTracker
Value, Depth, and Intelligence Quotes in The Shallows
Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.
Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts––the faster, the better.
When it came to the brain, the child was indeed, as Wordsworth had written, the father to the man.
The written word liberated knowledge from the bounds of individual memory and freed language from the rhythmical and formulaic structures required to support memorization and recitation. It opened to the mind broad new frontiers of thought and expression.
To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. It required readers to place themselves at what T.S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, would call “the still point of the turning world.”
The words in books didn’t just strengthen people’s ability to think abstractly; they enriched people’s experience of the physical world, the world outside the book.
In arguing that books are archaic and dispensable, Federman and Shirky provide the intellectual cover that allows thoughtful people to slip into the permanent state of distractedness that defines online life.
In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler.
It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages or rewards.
As the psychotherapist Michael Hausauer notes, teens and other young adults have a “terrific interest in knowing what’s going on in the lives of their peers, coupled with a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop.” If they stop sending messages, they risk becoming invisible.
What we are experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.
The Net is making us smarter…only if we define intelligence by the Net’s own standards.
The irony in Google’s effort to bring greater efficiency to reading is that it undermines the very different kind of efficiency that the technology of the book brought to reading––and to our minds––in the first place.
The Web’s connections are not our connections––and no matter how many hours we spend searching and surfing, they will never become our connections. When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.