Saturday, October 02, 2010

Diving into The Shallows

I've often been blasé about the ability to offload memory to the net. Though not a “digital native”, I've been an intensive user of computers for so many years that it's difficult to imagine life without them.

When I started to come across references to Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, I confess to an initial negative reaction. Perhaps reinforced by some of the reviews I scanned, I had the impression that this might be a book complaining about “young people today” and their dependence on the internet.

When I picked up the book, however, I realised that last year I'd read a previous book of Carr's, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. That's a brilliant discussion of the significance of cloud computing, in which Carr compared the advent of the cloud to the advent of the electric grid, which freed manufacturers from the need to be located adjacent to sources of power (typically running water) and from the need to have in-house expertise in non-core technology.

Perhaps it's telling that I'd forgotten the author's name, since Carr's book focuses much attention on the topic of memory.

Without wanting to do the book an injustice, it's probably fair to summarise it as follows:

  • The tools we use change our brains and the way we think
  • Human memory is not analogous to computer memory
  • Our use of the internet is detrimental to the ability to reflect and synthesise.

The tools we use

The book includes a very detailed analysis of the way in which our tools affect us. Carr contends that tools have a physical affect on our brains, in the way that London taxi drivers develop an enlarged posterior hippocampus due to demands placed by their need to navigate and remember.

He also suggests that those of us involved in the design or deployment of internet technology are not equipped to understand the profound changes that the internet will enable. “The intellectual ethic of a technology is rarely recognized by its inventors,” he writes. “Our ancestors didn't develop or use maps in order to enhance their capacity for conceptual thinking... Nor did they manufacture mechanical clocks to spur the adoption of a more scientific mode of thinking. Those were by-products of the technologies. But what by-products!”

Looking at how the internet may be “re-wiring” our brains, Carr suggest that it presents us with a self-reinforcing medium, encouraging us to think and respond rapidly, but with limited depth. “Links don't just point us to related or supplemental words; they propel us towards them.”

The internet disrupts our concentration and feeds our apparently insatiable appetite for what is new – with email, RSS, updates from Twitter and Facebook, and instant results from Google all feeding an ongoing fascination with the ephemeral.

Carr himself admits to being an addict, and describes the process of temporarily weaning himself away from the constant chatter, as well as the process of readmitting it as he finished his book, when he bought a Blu-ray player with built-in Wi-Fi. “It lets me stream music from Pandora, movies from NetFlix, and videos from YouTube... I have to confess: it's cool. I'm not sure I could live without it.”


The “offloading” of memory to the net is an attractive idea. Why bother remembering boring stuff when we can Google an answer at will? It seems almost perverse to attempt to recollect a trivial detail.

Many of us treat the internet as if it were an extension of human memory. There is an implication that our memory is similar (but perhaps inferior) to silicon. Carr cautions against this view, and states that people who hold it “have been misled by a metaphor.” “Biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not”.

The book contains a fascinating discussion of the role of human memory and its relationship to the ability to think deeply and synthesise.

Using the internet

Carr suggests that there are many pitfalls in our internet usage. Although he is quick to acknowledge – and celebrate – the boons, he also cautions that our tendency to skim has complications. For example, he quotes research suggesting that the ready availability of online sources has resulted in a narrowing of research, with researchers choosing from a a relatively small range of sources whose popularity is further amplified by this very phenomenon.

For a critical look at the machine we're building and the ways in will change our lives, read this fascinating and thoroughly researched book. Carr doesn't suggest how we can retain the benefits while minimizing the risks, but this marks the beginning of a fascinating discussion.


  1. The quality of biological memory being 'alive' is an arguable advantage. There are researches suggesting that memory can be false, i.e. something which never existed is taken for real, or worse - implanted, via the means of the very same digital media, of course.

  2. Watch our own day to day, week to week use of tools and tech will show up some interesting stuff. The question is what can we do with and without if some of these services disappeared?


  3. Hi Art, I agree that it's arguable whether the state of being alive is an advantage in terms of memory.

    However, Carr goes into our current understanding of how memory works in some detail. He argues that the fact of accessing memory re-contextualises it, deepens our understanding and makes us, essentially, wiser.

    When we access our own memories, we are actively engaged in learning; when we access "offline" memory, we are simply recalling facts. This is probably a rather poor representation of Carr's argument. The book is well worth a read.

    Incidentally, I love online dictionaries (e.g. when reading NY Times or eBooks), but I don't remember the definitions as well as when I have to fish out a physical dictionary. I think something of the effort and perhaps physical context helps me remember them better.