Jun 17 2010 9:37am

When did the Internet become poison?

So, this fellow named Nicholas Carr wrote a book called The Shallows. I have not read it (but I want to, I want to suggest anyone interested in the points below do so as well). I have read a review of it called “So Many Links, So Little Time” by John Horgan over at the Wall Street Journal, though (and I’d link it ‘cept it is the WSJ, and they are all “register or die” and I’m not even registered, I just had the article “guest linked” to me.) Anywho, so I read this review, and it is pretty easy to see what it is about: the Internet is turning our brains into mush!

It is an age old argument going as far back as Ralph Waldo Emerson, which both the book and review point out. When trains were getting big, Emerson said “Things are in the saddle / and ride mankind.” So apparently the monkey on our back now is the digital age. And I can see where the author (and the whatever-mongers) are coming from. As I write this, I have emailed, Facebooked, and shopped around for a Smartphone. I have yet to twitter or text, but that is probably forthcoming.

And the reviewer talks about how even his children feel the weight of the information age on them. His son confesses that he wants to cut down on his online time, but that he fears isolating himself from his friends. And you know what? I can sympathize with that. One reason I’m actually thinking of finally breaking down and getting a Smartphone is because I have to spend over an hour daily when I get home from work catching up on the Twitter, Facebook, and personal email activity of the day. And I also get to see conversations that started and ended that I would have liked to have been a part of but missed out on.

But, there are counter-points to this whole “too much information is giving us collective ADHD and an inability to have deep, poignant thoughts.” My favored author right now, Brandon Sanderson, blogs, tweets, Facebooks, emails, has a Smartphone, and still writes an epic fantasy novel a year. I personally am an Internet junkie and I still have written multiple manuscripts without taking a de-wired hiatus, and my blogs here on are hardly chopped liver intellectually, if I do say so myself. Critical summary and analysis is not a simpleton’s game.

So why is it that some people feel spread thin by the information age and some don’t? Well, age is one component, I think. My generation is the first to really be born into the Internet. I was still in middle school when it was common to bike down to the library and surf online for a bit to look for something, and I had broadband in the house before I left high school. I was using the Internet on a regular basis in my education to look things up, and I was even allowed to use websites as sources in my papers (provided they were decently reputable). At the same time, I still know how to move around a library and look things up (I haven’t done it in a while, but I remember doing it and still can), and I know how to enjoy long-form narrative (or non-fiction, if it is a subject I like.)

And there, I think, is the core of what it takes to not be mush-brained. So many people today don’t know how to just sit down and read a book. Even a shorter novel of three hundred pages or so requires far more of an attention span than anything on the Internet (well, I guess eBooks are a-comin’, but that is more book than “Internet-spawn”). And this, I also think, is why long-form narrative, ie, the book, will always be around just as it has since the days before they even could call them books and instead called them epic poems.

Oh, and as an aside, I think the Internet in general is a wonderful thing. Yeah, sometimes my brain is mush-like, but I am managing to retain (at least to the greater extent) my ability to think deeply and collate information as it comes at me, even with the speed of the digital age. And that means I am processing information all the better and having more to process. I think anyone in my generation has this ability—though perhaps they need to read a book more often to exercise that ability—and I shudder to think of what my children will be like.

Anyway, you can have your information overload and news programs that look more like websites all you want, the strong mind craves immersion that only a long-form work can give. It also craves the transparency. Long-form gives people a story in which they can ignore the medium it is being told in. There are no fancy graphics, no loud noises, and no actors chewing the scenery. Aside from an occasional typo or general error on the author’s part, books are clear as a window.

And through that wonderful streak-free surface, the mind can exercise deep, cognitive thought, even if reading sessions are occasionally interrupted. I mean, even as connected as I am, and even with my laptop lid still open next to me while I read, the entire world, electronic and otherwise, becomes a little dimmer as I turn inward and curl up with a good book.

Richard Fife is a blogger, writer, and doing what he can to not be the next Lawnmower Man. You can read more of his ramblings and some of his short stories at

1. Negrore
Alas, my brain went mush-like in these last ten years. That's the reason why I just dropped down internet, selecting a few blogs (as this one) to continue the effort of growing up as a writer (already published in Italy, four times).

But I agree with you, even if this premise doesn't seem to point it out.
The *real* problem is that internet ate my reading-time. And I'm aware of the problem. Now I want it back. But it costs a lot, to me, focusing on reading right now. Dropping down internet is the only solution I saw to do it well and train another time my mush-like brain to be a writer-like brain.
It's a problem, but only for those who don't see the effects because they've never been in a different way. Children, today, must be educated to use internet and read at the same time, otherwise ADHD will spread its wings out of control.

The funny thing is that internet caught me because of books and readers, only after being published. After two, three years of struggling around the problem, I made my decision: few things on internet, much more time reading. But it wasn't so simple to see how big was the problem (for me). Only my past life-style - I was a strong reader - taught me that I was behaving like a mushroom.
I wouldn't be so sure that new generations won't have this problem. ADHD growing trend shows it: it's not a deadly problem, but we must be aware of it.

A smile,

P.S.: hope my English is good enough.
2. Patrick Rennie
Also, learning to read will make you quit using your memory!

We're in the middle of the maturation of one new mass medium (video games) and the adolescence of a second one (internet). That means all the other mass mediums get to play musical chairs with the finite amount of audience until things settle down. Then in a few decades, they get to do it all over again as the next new mass medium pops up, and the limited audience starts enjoying their brain visions or whatever it ends up being.

Book lovers can take comfort in the fact they aren't losing too many of their fellow readers during the current shuffle or the next one, because nobody reads books already. Seriously, we lost out to movies, radio, and television in the first half of 20th century. Books ended up at the bottom of the mass medium pile, with only comic books beneath it. Heck, you should be happy about the growth of the internet. With so much of its content being reading (hi there!) and writing (that would be your response telling me I'm wrong in response to my response telling you you're wrong), you should be happy about the internet. Functional literacy is going up. That doesn't automatically mean more book readers, but it certainly preps the ground better than television does.

So old people who are apparently younger than me (300 baud modem, people), get off my lawn!
Brook Freeman
3. longstrider
@1 Negrore
What are you doing all that time on the internet if not reading?

Online I read the news, sports reports, books, fanfic, blogs, comics, professional journal articles & databases, email and many others. On occasion I watch a streamed movie through Netflix or some Youtube. I play lots of games. But even with the last two I'm reading all the time, instructions, quests, item descriptions, subtitles, etc. How can you possibly be spending huge amounts of time online and not reading?
Jason Ramboz
4. jramboz
This is a very, very old argument indeed. (The following example comes from memory, and is slightly exagerated for effect, so please forgive me if I get the details wrong.)

Socrates, in fact, argued that this new-fangled thing called "writing" would ruin people's minds, since no one would ever remember anything. They'd just go look it up on paper instead of having it in their heads! We'd all become mindless research-zombies, incapable of thinking anything other than what's written down. O, as they say these days, noes!

Ironically, the only reason we know anything at all about Socrates was that one of his students bothered to write down the stuff he said.

I'd also be very surprised if people weren't making the exact same "mush-brain" arguments when the printing press made masses of new information available to the average person. And our kids, I'm sure, will say the same thing about the 21st Century's Next Big Thing.
Ken Walton
5. carandol
"So many people today don’t know how to just sit down and read a book. Even a shorter novel of three hundred pages or so requires far more of an attention span than anything on the Internet"

I'm forty-eight, and when I got into reading SF and fantasy as a young teen, a three-hundred page novel was long! Most were around 150 pages, maybe 175, and a book over 200 pages was something of a blockbuster. I don't know what this says about shortening attention spans! :-)
6. euphrosyne
"I have not read it"

As a voracious reader, one of the things my 'old age' (thirtysomething) has taught me is that essays, arguments, and the like that start this way are never worth the time they take.

Bloviations of the "everyone's talking about this lengthy, well-considered work by a respected figure, and I haven't read it, but let me tell you what *I* think about it anyway..." variety are so common as to seem like air on the internet. Everyone's talking, but no one knows what they're talking about.

Let me ask you this: why did you feel it important to post this article? Why would you pen a moderately lengthy (by blog standards) post discussing a work you've never read? (Hey--isn't that what the book is about?) Which leads to the next question--why haven't you read the book? Is it because you don't have the time or attention span required? (Hey--isn't that what the book is about?) And if it's not worth actually reading, then why is it worth discussing? Is it because of the fragmentary, superficial nature of internet discourse which expects you to quickly form opinions to everything in your RSS feed? (Hey--isn't that what the book is about?)

Worst of all, do you really not see the facepalm-level irony of more or less dismissing the book's central concerns after admitting that you haven't read it and are too young to actually know what the author is comparing your experience against? Knowing how to "move around a library and look things up" does not count as the type of mental calisthentics that educated minds have employed for the past couple thousand years of pre-internet human history.

Maybe you should read the book--not with an eye toward dismissing it at the dodderings of an oldster, but with the goal of actually understanding the nuances of the author's position first (it's not nearly so simple as 'books versus the internet'). Then think it about it for a while. Then come back and tell us what you think. I can guarantee it will be far more substantial than what you've written above.
7. Negrore
@LongStrider: LOL!
You're right: I'm reading all the time (and writing). But the point is another one, I think: a book is another kind of reading and I agree that it causes deep, poignant thoughts.
The way in which I intend this "deep, poignant thoughts" is not that discussing with other people (here, for example) is a cursory way of thinking, but that the continuous jumping from a place to another doesn't allow to really *focus* on something and try to grow that thought in something deeper and more poignant.
Yes, not everything needs to be *so* deep and poignant. But I can say - and you should believe me, because I'm not saying anything good about myself! :) - that "zapping" from a site to another, from a discussion to another, made me less able to concentrate on a single thing as I was once.
At the same time, yes, I guess in this way I'm gaining other abilities, but concentration is not one you can leave behind so carelessly. Can you?

I'm saying that, yes, I understand what the author of the book is talking about, because I discovered that *I* lost something along the way. Or, maybe, I'm wrong and I'm just older! :) (I'm 38 years old, now.)
Richard Fife
8. R.Fife
@6 Amazingly enough, I do want to read this book, despite my initial inclination to not agree with it. What has stopped me as not been a matter of "too long, didn't read" or any a feeling of not enough time. It has been a matter of money, which I am perpetually short on and needing to save for other things (such as Dragon*Con and a planned trip down to FL for the last Space Shuttle Launch in the future, food and beer in the present).

As to why I felt I should respond as I did is because this review (which my father linked to me), caused a brain spasm of thought that I wanted to put down and have a discussion over. And, I think, we are seeing a decent bit of "both sides" in the comment thread so far, so discussion created and thought stimulated. That is all I could ever ask for, and I didn't even have to buy a book.

And for the record, I am 27. I actually worked in a library for a time, and I wept when we got rid of our card catalog. I did a majority of my high school papers using hard text for my research (it was not until senior year that I started getting to use websites).

@5 Carandol Good point. It does seem that 300-pages (in my estimation) is a "shorter" novel now, but that did used to be rather long. I wonder if this "ballooning" of stories is part of why books aren't read as much anymore (aside from the above mentioned loss to TV, radio, and movies.)
9. euphrosyne

"What has stopped me...has been a matter of money..."
"I actually worked in a library..."
"...have to buy a book..."

I think there might be a solution to your's crazy but it just might work... :)
10. hapax
"I'd also be very surprised if people weren't making the exact same "mush-brain" arguments when the printing press made masses of new information available to the average person."

Very much so. Trithemius's DE LAUDE SCRIPTORUM (In Praise of Scribes) is a classic of the genre, and quite readable still.

I even agree with some of his arguments. Nonetheless, alas, I have succumbed to the garish lure of cheaply available printed texts. :-(
Yvonne Eliot
11. Yvonne
I read an interesting article a year or two ago about a scientific study that showed evidence that the brains of today's teens are developing on a neurological level to multi-task (surfing the net, txting, etc.) The structure of their brains are measurably different. I find that fascinating and am curious where it will lead....
Wesley Osam
12. Wesley
Some points that may have been missed by the people who've commented on the book without bothering to read it first:

1. Nicholas Carr is not a luddite and does not believe the internet is evil. His argument is merely that we as a culture are spending too much time multitasking and attention-switching and not spending enough time on activities (such as long-format offline reading) which encourage a strong attention span and deep, solid thought. As Carr puts it, "we're losing our ability to strike a balance between these two very different states of mind."

2. Humans are not good at multitasking. As Yvonne says, some teens may be getting better at multitasking, but being a better multitasker is kind of like being better at holding your breath underwater: you'll never be very good. You don't have the gills.

3. There's a lot of evidence that reading online is different from normal, non-net-connected reading. When we read online, without being aware of it, we're usually skimming. We switch back and forth between articles, tabs, other programs--we don't give ourselves the chance to develop a train of thought. Studies have found that even just the presence of hyperlinks slightly impedes understanding--while you read, you're subconsciously deciding whether or not to click, hooking your attention away from the text.

(Note that this is about reading while hooked up to the internet vs. offline, not about reading from a screen vs. paper.)

I would encourage anyone reading this to read the book before dismissing it.
13. Chris Johnstone
Hm. I've just written this, read it, realized it could sound a bit critical and then wondered whether I should post it. I am posting it, but I don't mean it to be an attack in any way. It's just some thoughts.

I suspect that the thing that leads people to feel mush-brained and information-overloaded is not short-form articles and fiction per se, or the media itself, but the way it is used and the demands on attention that it can impose.

It seems likely that there is a pronounced difference between putting aside a couple hours to facebook and twitter, and on the other hand, having IM messages popping up all day or compulsively checking facebook.

Distraction, we suspect, does do some odd things to the brain. If nothing else, we know that it takes ~15 min to return to a state of concentration after a distraction. We also know that in moments of day-dreaming or blanking out, the brain is actually getting quite crazed with activity--doing something like decompiling probably, possibly akin to what happens during sleep--making, reinforcing or breaking connections.

One thing I've noticed (and of course this is anecdotal, so it doesn't really mean anything) is that in the past when I was exhausted from critical thinking, reading or writing, I used to be more likely to take a walk, go get a cup or tea or stare at the ceiling. Now I tend to flick online and do some casual reading. I'm unconvinced that this represents the same sort of decompiling--I don't know if it's better or worse, but I suspect it is different and generates different neuroplasticy sorts of effects in the brain. It could put more demands on the sleeping brain. It could do something else entirely. I'm not a neurologist. I can't really say.

I guess, I should raise a further point that I'm not quite sure which way around you were arguing cause and effect. I gather you are arguing that reading long-form books (I don't think this should be restricted entirely to fiction) imparts skills of concentration? The argument could just as easily be made that skills of concentration are needed to read long form books.

The truth is probably somewhere in between--that the skill and the activity constitute a feedback loop in which one reinforces the other. Most acquired skills seem to work this way. However, it seems perfectly plausible that some people will not benefit from reading a long form book simply because they currently lack the concentration skills needed to read a long-form book. There needs to be a gateway into the activity for their to be a benefit.

Bridging books for children (the sort of semi-novels that older children and some younger teens read) probably serve this function in adolescent brains--though for adults, I don't think much of this sort of thing exists. Novellas or graphic novels or pencil and paper RPGs are probably the closest we have. Some of the more story-based computer games might fall in this category, except that they tend to rely too much on catching and keeping people's attention by playing around with the frequency of environmental change*. Of the three, graphic novels are probably the most widely consumed. I wonder if that may imply interesting things about the graphic novel or the hybrid illustrated books for adults in the future?

There's also an assumption inherent in your argument that the concentration skills gained through reading a story (which is entertaining and which will usually, if good, hold a person's attention) will translate in a beneficial way to other aspects of a person's life. That may be true. It may not be. It's a big assumption.

Also, also, I'm getting a bit scientific-critical here, but I suppose I need to point out that illustrating your argument with two anecdotes (yourself and Brian) is not evidence. It's akin to stating that because my uncle Jack lost his left leg in the war and he gets along just fine, therefore left legs are superfluous and no-one should be bothered by a similar loss. It's a generalization, and rather a broad one.

I like to think of myself as a basically nice person who doesn't criticize strangers online, but you did illustrate your argument by stating that the intellectual rigor of your writing was itself evidence of a differentiated power of concentration. Um, well... the thing is... I'm sorry, but your argument is pretty shabby, and not good evidence in and of itself of anything. There's no inductive reasoning involved at all (as far as I can see) and the deductive reasoning is flimsy. It's not so much an argument as a rhetorical statement.

Understand that I'm not supporting Richard Carr in this either. As far as I can tell, he's guilty of the same sort of flimsy reasoning--my kids find this newfangled internet thing a problem, therefore everyone of their age must be experiencing the same thing.

Anyway, I don't mean to seem too critical if I've come off that way, and I apologize if I do. I'm not interesting in getting drawn into an argument so I possibly won't check back in here for a bit. I'll give other people time to weigh in and discuss it. In the end, these are just some thoughts.

As an aside, a couple of interesting books in this field are Damon Young's 'Distraction' and Norman Doidge's 'The Brain that Changes Itself'.

The latter has come under some criticism, but is still worth reading.


* Turns out the human brain is wired to pay extra attention to an environment if it is changing at a rate over a given frequency. This is probably because rapidly changing environments are potentially dangerous. Computer games and gambling machines both take advantage of this, though for a long time the designers didn't really know why or exactly how it worked.
Richard Fife
14. R.Fife
@All You are all making good points, which, as I said above, was really some of my main reasons to posting this. I wanted a caucus of information from other sources (including some people who have read the book, it seems, yay!) But, I am remiss in that I did not include the following line, and I have since edited the blog to include it:

I have not read it (but I want to, I want to suggest anyone interested in the points below do so as well).
Yes, I understand and fully appreciate the irony of me wanting to start a discussion about this topic based on the "limited information" that I had. But, honestly, I feel a more expanded person for all of my commenters' input. Thank you, all, and thank you to those who might comment after.

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