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The Internet’s bounty

Deepak Rikhye |

Written by Nicholas Carr, an American journalist, and published in 2010, The Shallows was declared a New York Times bestseller and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. As the sub-title reveals, the book is about what the Internet is doing to our brains. Major US publications like Newsweek described it as “Grade A”, The Wall Street Journal rated it “Absorbing and disturbing”, while The Financial Times assured readers it was “Rewarding”. Others called it a deep book about shallow thinking. 

But how can the impact of the Internet, with its incredible contribution in terms of information, be perceived as “shallow thinking”? True, erudite personalities question if the Internet has become a slave or is it a master, but Carr gently refutes the ideologists of progress to explain what is at stake in our wired lives and  rationalises this serious matter.

In 1964, Marshall Mcluhan published Understanding Media: The Extension of Man and transformed himself from an unknown academic to an authority on media matters. The book prophesied the decline of the linear mind. Mcluhan declared that the telephone, radio, movies and television were removing us from text and taking over our thoughts and even our senses — and this is after centuries of private reading of printed pages. He described this as the technological stimulation of consciousness.

The Internet is the latest medium to enter into this debate. HAL was the name given by Carr to a computer and HAL says that the memory circuits that control its artificial brain are malfunctioning. “I can feel it,” says HAL.  This message, in a stark manner, is what Carr is articulating to humanity. He has an eerie feeling that someone out there is “tinkering” with his brain. He is perturbed by the thought that he used to read lengthy texts of prose and dwell on the interpretations of a narrative. Alas, not anymore! After reading a few pages, his mind begins to drift. Reading is becoming a struggle. He admits that for the past decade he has spent a lot of time online by searching and surfing the Internet. As a writer, he feels the web has been a boon to him. The many reference details he has received from Google have saved him hours in a library and gallons of gasoline. His banking, shopping, booking flight tickets or confirming hotel room reservations are mainly through the online process. 

Heather Pringle, a writer, says that the Internet is a gift to humanity because information is stored into one source as opposed to it being scattered all over the world. But as Mcluhan wrote, all this comes at a price. That is because any information provided by the media or elsewhere shapes our thoughts. There are instances of others who regulate their time on using the Internet and, therefore, log on a few times a day; this is a category of users who continue happily with books, too. Importantly, since the trend seems to be for short or brief passages of writing, it also explains why the traditional newspaper is still religiously delivered at one&’s doorstep every morning. 

On the other hand, the oldest American daily, the Christian Science Monitor, announced in 2009 that the Internet would become its main channel for releasing news. Carr gradually did away with editing an article on paper. He had to have access to the “delete” key, scroll bar, cut and paste functions. He declared, “I had to do all my editing onscreen.”   He felt his brain was hungry and it was only possible to feed it the way the net did. He feared he was being transformed into a human HAL.  “I miss my old brain,” he wrote. However, Carr may take solace from a study by neuroscientists in 2009 at the University of California, Los Angeles, who found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral  prefrontal cortex, which underlies selective attention. So Google is not making anyone stupid, but smarter.

Humans are products of nurture. As John Locke wrote, “The mind we are born with is a blank slate and what we know comes entirely from our experience. The cellular components of the brain do not form permanent structures and, on the contrary, are flexible. They change with experience, circumstance or need. This does not mean that we cannot once again redirect our neural signals and revert to a world of voluminous books and printed text. It&’s just that we have nurtured our minds to accept the Internet and the further we travel the Internet path the more difficult it will be to turn back.”

It was about 2500 BC when the Egyptians began making scrolls from papyrus plants that grew all along the Nile&’s delta. Scrolls progressed to clay, then wax tablets and, finally, paper. From paper texts we now perceive a quick and decisive diversion into a new channel. The electronic revolution is approaching its culmination, in the form of computers becoming a constant companion of humankind. A new intellectual ethic has arrived and our brains, once again, have been rerouted. 

There are after effects of any technological innovation. For example, the television show removed the radio play, but not the radio or plays. The Internet has brought us into the realm of instant information, but books, newspapers and printed matter have not all disappeared. In addition, e-books and online publications have been introduced into the publishing world. We must be aware of differences and remember to use our own minds when required, because the Internet cannot make judgments but only follow rules. As TS Eliot explained, when typing a play, that the typewriter provides neatness to the text, but not subtlety, which can only come from the human brain.