Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain

Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.
Anthony Devine

I am a strong supporter of the idea that technology can amplify learning. From that perspective, when I started reading this book I did so very much against the grain. I had heard about this Nicolas Carr, who apparently opposed technology and the flow of inevitable progress that technology promises. However, I tried to be mindful of my bias so that I would be able to afford Carr's ideas a fair chance. As Daniel Kahneman would say, I recognized that the information in this book might not fit into my perception of reality, so I activated my "System 2" in order to more objectively weigh the ideas Carr's book presented.

While I didn't agree with everything Carr wrote, I have to admit that Carr makes some very useful observations about how technology is evolving compared to how the human brain functions.

Carr's most memorable observations:

  • Our interaction with information online is... wait for it... shallow. We don't get deep into ideas online.
  • The web interface is distracting--it taxes our cognitive load. For example, all those notifications and ads as well as the constant influx of information, all those each add a little more to our cognitive load. Carr explains a little bit about cognitive load theory, specifically, that our ability to comprehend and evaluate information effectively becomes diminished the more our attention is divided (and the online world divides our attention significantly).
  • Technology--the online interface--rewards very shallow interactions: the share, the like, the retweet. Those shallow interactions with information are often substituted for actual understanding and evaluation. But the human brain LOVES this kind of interaction. The brain enjoys seeking patterns. And the pattern of posting or re-posting something that other people like and share and getting notifications on that behavior... our brain just loves that. Moreover, this is part of what leads us to gravitate toward like-minded people and information sources online. This is part of how we develop our social media filter bubbles. "Look how many people within my social media circle liked and shared my post! I must be right, everyone agrees! Anyone who disagrees with this idea must be a fringe, outsider who doesn't see common sense."
  • Humans anthropomorphize technology. We have a dangerous tendency to give human-like qualities to non-humans. Without sounding too much like a paranoid conspiracy theorist: the goals of technology are not necessarily the goals of humanity. For now, technology is our tool. But if we continue to develop the ability of technology to think for itself, and combine that with our tendency to think of technology as living and thinking, then we face a future where we are the tools of technology--rather than the other way around.
  • Finally, the most alarming observation by Carr: The human brain adapts to the tools it has available. The theory of neuroplasticity says that the brain changes to better function within its environment. This is a primary reason why we developed as the dominant life form on our planet. However, Carr makes the claim that technology is causing our brains to adapt in ways that are rewarded by technology: technology encourages us to adapt to shallow interactions with information.
In my opinion, kind of scary stuff. Carr seems to recognize, though, that technology is here to stay, and it certainly isn't going to be slowing down any time soon. His advice, similar to Daniel Kahneman's, is to be mindful of when you are interacting with information shallowly, and to be willing to dive more deeply into a topic when it is something that is truly important. Avoid the temptation of allowing technology to "think" for you. Technology is a lot of things, but it is not a replacement for human wisdom.

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