In 2008, science and technology writer Nicholas Carr asked in The Atlantic if Google is “making us stupid.” His latest book is an effort to answer that question and, more broadly, to explore how the tools of the Internet age are altering the way people find and use information.
Carr spends much of the book exploring how technology has shaped human habits of information consumption. Written language, for instance, made the poet-historian’s memory less crucial. With Gutenberg’s printing press, reading became widespread and the human brain, ever plastic, adapted to new demands. Now, the shift to online information is causing further neural changes but, Carr argues, mostly to ill effect.
Carr maintains that the Internet encourages distraction and superficiality. The sheer volume of information overwhelms anyone’s ability to absorb it. So instead of becoming absorbed, users browse from link to link to Twitter feed, gaining a broad but shallow appreciation of the available information. Carr cites psychology and neuroscience experiments to illustrate how vulnerable the human brain is to distraction and how such inattention can reduce comprehension and memory.
While Carr’s social history of an information revolution is solid, his concerns about how the Internet may alter neural mechanics are based on data that are still sparse. His take on the problems of the plugged-in brain is sure to spur debate, though — both online and off.W.W. Norton & Co., 2010, 276 p., $26.95.