The Shallows
Nicholas Carr

Detailed and thoroughly researched, but perhaps not forceful enough. An interesting exploration of how the internet is, for want of a more nuanced summary, bad for our brains.

"The computer, I began to sense, was more than just a simple tool that did what you told it to do. It was a machine that, in subtle but unmistakable ways, exerted an influence over you. The more I used it, the more it altered the way I worked." (Page 13)


Carr takes us on a tour through his computer use from the mid-80s through to 2007 before he writes this book when he is forced to wonder: has this technology completely changed his brain?

The adult brain, as we now know, is far more malleable and changeable—plastic—than we realised. There is the infamous "Hebb's Rule" after all: "Neurons that fire together, wire together."

This neuroplasticity can be seen through our ways of thinking, patterns of thought, and the mental actions we repeat, and can have as much of an effect on our brains as the use of physical tools and technology do.

However, this works both ways:

"Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. The paradox of neuroplasticity ... can end up locking us into "rigid behaviors." (Page 34)

How tools shape the mind

Cartography, the use of maps, is a way in which people came to think in fundamentally different ways: "the map gave to man a new and more comprehending mind, better able to understand the unseen forces that shape his surroundings and his existence." (Page 41)

This was the same as with clocks and our comprehension of time. (This is a point Neil Postman makes in Amusing Ourselves to Death.)

Carr presents an interesting way in which we can divide technology into four different categories:

  • Physical strength, dexterity, resilience (plough, needle, gun)
  • Sensitivity (microscope, binoculars, radar)
  • Control/shaping of nature (IVF, the pill, GMO, CRISPR)
  • Intellectual (pen, typewriter, PC, cell phone)

About the fourth and final category, intellectual tools, Carr states they "are our most intimate tools, the ones we use for self-expression, for shaping personal and public identity, and for cultivating relations with others." (Page 45)

Carr also distinguishes between two schools of thought:

  1. Technological determinism: the idea that technology is the primary driving human history, vs
  2. Instrumentalism: that tools and technology are just neutral artifacts

Carr believes (and I agree) that the former is on the money more than the latter.

"In large measure, civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use." (Page 48)

While language is not a technology, reading and writing is. The advent of the alphabet was perhaps one of the biggest technological advances in human history.

"Experiments have revealed that the brains of the literate differ from the brains of the illiterate in many ways-not only in how they understand language but in how they process visual signals, how they reason, and how they form memories." (Page 51)

Cuneiform emerged in c.3500 BCE Sumeria, while the Egyptians were developing more complex hieroglyphics. Cuneiform was complex to use but was the first alphabet to exist.

Then, in 750 BCE, the Greeks developed the first complete phonetic alphabet. This was the first to include both consonant and vowel sounds, allowing it be used to write all phonemes with just 24 characters. This was far more flexible and required much less brainpower to use.

It also marked the first major shift from oral to written culture.

We then see the emergence of a culture of "readers," rather than speakers, after the fall of the Roman Empire.

"The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author's words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply." (Page 65)

This allowed for private writing, too. This produced better ideas, and longer, more cogent arguments. Then, Gutenberg. Suddenly, it is possible to mechanise and scale a previously entirely manual craft:

"A virtuous cycle had been set in motion. The growing availability of books fired the public's desire for literacy, and the expansion of literacy further stimulated the demand for books. The printing industry boomed. By the end of the fifteenth century, nearly 250 towns in Europe had print shops, and some 12 million volumes had already come off their presses." (Page 70)

The book became the foundation of intellectual culture. It completely transforms us and the world around us.


Computers are a supermedium through which other media can be consumed. The computer has sequentially reproduced other media starting with type, followed by images, sound, video, mail, and games.

The most important difference, however, is how it is a bidirectional medium. Namely, it's a medium through which we can both consume and create.

Computers and the internet have not displaced television usage, they have increased it while also decreasing the amount of time we spend with print media:

"The Nielsen Company's long-running media-tracking survey reveals that the time Americans devote to TV viewing has been going up throughout the Web era. The hours we spend in front of the tube rose another two percent between 2008 and 2009, reaching 153 hours a month, the highest level since Nielsen began collecting data in the 1950s (and that doesn't include the time people spend watching TV shows on their computers)." (Page 87)
"What does seem to be decreasing as Net use grows is the time we spend reading print publications particularly newspapers and magazines, but also books." (Page 87)

The act of using the web, even simple "static" pages has a different sense of stimuli and sensory perception. The internet is also primarily about the splitting and shortening of content: articles are read on their own instead of within magazines or periodicals, TV shows are clipped up, music is streamed as individual songs, etc.

"The practice of deep reading that became popular in the wake of Gutenberg's invention, in which "the quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind," will continue to fade, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite. We will, in other words, revert to the historical norm. As a group of Northwestern University professors wrote in a 2005 article in the Annual Review of Sociology, the recent changes in our reading habits suggest that the "era of mass [book] reading" was a brief "anomaly" in our intellectual history: "We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class." The question that remains to be answered, they went on, is whether that reading class will have the "power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capital" or will be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of "an increasingly arcane hobby." (Page 108)

Multitasking jugglers

"It's possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it's possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that's not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards." (Page 116)

Carr lists a series of "mind-altering" devices:

  • Alphabets
  • Number systems
  • Books
  • The internet

Web use alters brain activity because it uses more of our brains, including our faculty for problem-solving, than reading does. Deep reading is more intellectually rewarding because it uses less brain function.

"The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we're distracted by the medium's rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli." (Page 118)

Non-linearity is bad for comprehension and recall. We also use F-shaped reading patterns on the internet and nobody reads in a "normal" way online anymore.

"Research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links." (Page 127)

"The mental functions that are losing the "survival of the busiest" brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought—the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on when we reflect on our experiences or contemplate an outward or inward phenomenon. The winners are those functions that help us speedily locate, categorize, and assess disparate bits of information in a variety of forms, that let us maintain our mental bearings while being bombarded by stimuli. These functions are, not coincidentally, very similar to the ones performed by computers, which are programmed for the high-speed transfer of data in and out of memory. Once again, we seem to be taking on the characteristics of a popular new intellectual technology." (Page 142)

The Church of Google

"[Google] faced the same problem that had doomed many dot-coms: it hadn't been able to figure out how to turn a profit from all that traffic. No one would pay to search the Web, and Page and Brin were averse to injecting advertisements into their search results, fearing it would corrupt Google's pristine mathematical objectivity. "We expect," they had written in a scholarly paper early in 1998, "that advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers."" (Page 155)

Google made the internet a more efficient medium. BUT... it's in Google's interests to have you searching more, clicking more, and moving faster. Google is therefore in the business of distraction, even though it doesn't necessarily seem like it.

"Google wants information to be free because, as the cost of information falls, we all spend more time looking at computer screens and the company's profits go up." (Page 160)

We need to be able to spend time in information, but we also need time to retreat and recover from it. This is getting harder and harder to do.

Memory and search

"The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can't even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we're away from our computers. Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering. Our growing dependence on the Web's information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we're forced to rely more and more on the Net's capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers." (Page 194)

The internet is, unsurprisingly, bad for our memory. It acts in a self-perpetuating loop, we outsource memory to the web, it worsens our memory, we outsource more to the web, and so on.

Connections (links) on the web belong to the web, are not our own, and never will be. We must make our own connections. The connections we make is how we think, the connections we make create the self. There is a notion of the cathedral-like intellect, a structure of knowledge, opinion, and history of culture. It has been hollowed out by information overload and instant access.

"Outsource memory, and culture withers." (Page 197)
"As we cede to software more of the toil of thinking, we are likely diminishing our own brain power in subtle but meaningful ways. When a ditchdigger trades his shovel for a backhoe, his arm muscles weaken even as his efficiency increases. A similar trade-off may well take place as we automate the work of the mind." (Page 217)
More of this, but in your inbox.

I write a newsletter about the internet. It's called Internet Connection. There's a few hundred of us that fall down the rabbit hole every other week. Want to come along for the ride? Drop your email below.

Let me read it first