By Ruth Marcus
Washington Post, Wednesday, June 9, 2010; A21
I've come down with a bad case of the shallows.
That's technology writer Nicholas Carr's term -- and the title of his
new book -- for the invisible, invidious impact of computers on the
modern brain. Carr compares himself to HAL, the malfunctioning
computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey," lamenting as its circuitry is
unplugged, "Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it."
As Carr writes, "I can feel it too. Over the last few years I've had
an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering
with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the
memory. My mind isn't going -- so far as I can tell -- but it's
changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think." Trying to read a
book, he says, "my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.
. . . I feel like I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the
Me, too. I thought it was middle age, and maybe it is, or perhaps
belatedly self-diagnosed adult attention-deficit disorder. But Carr's
assessment -- "what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my
capacity for concentration and contemplation" -- jibed uncomfortably
with my own experience.
Once upon a time, which is to say before the advent of the Internet,
my work as a journalist involved reading documents, making phone
calls, attending events. Turning to the keyboard, or the screen, was
the end of the assembly line.
Now, it seems, it is the totality: I spend hours skittering across the
virtual surface of the Web, flitting from place to place, never
resting for very long. I read a few sentences -- or write a few -- and
my hand twitches, like an alcoholic reaching for the bottle, toward
I must know -- now -- what has arrived in my inbox, even though almost
all of it is junk. I live an alt-tab existence, constantly shuttling
among the open windows on my browser. I have switched, in Carr's
formulation, from "reading to power-browsing." I am a lab rat
"constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or
I love technology. It lets me work better and faster. It untethers me
from a physical office and allows me to, well, alt-tab efficiently
between work and family. E-mail and social networking, with the
combination of ease of access yet remoteness of interaction, help make
and renew personal connections.
But technology also takes its toll -- including physically. "The
technology is rewiring our brains," Nora Volkow, director of the
National Institute of Drug Abuse, told the New York Times. The brain
is malleable, and, like any regular exercise, the instant
gratification world of the Web helps build certain neural connections
while others molder.
The implications of this are most worrisome for children. Like Carr, I
had an "analog youth" before a "digital adulthood." A modern child's
existence is all digital, all the time. They have constant access to
stimulation -- on their laptops, on their iPods, on their cellphones.
It is no surprise that their capacity to submerge themselves for hours
in the world of a book has been diminished. Their brains are wired to
expect more stimulation.
My current household technological battle involves making the kids
turn off Facebook and cellphones when studying. They believe this to
be not only unnecessary but rude: In an age when no one is ever really
out of contact, how could they possibly be inaccessible to their
And then there is the disturbing question of how the era of virtual
communications affects friendships and personality. Kids prefer text
over talk; it is, to them, more efficient. But the inability to
discern tone and inflection enhances the possibilities of
misunderstanding, and the distancing effect of disembodied language
lowers the barrier for hurtful speech.
In a new study, researchers at the University of Michigan found that
college students today are about 40 percent lower in empathy, measured
by standard personality tests, than their counterparts 20 and 30 years
ago. The biggest drop occurred after 2000, coinciding with the rise of
online communications and social networking, and the author, Sara
Konrath, sees a possible correlation. "Empathy is best activated when
you can see another person's signal for help," she told USA Today.
The subtitle of Carr's book is "What the Internet Is Doing to Our
Brains." Perhaps he should worry about our hearts as well.