Google: Storing Our Minds in the Cloud?

Author Nicholas Carr is a Dartmouth ’81.By Svati Narula

The Shallows is based off a cover story Mr. Carr wrote for The Atlantic magazine a while ago, titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This question resonated with many, I suspect, because so many of us have probably asked it ourselves at some point or another, whether silently or aloud. 

The question of whether Google makes us stupid or not is merely a springboard for a larger debate about life in the digital age.

Who has only one window open in his internet browser at any one time these days? Who can resist checking Facebook or Blitz while studying? Many nights I have been slogging through reading for a class – stopping between paragraphs to check Blitz. If there aren’t any interesting Blitzes, I’ll check Facebook; then I’ll migrate to Twitter or the New York Times online or a blog. Constant stimulation is what we crave. 

If this reminds you of your own life, then you should think about the argument Carr makes in The Shallows. He claims that the internet is screwing up our brains – rather than simply provoking or reinforcing behavioral changes, the World Wide Web is physically rewiring the intricate networks of our brain cells. 

It’s a scary proposition, and one I was eager to read about. If my Blackberry or my Facebook account is to blame for my weakened concentration skills, then I better read this, I thought. However—and perhaps we can blame this on my internet-rewired brain—I just could not sustain an interest in this book. 

The first chapter, in which Carr describes the way he can no longer read long articles without getting distracted, the way he has become used to information overload from the web, is great. In this chapter, he articulates what so many of us have experienced but perhaps failed to acknowledge. He writes that when he first began worrying about his “inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes,” he figured the problem was due to his aging – “middle-age mind rot.” But, he continues, “my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it – and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check email, click links, do some Googling.” 

The story Carr tells in Chapter 1 is my story, and it’s probably your story too (minus the middle-age mind rot thing). But when it comes to delving into the problem, he goes almost too deep for us readers to follow along. In order to explain the way the classic “linear thought process” of the past is being reshaped and turning us all into “chronic scatterbrains,” Carr relies heavily on neuroscience terms that require lengthy explanations. Also, he goes off on tangents that neither add anything essential nor are particularly interesting; nearly six pages are spent detailing the history of Gutenberg and his printing press, for example. The argument in The Shallows is so exhaustively researched and thoroughly explained that it reads more like an academic study than a popular non-fiction book. 

One bright spot is when Carr mentions his days as a Dartmouth undergrad, in which he played computer games at the Kiewit computing center between partying on frat row and doing research in the stacks. Sadly, as a member of the Class of 1981, Carr was at the College before the advent of Blitz. 

Once the Dartmouth references were gone, though, so was my attention. I turned to a much better read that tackles the same topic called Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers.  I was able to read through the entire thing in just a few hours, without even leaving the bookstore. Powers frames our current situation in the context of many other points in history when technology changed – and frightened – people. His discussion of the Gutenberg printing press has more purpose and makes more sense than Carr’s. Hamlet’s Blackberry is a more lighthearted and fun read than The Shallows, but it is equally thought-provoking. 

I do recommend at least skimming, or, if your brain is capable, reading either of these books or the aforementioned Atlantic article. We are members of what Carr calls “Generation Net,” and there is no doubt that the way we think and operate has been heavily influenced by the technology we grew up with.