The Shallows

When was the last time that you searched Google? Probably this morning. And when you started typing your search into the Google box it probably started helping you to find what you’re looking for by predicting the rest of your search, sometimes to hilarious ends.

There are web sites devoted to this behaviour and they serve up pictures of search results like that one time someone started typing “what” and Google offered the helpful suggestion “what are these strawberries doing on my nipples I need them for the fruit salad.” That might seem like an incredibly random result for Google to suggest but it is actually the title of a book on Amazon¹ which has received a number of comedic reviews. It must have been a briefly popular search in 2009.

The good news, or maybe the bad news, is that when you start typing “what” into Google this morning, you get a much less bizarre set of searches which start with “what is my ip” and progress immediately to “what is a gimp”. The latter may seem like a weird thing to search for after finding out your ip address until you click on the search and are served up a bunch of results about an episode of popular television called “American Horror Story” from yesterday which apparently featured this sexual fetish.

The remaining most common searches under “what is a gimp”  are all popular searches at the moment, “what is antifa”, “what does the fox say”, and “what does despacito mean”. In a few years, someone will stumble on this blog post and will probably wonder what “what does the fox say” means. I hope they Google it.

We have all become used to this behavior from Google and even maybe come to see it as a boon. Google is constantly massaging their algorithms to serve up the freshest and most relevant searches for us, they are there to help us be more efficient with our searching so that we can find what we are looking for immediately and with the least amount of effort on our part.

This is what we want. They are only giving us what we want. There’s only one small problem with this, according to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains², “the brighter the software the dimmer our brains.”

When I was a young man, I had an encyclopedic memory of phone numbers. I achieved this feat, not through memorization of the actual numbers themselves but through memorization of patterns. Each pattern I dialed on the phone, for example to call my friend Abdul, was unique. I only needed to dial that number once or twice and I could remember that number forever.

I now know only a few phone numbers: mine, my daughter’s mother’s number, and some work numbers. I don’t have to remember numbers anymore. If I want someone’s business phone number, I google it. If they are a friend and I want to call them from my cell phone, I simply ask the phone to “call Cleveland.” The numbers I dial at work, on an actual phone, I still memorize but oddly, the people I love I tend to dial with voice, send a text message to a name, and I don’t have even the faintest clue what their number is. I lost my ability to memorize numbers when I stopped having to dial them. The technology which has made my life easier, also took something away from me.

The same thing has happened to me with spelling. I was never a spelling bee champion but I could spell every word in my vocabulary. I honed this skill through writing and reading while having a dictionary nearby. If I even had the faintest hint that I misspelled a word, I would grab the dictionary and look it up.

When I was in college in the 90s I was an early adopter of word processing programs like Word Perfect. These had a spell check function but I still used a dictionary to check my spelling. I didn’t fully trust the program to get things right.

Nowadays the computer tells me how to spell. A red line appears under misspelled words, I right click on the red line, and choose the correction given to me. A scripted correction. And because of that scripted correction my brain is slowly losing the ability to remember how to spell. One could easily imagine a future in 10 years where my daughter won’t have to know how to spell at all or even know how to choose the right correction. The computer will automatically correct spelling and grammar for her. She probably won’t even have to type. And her brain will be physically much different from mine.

I have changed over my lifetime. There was a time when I could rattle off stats about Arsenal from memory. That’s all gone now, replaced by my ability to “look things up.” And I know that you have all experienced this strange phenomenon as well, where you are engaged in a conversation and someone says “what was that actor’s name” and you all look at each other, struggling to remember, and one of you may even say “I’m not googling this! I can remember!” before one of you breaks down and just Googles the answer. This brings both a sense of relief and also shame.

This is the central thesis of The Shallows and Carr lays out a convincing argument for why this happens: neuroplasticity. The human brain physically changes when stimulated. London cabbies are required to memorize thousands of streets and when scientists scanned their brains they found that the posterior hippocampus in cab drivers was much larger than in a control group and that the longer the cabbie was on the job, the larger their posterior, hippocampus.

When we use the internet our brains change, and they change rapidly too. Using a web site like my old site provided the reader with many distractions. Hyperlinks to articles embedded in my writing allowed the readers to click out quickly, move on to the next source, and as we often like to say, jokingly, “go down that rabbit hole.” If I include a video in my article, the reader will often pause, watch the video, and maybe even click out on a suggested video in the video in my blog.

Because the internet allows the reader and the writer to easily embed videos, links, and photos this is the new reality of reading. Users skim over long articles like this one – if they stick with the article at all – they look for key concepts and often respond only to those concepts. Or they simply click out.

This represents a sea change from the way that humans interacted with the word just a few dozen years ago. Book reading, long form reading, spending time every day in the practice of reading, actually creates lasting memories. Carr explains that current science shows humans can only keep two to four items in our working memory at any one time. In order to create understanding – which is the synthesis of complex concepts – the human brain must move items from working memory into long-term memory. This is only accomplished slowly and the pace of reading a book happens to be just about the right speed to form long-term memories.

But distractions from the word, from potentially deep contemplation, have become ubiquitous. My example isn’t unusual: for work I have to use email, slack, trello, the telephone, meeting reminders, and in-person communications. Even when I’m strictly doing nothing but work I get dozens of notifications per hour – new email, new slack message, the phone rings, someone comes to my desk, or I get a text message from an employee saying that they will be late. If I add in my personal life I would receive at least one notification per minute. There I have Facebook, Twitter, email, texts, Tinder, Snapchat, Instagram, FB messenger, skype, news alerts, and calendar events. And these days every web site asks to allow notifications.

These programs all promise the same thing, efficiency. Facebook offers me the sickly sweet nectar of the most efficient possible friendships. I don’t have to have deep friendships like I used to have with a few people when we shared experiences together and formed lasting memories. I can now have a lot of superficial friendships where they share out memes and we make each other laugh. I don’t even have to have long-term memory of what happened in my life last year: every day Facebook offers me a memory that I can share with others.

And Facebook offers a ruthlessly efficient service.  Learning from what you click on and based off of trillions of bits of data about you and people like you Facebook decides what news stories you see from your friends and from other big media outlets. We may have thousands of friends on Facebook but as the software learns how best to keep you on the site, how best to extract your attention (the commodity it wants), how best to tailor ads and news stories to generate maximum conversation and clicks, our worlds become smaller and more isolated from each other. Is it any wonder why the political world is so deeply divided?

It’s not just facebook, it’s the entire way that the internet works. It makes our lives and our brains more shallow.

I was watching X-Files: I Want to Believe with my daughter the other day. There was a scene where Scully, who is a staff physician at a major hospital, wanted to perform an experimental treatment on her patient. So, to prepare for this medical procedure she Googled “experimental stem-cell treatment”, printed off the web sites she found, and whipped up a cure for this young man.

We were once promised that the internet was going to make us smarter. That having the world’s information at our fingertips was going to free up cognitive cycles for more important tasks like deep thinking. But I look around at the world today and I don’t see more deep thinkers. I see people who are more dependent on the internet than ever before. I see a president who orders proclamations via Twitter, a format which limits to just 140 characters. I see social media sites which only serve up news stories people want to see. I see people narrowing their world, narrowing their group of friends and unfriending people who offend them. I see people thinking that they can speak another language because they pop something into Google Translate, as if language were merely words. I see that despite the vast river of information we have access to our world has become exceptionally shallow.


For the record, I’m not an exception. If anything, this entire article has been a critique of myself.




  1. Yep. Phone numbers, names of actors and streets are definitely 3 of the top items that I am remembering less and less of. I just chalked it up to getting older though. The other thing is I hardly use my phone to make a call – usually I just text. So the muscle memory of dialing the number doesn’t come into play. In the old days when I needed to get people together, I would have to call them individually. Now I send a group text on Whatsapp. Do I get a little bit dumber as a consequence of that? Hard to say. I use to be able to drive somewhere once and remember how to get there. Now if I use Google maps to get there, there is no way I will remember it. That’s definitely a consequence of focusing less on the roads, land marks and road signs and just mindlessly following directions.

    On the other hand, I process so much more information now. Some of it is useless but some requires me to analyze what my brain just processed. I thought the point of technology was to make our lives easier so we don’t have to worry about the mundane stuff and focus on what’s more important. Many people are just lazy by nature and only use technology to serve that need. Personally, I just think we need to be careful how we use it. I don’t have much of an issue with not having to remember phone numbers, streets etc. but we have to mindful to exercise the brain, just like any other muscle.

    The book sounds interesting.

  2. Amen brother. I can’t even write properly anymore. I do not have a smart phone & only recently started using a cell phone again (due to ageing parents & need to be in contact etc.). However, the manner in which smart phones inhibit vocal interaction between people is something I detest. When I do get out & mix with people I enjoying talking about shit and enjoy someone’s company & have zero need to be constantly hooked up to an electronic device feeding me digital info.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with the post! Technology which was heralded to change things for the better has really changed many aspects of humanity. I was recently preparing for an English exam and I was genuinely surprised by how poor my spelling had gotten. I constantly kept waiting for autocorrect to come to my rescue and the predictive text of messaging apps to save me time and write my next word for me. It’s definitely made us lazier and narrow minded in our approach that now we can easily find an opinion on any topic that matches ours. Convincing and reinforcing our views and prejudices on those topics.

    The book looks quite interesting! I will definitely check it out, keep these posts coming Tim. They really reaffirmed my views about the current generation and the effects of technology 😉

  4. There are definitely some things that I used to memorize that I don’t anymore – phone numbers are probably the #1 thing. But just because Google is available doesn’t mean I’m remembering less – I just use Google instead of asking people things. I still basically spell as well as I used to, which is very well, and in the rare instance where the browser tells me I made an error it’s probably because I typed it incorrectly. Or I already knew that I wasn’t not sure of the spelling of the word.

    My handwriting has deteriorated, but that’s because paper is now obsolete. I don’t think that matters much.

    I still read every word in articles such as this one if I care about the subject, and I still don’t listen to podcasts because I can’t get information efficiently that way. There are people that listen to podcasts on 1.5x or 2x speed thinking they’re saving time, when they’re just not comprehending anything and completely wasting their time instead.

    The Facebook echo chamber is definitely an issue but at the same time it’s understandable. It is reasonable for them to show you posts that you agree with, because you’re more likely to be interested in that.

    1. It’s not just about memorization. This is about the shallowing of everything. Carr shows that this shallowing occurs even in academic papers: one scientists thought that he would show an explosion of citations among academic papers after the internet but it was actually the exact opposite. Academics stopped using older sources and tended to cite recent studies and cite the same sources, there was a marked reduction in the breadth of citations after the internet. The internet makes it easy for us to be lazy. And we respond by being lazy.

      1. I’d posit that the multi-billion dollar grant-giving bureaucracy, particularly the Fed and large foundations, are more to blame for that. They all want to pretend they’re funding cutting-edge research, which, being uneducated themselves, they conflate with the most recent research. Since they won’t even bother looking at research that isn’t the latest thing, researchers tailor their papers/proposals to match in order to get the funds.

  5. Absolutely agree. I’m not on twitter and I only have a Facebook account because my girlfriend made one for me. Not that these things are not useful at times. I’ve found out about events and connected and reconnected with people because of them. I just don’t believe they add more to my life than they take away. All the instagram and photo sharing apps annoy me. They’re the progression from people sitting you down and showing you photos of their vacation on a projector. But worse. Because now it’s all of them smiling with the actual object of the photo reduced to a background.

    I also think it’s affected the ability to fall in love with something. Like Arsenal. For me learning about Arsenal was a labour of love. Had to hope they’ll show a match. Concentrate on what the commentators said so that I could catch a snippet about a player I would never have known otherwise. Find books, articles, photos. But all of it meant I got immersed into Arsenal. Nowadays I still try to resist the urge to just load myself up with information and think that makes me informed. On any topic. But that isn’t always practical.

    I still think it will settle down eventually. We’ll adjust and learn to use these tools. But it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.

  6. It’s also a great point on the political divisions. In my lifetime we’ve gone from all watching the same things at the same time (one tv channel), listening to the same music, having access to the same information (with a few exceptions) but somehow this meant we could disagree better. Now we pick what we want to watch, listen or know, and will be fed more and more of that. It increases the divisions.

    But I think the worst development in my lifetime has been not the rise of the internet but of 24 hour ‘breaking’ news channels. They broke the news alright.

  7. Very eloquent summation of an insidious problem woven into the technological revolution. We are training ourselves not to think too hard, look too deep, or feel too much, for the rewards of ease and efficiency. And as the older generations (like their memories) fade away, even the context of something other than a technological-centric lifestyle is disappearing too. Never having had kids, I guess I look on it all with some detachment; but how do the parents among you react, for example, to the news that your children will no longer be taught how to write with a pen and paper…?

    Of course, I LOVE being able to stream the Arse live on matchdays…

  8. I left out so much from this post because I ran out of time.

    1. Carr makes a compelling case that this isn’t a generational problem: this isn’t a “millennials” thing. This is everyone’s problem because the internet changes our brains physically.
    2. I started reading this book in earnest after I broke up with a woman I dated for almost a year. She was never without her phone. In turn this got me on my phone more often. I can absolutely say that her use of technology got worse as the relationship went on and her mental and physical state deteriorated in proportion to her technology addiction. And the more we were on our phones the less we connected in real life.
    3. There are a number of studies that show an inverse relationship between the use of social media and happiness: the more social media you consume the less happy you are.
    4. The stuff with Russia and Facebook and Twitter. This should scare the bejeebus out of everyone. I have said this before in the comments but I’ll say it again: there is a lot of evidence that humans are easy to manipulate and that we are being manipulated by this technology. The latest study I read showed that once you get a conspiracy theory stuck in your head, you can’t get it out. The scientists fed people a made up conspiracy and a bunch of facts to support that theory. And even after the scientists revealed that they had manipulated the subjects the subjects who believed the CT refused to believe that the conspiracy was false. Instead, they said that the scientists were just in on it and that the reveal was another false flag.
    5. Carr spends a LOT of time talking about the science of neuroplasticity and exactly how the internet is changing our brains. I didn’t do it justice AT ALL. I encourage you to read this book if you have kids. You will probably not want them looking at YouTube all day. This is what kids do, and we have no idea what effect this will have on their brains.
    6. Carr’s suggested solution is rather perfunctory: just unplug. Literally go to the park, walk around, look at things, read a book. He says this resets the brain.
    7. And finally… I wanted to include the line my Anthro professor once said to me “if we get any more time-saving devices we will run out of time.” There’s a children’s book called Momo by Michael Ende (who wrote the Neverending Story). It’s the story of a little girl who discovers that there are these time thieves who steal people’s time by offering them time-saving devices. I am thoroughly convinced that our time-saving are time-thieves. Here at work we have decided to “save time” spent on email by using Slack. Slack is basically just group-text. It doesn’t save time, it demands more and more of your attention and becomes yet another place where users have to logon to check their communications.
    8. How many times do you hear someone say “I wish I could but I don’t have time for that.” What they really mean is “I am busy doing all these other things like Facebook, Twitter, commenting on 7amkickoff, etc”

  9. I read Carr’s book 2 years ago and it had a profound effect on me. I would also recommend if you like books of this vein Jarod Lanier’s You are Not a Gadget and Cal Newport’s books (and his excellent blog).

    I am not a millennial, but I struggle with internet addiction as well. As an engineer I used to know design standards by memory, now I just click to the appropriate websites, search for what I need and done – and amazingly no matter how many times I do it little seeps in by osmosis. I try to batch my work emails to twice a day because I could be emailing all day if I allowed myself and get nothing done at work. And unfortunately 7amkickoff is a convenient distraction for me when I have the overwhelming urge to procrastinate on some task that I know is going to take me a solid couple of hours to complete (like right now).

    …. back to work.

  10. Great piece, Tim. I go out to restaurants and I see couples, presumably dating or married, both on their phones. I step out of my office, and I see lines of students walking, each one in the exact same posture: head bent down, peering into a screen. I see people driving and texting.

    It’s hard not to feel saddened (and angry, when it’s a driver). I lucked out a bit. I can’t afford a smartphone plan, so that’s one distraction out of the way. Similarly, for some odd reason, I’ve never joined Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or or or, not because I was worried about my brain, but rather because I heard about how people use those things, and it wasn’t my thing.

    But I’m not immune from this sea change in our world. I spend an awful lot of my time in front of a computer screen, and I use Word processing so much that, increasingly, I find it difficult to remember spellings when I’m not using the program.

    Jameson’s “Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” was published 25 years ago, but much of it continues to resonate in disturbing ways. I sometimes think, too, about Baudrilard’s “Simulacra,” which is even older (but less cogent), but also gets at the way our current interaction with social media and screens generally creates a sense of virtual reality, flattening of history, surface-level cognition, lack of emotional connection, etc.

  11. 7am kickoff is definitely exempt.
    But Facebook definitely isn’t and ‘shallow’ certainly seems an apt description of Trump’s twitter rants (mercifully still limited to only 140 characters).
    Not sure what the answer is, or if there is even one, but I’d certainly be in favour of a return to compasses in the heals of your shoes (UK ’70s cultural reference).

  12. I just sat two 3 hour exams in the last two days and spent the last afternoon zoning out on youtube and thinking about nothing as a reward. So I fully understand the psychological payoff that comes with shallow activities.

    I fully agree with the post and Carr’s thesis but I know that part of that is just my personality, in that I’m fortunate not to be so attracted to social media in the first place. Studying has been good, my job keeps me on my toes and having young kids also keeps my brain active – I make up a story for them every night and it’s surprisingly hard to keep it fresh.

    On the other hand procrastination is my biggest problem right now and has been for a couple of years. It’s like I physically can’t do a task unless I leave it so late that the stress makes me do it. Any advice gratefully received.

    1. What worked for me was that you can put off the work but you must not do anything else. Do nothing (no reading, no daydreaming, no 7amkickoff) for 5 minutes and work starts seeming interesting. It’s not easy to do nothing but try it.

  13. I don’t know Son-of-1-Nil’s cell phone number. My own son. Yes, it’s programmed on my cell and stored on our landline (we still have have one of those!) And I know I could get it through the carrier as it’s one of those share plans with me as the main account holder or look it up on my account online. But still. I literally don’t know his phone number so if I don’t have those resources available at a time when I absolutely need to call and speak with him(not text) I won’t be able to.

    OK now that over…416-…

    1. “We’ve habituated ourselves into a perpetual cognitive style of outrage, by internalising the dynamics of the medium,” – this could be a quote directly from The Shallows.

      It’s this exact thing, that we internalize the tools we use, which Carr so thoroughly exposes.

Comments are closed.

Related articles