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.



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