The Internet and Your Ability to Read

Okay all you people who think the Internet is turning you into attention-deficit twitchers (in which case, why the hell are you reading this?! save yourself!). Nicholas Carr, who wrote an essay in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (my response here; short answer: “no”) has lengthened that essay into a book called The Shallows.

Laura Miller has commented on the book at Salon. Here’s the money quote for everyone who signs on to these theories:

neuroscientists have performed and reviewed important studies on the effects of multitasking, hyperlinks, multimedia and other information-age innovations on human brain function, all of which add empirical heft to Carr’s arguments.

The results are not cheering, and the two chapters in which Carr details them are, to my mind, the book’s payload. This evidence — that even the microseconds of decision-making attention demanded by hyperlinks saps cognitive power from the reading process, that multiple sensory inputs severely degrade memory retention, that overloading the limited capacity of our short-term memory hampers our ability to lay down long-term memories — is enough to make you want to run right out and buy Internet-blocking software. . . .

Concentrated, linear thought doesn’t come naturally to us, and the Web, with its countless spinning, dancing, blinking, multicolored and goodie-filled margins, tempts us away from it. (E-mail, that constant influx of the social acknowledgment craved by our monkey brains, may pose an even more potent diversion.) “It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net,” Carr writes, “but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages or rewards.” Instead, it tends to transform us into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”

Granted, I haven’t read the book, and reading quotes from Carr and Miller’s summary doesn’t nearly count as reading Carr’s book, but I don’t find this persuasive.

I’ll readily admit that flashing lights and hyperlinks and skimming probably do have some effect on how your mind works. I’ve never really contested that–but the Internet is far from the first thing to assault your long-term attention span. That process has been going on for, at least 100 years in terms of electronic media and modern advertising, and probably longer in other ways. There have been studies that have showed simply living in cities can degrade your ability to hold attention in a similar way as what Carr notes above, and yet I note a lack of concern over artists, readers, etc that they live in an environment where so much as a walk down the street can turn into a cascading series of fast-paced decisions.

Frankly, people like Carr put me in mind of the great “Your Brain on Drugs” scare ad of the ’80s, lovingly represented by and homaged to with that egg to the left there. Even granting Carr some points, it still comes down to how you use the Net. I have no qualms with Carr’s contention that Facebook and email can turn us into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” Obviously–that’s more or less the appeal of a site like Facebook. But again, if you exercise a little self-control, Facebook can be a huge boon to your ability to network and keep in touch with friends. It’s a tool. Use it wisely. Ditto for the rest of the Internet.

Over the past month and a half, myself and many readers of this blog have been using it as a tool to embark on the reading of a dense, 1000+ page novel. I’m not unique in using the Internet like this. Clearly all of us haven’t been unduly affected by the fact that we use the Internet for hours a day.

I have no doubt that people can tweak out on the Internet and fry certain important parts of their brain, just like people can consume immense amounts of Coca Cola and degrade their body’s ability to process sugar. But in both cases this outcome is far from inevitable.

There’s plenty of in-depth, transitive content of the kind Sven Birkerts considers essential to deep reading out there, and anyone who wants to can read it. Over the past five years I’d read far more longform essays on the Internet than off. I’ve begun reading electronic books front to back. I’ve found books I never would have known of, I’ve conducted serious research, I’ve met people, I’ve learned how to process information from multiple sources on a day to day basis and form a cohesive narrative out of it. Etc, etc, etc. (If the ads bother you, then download some blocking software. Or cut and paste the text of the article into a Word file. It’s a small price to pay for all the free content you can ever consume.)

The information Carr brings together is probably useful in the sense that it would be more optimal if we could educate people to make wise choices, but all this alarmism around the ‘Net is just plain weird. As if people haven’t been dealing with these issues in various capacities for decades already.

Recent Posts

Criticism Isn't Free

CR is dedicated to thoughtful, in-depth criticism without regard to what's commercially appealing. It takes tens of hours each month to provide this. Please help make this sort of writing sustainable, either with a subscription or a one-time donation. Thank you!

You could also purchase one of my acclaimed ebooks.


Got Something To Say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


I agree that alarmist critiques like Carr’s are troublesome, not least because similar critiques accompanied the advent of radio, television and modern advertising. New technologies almost always invite apocalyptic commentary.

That said, I think there are huge and critical differences between television and the internet. Television is essentially linear, functions in a definitive space-time continuum, and exploits audience passivity. The internet is much more sophisticated and subtle — it’s discursive, digressive, non-linear, seemingly outside space and time, and flatters our passivity as control.

We’re not just talking about being barraged by data (that’s the least of our worries). We’re talking about being conditioned to think in hopscotch patterns; to follow any whim or periphery that offers itself, even if that means abandoning the main line; to absorb content that scrolls endlessly, outside of context and boundaries. This isn’t like television.

Television relies on our passivity, our willingness to digest content for huge chunks of time. It’s a narcotic. The internet, by analogy, is cocaine: a drug that revs up cravings while reducing attention spans — we want more and more and more, we follow disjointed quirks of thought, skip and hop around cyberspace with no apparent design save that of satisfying our own self-interested agendas, maniacally tweeting, facebooking, emailing, hungering after updates.

Can the internet be used safely and sanely and in moderation? Of course. But is this how most people will use it? Probably not, and it’s for those people that we must think hard about how the internet works. Further, even when used “responsibly,” the internet has serious effects on cognition, perception and attention. Whether or not this effects are calamitous remains to be seen.

Though not a perfect book, The Shallows is interesting and, I think, well worth reading. I didn’t find it as reactionary and alarmist you seem to. To be fair, though, I was definitely predisposed to agree with his basic argument — I’m a bibliophile who spends hours on book blogs yet struggles to keep up with my ever-rising pile of actual books.

Scott, I pretty much agree with you (except that I just do have trouble reading things online, which may be more that I’m reading them at work, so I print the articles up to read them usually), but what I think is the major problem is the difficulty of figuring out how to use the technology offered in a way other than the rat pushing buttons for pleasure. The Internet shifts and changes so quickly, much more so than previous cultural/technological changes (I think), that it’s incredibly difficult to figure out the best way to utilize what is being offered before it shifts again. Each time the online world becomes quicker, more bite-sized, abstracted, people who want to use it well are forced to develop new habits, and I think it’s much, much easier to just push the button and get the reward.

First of all: I grant this is a thorny topic and that there is an issue here. That said, some responses:

Tom: I’m not sure it’s all that different from TV. Yes, Internet users are clearly in a much more active role in terms of defining their environment, but didn’t we all “ooh” and “ahh” at The Sopranos for offering such a complex, fragmented narrative? Didn’t the critics say that this was why this show was so much more evolved and desirable than average TV fare. (And didn’t the say the same for Lost, The Wire, etc.) Even cable news and most televised sporting events offer multiple data streams that users are asked to decipher on the fly. This is our world–it is fragmented and we are asked to create the narrative. I think this is all less novel than people seem to suspect.

Michael: It sounds like a good book. I look forward to reading it.

P.T.: That’s very true–the Internet gives you feedback much more quickly than other media. This is possibly its most profound advance (if you want to call it that) over other media. Though I think this instant feedback need not necessarily be a part of your experience (e.g. turn off Facbook, Twitter, etc, and just wig out in Wikipedia for a few hours, and you can have a nice, engaged reading experience, just as with a printed encyclopedia).

Of course, it is much easier to just push the button and waste 5 hours on Facebook. It is also much easier to have that extra order of fries, or to watch Friends instead of picking up a nice novel. People will make choices, but to speak of all this in terms of some insidious brain chemistry mindwash is a little much for me. (And, true, this may be more Laura Miller’s thesis than Carr’s.)

[…] Gitlin’s Shallows review in The New Republic is a cut above Laura Miller’s overly credulous take. It is undeniable that some of the analyses that I have quoted suffer from exaggeration and […]


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2019. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.