The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr W.W. Norton & Company, 2010
What is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism by Jack Fuller University of Chicago Press, 2010
The main problem with this review is that it is too long. You are unlikely to finish it, though I recommend that you do, as an act of defiance at the very least. You are almost certain not to reach its conclusion without distraction, be it from an email, a phone call, a piece of advertising, a hyperlink, or some other disturbance.
It’s your own shortcoming, but it’s not your own fault. Our attention spans are not what they once were; our capacity for deep reading — sustained engagement — is declining; and we are more susceptible than ever to the fleeting interruptions proffered by modern life.
That’s the contention of Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, a word of wariness, if not warning, about the effect of the internet on the human brain. Its central premise is that the web, by serving us the immediate, relevant, hyper-connected information we appear to crave, is changing the way we think, feel, and remember. And not necessarily for the better.
The introduction will be familiar to anyone who read Carr’s 2008 Atlantic essay, “Is Google making us stupid?” He reckons he can feel his mind changing: more skittish, less able to concentrate, less inclined to stick with a text. “Over the past 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”, he writes.
This articulated a not insignificant well of self-doubt that I too had been harbouring about my relationship with the written word. Though I may read widely in the course of my job, my appetite for literature — once quite capacious — became muted in adolescence and never really recovered. And to immerse myself wholly in a book for pleasure — well, that is a rarity and a luxury.
I jubilantly empathised with the Sydney Morning Herald’s Josephine Tovey, something of a pin-up for budding journalists of my age, when she made the same admission in September. She could not remember the last time she had finished a novel cover to cover. “[Books] ask for an investment of time and disconnectedness from the moment that feels harder and harder and more and more counterintuitive with each new year and each new app”, she wrote.
I found myself confirming Carr’s thesis each time I stopped reading to scroll through Twitter, check emails, or refresh Facebook. Not that he needs my corroboration; there is plenty of evidence collated in the book to paint a fairly convincing picture of how technology is changing us.
A compelling example lies in the consolidation of memory. The notion that the web and its amenities “free up” space in the brain for other memories and data is wrong, Carr says. A long line of neuroscientific experiments, culminating in Eric Kandel’s work on sea slugs, show the effect of repetitive learning is to alter the concentration of neurotransmitters in the brain’s synapses and to create entirely new synapses. “The formation of long-term memories, in other words, involves not only biochemical changes but anatomical ones.”
Recalling a memory consolidates it and makes it stronger, Carr says. If you outsource the task (to the web, for instance), you start outsourcing the means of production. It fits into a wider understanding of the brain as being similar to any other muscle: use it or lose it.
Carr draws on other studies, including those of eye movements on search engines and the early use of computers in clinical psychology. A particularly interesting lesson is learned from a study of citations in academic journal articles from 1945 to 2005, conducted by sociologist James Evans from the University of Chicago. Rather than online journals making it easier for scholars to cite more works, Evans found authors were now citing fewer sources than before. Works that were cited also tended to be newer. He described it as a “narrowing of science and scholarship”.
There is a tendency for Carr to accentuate the negative, even though a large section of the book is dedicated to contextualising the web as but the latest instalment of humanity’s ongoing journey in communicative technologies. He notes Socrates’s distaste for writing, early panic around the printing press, fear of the typewriter and radio and television. Carr is aware of history’s mistakes and perhaps his own role, now, in perpetuating them. He quotes, quite deliberately, Umberto Eco’s summation of Socrates’s “eternal fear … that a new technological achievement could abolish or destroy something that we consider precious.”
There is also the question of opportunity cost. It may be true that the web marginally diminishes our capacity to convert short-term memory to long-term, and it may be the ruin of our concentration. But should that not be considered against the exponential increase of information now being accessed by web users worldwide? Google might not encourage us to read deeply but it does encourage us to read, to search and investigate, to discover. The web empowers any individual to be more knowledgeable than previous generations could have ever imagined.
By now we are all painfully familiar with the toll that particular revolution has taken on the once-mighty custodians of knowledge, newspapers. As a person of considerable nostalgia for the rivers of gold I never got the chance to sail down, I feel this quite acutely, perhaps more so than even Jack Fuller, who can at least say he had a good run.
What is Happening to News is not a eulogy for the daily broadsheet, and is very much more optimistic than what one might expect from a man whose life has been newspapers and who edited one of America’s best (The Chicago Tribune) before becoming president of its publisher, the Tribune Company.
Fuller’s book starts with Walter Lippmann’s seminal text Liberty and the News, an early embodiment of what Fuller calls the Standard Model of Professional Journalism. This quintessentially American approach to news values objectivity, neutrality, dispassion, and disinterest. Fuller recounts Lippmann’s departure from those ideas in his later works, and by the same token, What is Happening to News appears to represent Fuller’s own gravitation away from the Standard Model toward something that can survive in the modern world.
His thesis, like Carr’s, is rooted in a study of the brain. Fuller’s analysis is aimed at establishing a fairly intuitive but important principle: that rationality and emotion are interdependent and inseparable. “All would agree that the classical model of the mind is inaccurate in its assertion that the rational and the emotional are neatly and completely divided, one from the other”, he writes. “And all recognise that both play a role in good decision making.”
To an extent, Fuller argues, emotive storytelling has triumphed over the more conventional, drier, standard model. It “succeeds across all class lines and has attained wide legitimacy.” Today Walter Cronkite would be cancelled, as would Walter Lippmann, Fuller notes. And it’s comforting, in some ways, to know there are physiological explanations for the popularity of the tabloid and the prevalence of negative news.
The book offers a compelling and welcome insight into our vulnerability to emotion and tricks of the mind such as the “availability bias”, but I’m not sure it will affect how I practise journalism or change what I understand good journalism to be. But if it is your position that the best journalism rejects emotion — soulless would be my characterisation — then this is an important read.
The book’s second half veers away from neuroscience and into a more theoretical discussion around technology’s impact on storytelling. Neither amount to a clear narrative about how the future of journalism might be improved or secured, though that could be expecting too much.
The value of What is Happening to News lay in challenging myself to think critically about my own journalism. Fuller is an exceptional chronicler of the trade, and this is a book that draws as much upon philosophy, anecdote, and reportage as it does neuroscience in its effort to explain modern storytelling.
Many of the recommendations in Fuller’s “new rhetoric” for news are logical consequences of the digital age that have already been implemented by newspapers. When targeting “news sophisticates” or elites, Fuller says mainstream media must continue to delineate between high and low, important and not. But for everyone else, “we have to take the audience as it is, not as we would wish it to be.”
Carr’s research makes me question the extent to which that seemingly obvious point holds. If it is true that the web can change the way we think, and that all previous mediums have done the same, then perhaps we as journalists have a role to play in crafting how our audience thinks. If journalism is essentially a “social mission”, as Fuller argues, then it must convince its consumers of that mission’s worth. The higher callings of journalism — political accountability, speaking truth to power — must not be considered as only in the interests of the elite. We must accept the audience but not abandon all hope of influencing it.
Congratulations on staying the course, too.