Tyranny of technology

20th May 2011 at 01:00

The Shallows: how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember

By Nicholas Carr

atlantic books (pound;17.99)

4 OUT OF 5

Have you checked your email lately? What about Facebook? Twitter? LTS website, government blogs, TESS chatroom? Hurry, because if you're not quick, you'll miss something!

Oh, and Amazon's urgently trying to contact you about books for your Kindle. But perhaps it's cheaper to hunt them down on eBay. Or just Google for something newer, more up-to-date and relevant to your immediate needs .

I'd recommend The Shallows for the summer holidays for every teacher in the land. You could take it to the beach - once unplugged from the electronic world, you might be able to concentrate long enough to read it. And it's riveting stuff - all about how new technology shapes not just human culture, but the human mind.

Carr provides a whirlwind tour of such technologies - writing and number systems; clocks and calendars; maps and machines; telegraphs, telephones, television - showing how their arrival changed the structure of our ancestors' brains.

Along the way, he tosses in some fascinating stories - how Socrates detested the newfangled invention called "writing"; how Nietzsche adored his typewriter; how the secretary of a 1960s computer scientist asked him to leave the room when she used his software (even though she'd seen him write the ELIZA program, she felt she was communicating with a real person because their "chats" were so intimate).

But Carr's overall intention is to make us see (if we hadn't already noticed) how the internet is now rewiring our brains. How we're more distractible than our parents. How our thirst for constant mental stimulation keeps us riffling through ragbags of electronic information long after we should be in bed.

He introduces scientists to explain it all, many brimming with wonder and optimism about the power of the human mind. Nobel prize-winner Eric Kandel explains neuroplasticity ("We could see for the first time that the number of synapses in the brain is not fixed - it changes with learning").

But some are less sanguine: "You can train `til you're blue in the face and you'd never be as good as if you just focused on one thing at a time," says the world expert on multi-tasking. Another developmental psychologist tells us that "every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others", and wonders whether we're gradually losing our capacity for "mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination and reflection".

It seems to me that we adults have already developed the neural networks for "deep mental processing" - so as long as we're disciplined, we can click back and forth between old-fashioned "literate" thought processes and new-fashioned screen-based data juggling.

But what about the children we teach? Carr's book convinces me that the next generation needs to learn to read and write before immersing itself in the brave new world of screen- based technology.

About the Author

Nicholas Carr writes for the New York Times, Guardian, Financial Times and Wired. He was formerly editor of the Harvard Business Review, and specialises in editing and writing articles on business strategy, information technology and the internet.

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