"The Shallows: how the internet is changing the way we think, read, and remember", by Nicholas Carr. Reviewed by Martin Thomas.
A friend recently told me about her 17 year old daughter's homework habits. She will habitually be watching a DVD on her computer and chatting by instant message with number of friends while simultaneously writing an essay for which she will get top marks.
The internet has brought boons by vastly speeding communications and access to information. It develops new mental skills. The 17 year olds of previous eras lacked the mental as well as the electronic equipment to "multi-task" like that.
Habitual internet use also tends to train our brains into permanent skim-reading mode, into operating in a permanent flurry of distractions, and to train us out of quieter, deeper, more meditative reading and thinking.
The comedian Gary Shteyngart summarises: "In America, everyone is writing all day long - sending emails, tweets, text messages... But no-one reads".
We can read serious writing on the internet, with sustained attention. But usually we don't. In practice, most people can't unless they first print the text off and then read from paper rather than a screen.
Carr reports research which "found that hardly any [readers] read online text in a methodical, line-by-line way, as they'd typically read a page of text in a book.
"The vast majority skimmed the text quickly, their eyes skipping down the page in a pattern that resembled, roughly, the letter F. They'd start by glancing all the way across the first two or three lines of text. Then... they'd scan about halfway across a few more lines. Finally, they'd let their eyes cursorily drift a little farther down the left-hand side of the page..."
People who "read" text online almost always read 18% of it or less.
We are being trained to improve our skim-reading skills - which are essential: we would be crippled if we had to read every road sign, manual, or email in the same deliberate way as we'd read Marx's Capital - but also to degrade our deep-reading skills.
Carr argues that prolonged habitual internet use changes the chemistry and anatomy of our brains. It is not just that we get out of the habit of reading and thinking quietly and deeply, in a sustained way; we lose the neural connections that equip us to do it.
A life saturated with internet use may also damage our brain's capacity for empathy and compassion. These "require a calm, attentive mind... [They] emerge from neural processes that are inherently slow".
How solid Carr's arguments about brain chemistry are, I can't judge. His book bears the marks of writing researched on the internet: a great flurry of snippety references to research, none of it critically examined in any depth.
I can't dismiss his arguments out of hand. And even if the internet's push towards permanent skim-reading operates only on the level of habits, not of physical brain structure, it should concern us.
It must concern the left especially. We have to do more than offer new baubles to minds which are a magpie's-nest of glittering trinkets. Our business is to get people to think about the large structures of society and a longer view of history, to mobilise the emotions of empathy and compassion on a scale beyond the anecdotal and immediate. To invert Marx: if the point is to change the world, we must first understand it "philosophically".
For the serious left, the internet is very useful in making snippety information, and more serious texts to print off, available quickly, cheaply, easily, and widely. It is comparatively inefficient, and in some ways a source of problems to be overcome, for the indispensable work of "making converts" and of getting new activists to acquire, not just a few slogans and quick-fire arguments, but a whole solidly-founded structure of thinking independent of the flurry around them, and habits of sober and reflective thought.
The revolutionary party must be, as Trotsky put it, "the memory of the class". That involves the party activists personally, in their heads, having solid, stable memories of political facts and arguments. But, Carr argues, the internet trains us to "google it" rather than remember, and to keep "rather little deep knowledge" in our own heads.
In the earlier years of the internet, there was some enthusiasm on the left for the idea that internet-based communication could replace the older modes: meetings, face-to-face conversations, printed newspapers, pamphlets, books. You could get great outreach as a revolutionary activist from the comfort of your own computer-desk. Carr's book explains why that was a fallacy.
Internet communications, skim-read as they almost always are, have insufficient intellectual and emotional weight and depth. They tend to distract rather than to focus. The political "heavy lifting" still has to be done by face-to-face talking and by printed literature.
The main strand in left politics which the internet has revolutionised is sectarianism. Before the internet, to be an active sectarian, at least you had to go out to the pub. Now, so long as you can write snappy sniping snippets, you can become a widely-read (or, rather, widely-skimmed) "left blogger" without going outdoors much at all.
On the face of it, the internet ought to improve intellectual life inside socialist organisations, by making communication quicker and easier and enabling us to refer to archived documents by a click of the mouse. In fact, it seems to generate a layer of activists who feel themselves fully "involved" but whose reading is dominated by skim-reading of emails and blogs.
What to do about it? On the level of the whole society, technologies like the iPad may help people turn back to more deep, quiet thinking and reading. (Carr thinks not, but his evidence is only one anecdotal account of someone reading from an iPad and finding herself as frequently distracted as on the Internet).
Schools and universities could certainly reorganise themselves. In place of the current drive to have more computers in schools, we could have a drive for fewer; in place of university courses where almost all the reading asked for is online, we could have courses organised around books.
The school where I'm currently working is one of the few to have its rebuilding go ahead under the new Lib/Tory government. The rebuilding includes a larger library. But in the architect's initial plan, the new library had space for only 3000 of the 12,500 books which the school library currently has. The bulk of the space would go to computers. The teachers objected, and the plans may be revised. Such battles can change things.
In our own sphere, I think, socialist organisations have no alternative but consciously to push against the tide, consciously to push our activists to set aside time to switch their computers off, to read, and to meet each other, and interested people around us, for face-to-face conversation.