Because life is a series of edits

Review: The Shallows (Part 1 of 3)

In Books, Education, Technology on June 30, 2010 at 1:07 pm

(The following is the first of a three-part review of one of the more important books I've read in the past ten years: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. I hope I can do it justice.)

The Shallows One of the major themes running through discussions at every level of education these days has to do with technology – specifically, that having to do with the opportunity, expectation, and (for lack of a better word) mandate to use it in the classroom. As teachers, we're told that a true 21st-century education demands technology, and since we're ten years in by now, well, we're already behind. (Note: For a primer on this perspective, read Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World edited by Heidi-Hayes Jacobs.)

The question here is behind what? What is the supposed eight ball we find ourselves peering around? Is it educational or technological effectiveness? A combination of both? What would being ahead and on the front side of said eight ball look like?

Enter Nicholas Carr's recently published book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Released earlier this month amid a flurry of accompanying high-level PR from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others, Carr's book picks up where his provocative July 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" left off, raising the question no one in our 21st-century world really wants to answer: Is technology really good for us? Carr writes in the prologue:

"Whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in the information – the 'content' – it carries. They care about the news in the newspaper, the music on the radio, the shows on the TV, the words spoken by the person on the far end of the phone line. The technology of the medium, however astonishing it may be, disappears behind whatever flows through it – facts, entertainment, instruction, conversation. When people start debating (as they always do) whether the medium's effects are good or bad, it's the content they wrestle over. Enthusiasts celebrate it; skeptics decry it." (p. 2)

He continues (and this is the main thesis of his book):

"What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is…that in the long run a medium's content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our windows onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it – and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society." (p. 3)

Is technology good for us? Always? Sometimes? Never? Before Carr gets around to dealing with the question, he rightly sets the context for the discussion by providing several fascinating chapters on the brain – what we know about it, what we don't know about it, and why it matters that we may attention to both. What jumps out from his research (which is excellently written in both detail and summary form) is the concept and importance of brain plasticity:

“Although the belief in the adult brain’s immutability was deeply and widely held, there were a few heretics. A handful of biologists and psychologists saw in the rapidly growing body of brain research indications that even the adult brain was malleable, or ‘plastic’…As brain science continues to advance, the evidence for plasticity strengthens.” (p. 21, 26)

Plasticity, Carr argues, is what makes our brains more human than hardwired. He writes:

"The brain is not the machine we once thought it to be. Though different regions are associated with different mental functions, the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They're flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need. Some of the most extensive and remarkable changes take place in response to damage to the nervous system. Experiments show, for instance, that if a person is struck blind, the part of the brain that had been dedicated to processing visual stimuli – the visual cortex – doesn't just go dark. It is quickly taken over by circuits used for audio processing. And if the person learns to read Braille, the visual cortex will be redeployed for processing information delivered through the sense of touch. 'Neurons seem to 'want to receive input,' explains Nancy Kanwisher of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research: 'When their usual input disappears, they start responding to the next best thing.'" (p. 29)

In other words, the brain not only adapts to stimuli, it alters itself because of it; that is, our brains are not only changed by the message but by the medium carrying the message. Carr's take on this, of course, is purely evolutionary, but it's interesting to think about his findings from a Christian worldview, taking into consideration Paul's emphases on transforming and renewing our minds (consider Romans 8; Romans 12; Ephesians 4; and Colossians 3); scientifically speaking, it would seem we were designed to actually be able to do this:

“The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring but that it doesn’t. Natural selection, writes the philosopher David Buller in Adapting Minds, his critique of evolutionary psychology, 'has not designed a brain that consists of numerous prefabricated adaptations' but rather one that is able 'to adapt to local environmental demands throughout the lifetime of an individual, and sometimes within a period of days, by forming specialized structures to deal with those demands.' Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind – over and over again. Our ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting, we now know, are not entirely determined by our genes. Nor are they entirely determined by our childhood experiences. We change them through the way we live – and through the tools we use.” (p. 31)

To keep us out of "the shallows," I'll stop for now and write about "the tools we use" on Thursday. Feel free to leave comments or questions, as the writing is still in progress.

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