When I was younger, there was no internet. I filled my days with going to primary school, playing with friends and reading books. When I went to secondary school, there were a few computers with internet access and I had no internet connection at house. At the end of six years of education the internet was available everywhere: there were many computers with internet access at school and my parents had subscribed to a fast internet plan at home. What happened in the ten years that followed is history: the internet became pervasive and was accessible from everywhere.
I have lived in two worlds: one in which there was no internet and one in which there was. Of course, I was influenced by both worlds and I have the feeling that this makes me - just like many more people of about my age - a bit special. I have learned to appreciate books and what they can teach people. But I have also discovered what the internet can bring to the table: instant access to lots of information and friends. People who are older than I am, appreciate print stuff more than they appreciate web things. For those younger than me, it's the opposite. Of course, these are generalizations and over-simplifications, but my generation has a big advantage over the ones that went before and came after: we live and lived in both pre-internet and internet times.
Why this story? Well, I think it illustrates Carr's argument quite nicely. In this book, Carr tells us that the internet has physiological and neurological effects on the brain. Because of the way the internet is structured, namely around short bits of hyperlinked information, our brain gets attuned to this new method, which is fundamentally different from the 'old' way of the book or the 5000 word article. Those texts contained long and difficult arguments and story lines, but our brains find it difficult to concentrate on understanding what is going on in the text. They got better at working with short and hyperlinked texts and superficial reading on the expense of the ability for deep-reading.
This has all kinds of interesting effects. Of course, we all know of news papers and TV shows, which have shortened material and added extra content that could be read and understood by hyperlinked minds. But the real changes are much bigger. According to Carr, we are loosing our natural capacities--those for reason, perception, memory, emotion (p.211), which causes a deep form of alienation.
And right there, when I read that sentence in this book, it struck me: I grew up in an age and time where the internet was not everywhere, one where reasoning and logical arguments were still valid for all, and one where having actual facts stored in your brain was actually valued a lot. The internet did not make all that irrelevant - at least not yet - but it did change how people approach questions, problems, ideas and change (even cultural change). I am in the strange position that I live in both worlds: I love Facebook, RSS and news sites, but I also have a few hundred books that I have read and try to use in understanding the world and what's happening in it. Both worlds are enticing to me, but I know too many people that only favor the internet and no longer are able to grasp the goods in books and long articles.
Of course, this book has also some shortcomings. One of them is that this book does not shed a lot of light on the many big and great advantages of the internet. For example, the fact that now every once-poor farmer in Africa can go up on the internet to check on the price of his product in the next town or market is great, because it enables him to decide about the best price-point to sell his product. Another example, the fact that it's as easy for me (a Dutch citizen) as for a London native to book tickets for The Lion King musical is also a very great convenience. And there is more, much more. Other books have been written about that. Carr's work could have been stronger if it also had focused on that kind of the medallion.
Another shortcoming of this book is that it's being quite firm about it's conclusions, but that the research that it's based on is not at all that old. Yes, it's possible to check for changes in the brain very soon. But to answer the question if our culture is changing because of the internet and it's mind-altering work, I really believe that it's too early to say so.
Nevertheless, Carrs book is entertaining in its breadth and interesting because of its persuasiveness.