How technology literally changes our brains
By Ezra Klein vox.com 10 min
In 1964, the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan published his opus Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In it he writes, “In the long run, a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.” Or, put more simply: “Media work their magic, or their mischief, on the nervous system itself.”
This idea that the media technologies we rely on reshape us on a fundamental, cognitive level sits at the center of Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. A world defined by oral traditions is more social, unstructured, and multisensory; a world defined by the written word is more individualistic, disciplined, and hypervisual. A world defined by texting, scrolling, and social feedback is addicted to stimulus, constantly forming and affirming expressions of identity, accustomed to waves of information.
Back in 2010, Carr argued that the internet was changing how we thought, and not necessarily for the better. “My brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting,” he wrote in The Shallows. “It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the same way the net fed it — and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became.” His book, a finalist for the Pulitzer that year, was dismissed by many, including me. Ten years on, I regret that dismissal. Reading it now, The Shallows is outrageously prescient, offering a framework and language for ideas and experiences I’ve been struggling to define for a decade.
Carr saw where we were going, and now I wanted to ask him where we are. In this conversation on The Ezra Klein Show, Carr and I discuss how speaking, reading, and now the internet have each changed our brains in different ways, why “paying attention” doesn’t come naturally to us, why we’re still reading Marshall McLuhan, how human memory actually works, why having your phone in sight makes you less creative, what separates “deep reading” from simply reading, why deep reading is getting harder, why building connections is more important than absorbing information, the benefits to collapsing the world into a connected digital community, and much more.
The point of this conversation is not that the internet is bad, nor that it is good. It’s that it is changing us, just as every medium before it has. We need to see those changes clearly in order to take control of them ourselves.
An edited excerpt from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.
I want to start where you start in the book, with Marshall McLuhan. One of his ideas is that, in the long run, content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. What does that mean?
McLuhan believed that when a new communication tool arrives, everybody focuses on the content that comes through it. And that’s natural. When radio was invented, people were interested in radio programs. When TV came along, they were interested in TV shows. When you had a telephone in your house, you were interested in the conversation you were having.
But what McLuhan believed is that the communication technology itself shapes the way we perceive things and the way we communicate in ways that we’re pretty much oblivious to because we’re so focused on the information coming through the medium.
In the long run, he thought the technology’s way of shaping the way we think ultimately had a much greater effect on us and in our lives than did the content flowing through the medium, whether it was television or the internet or whatever.
Can you give me an example of how previous technologies changed us?
I’ll start with the printing press. The arrival of the medium of printed text meant that we could sit down and read. For McLuhan, this was the big revolution because you can only read by yourself — it’s not a group activity. So when people started to read and literacy became more and more widespread, people removed themselves from the social world that they spent most of their time in. He believed this made us much more individualistic. We began to define ourselves as individuals, as people who had this particular mix of knowledge that we got from books and newspapers and so forth.
And he also went further than that. He thought that the printed page gave our visual sense, our sense of sight, dominance over all the other senses. And as a result, he believed that we became not only more individualistic, but we became more alienated from other people and the world itself because we no longer paid as much attention to our tactile sense and our sense of smell and so forth.
Up until the more recent arrival of electronic media, radio and television, the dominant medium was the printed page, which imposed on us a particular way of seeing and thinking. And that was very individualized and very fragmented.
A move you make in the book, which seems important here, is that these new technologies don’t just change us by changing our habits, they actually change our brains. You write at one point, “The brain of the book reader was more than a literate brain. It was a literary brain.” Do you want to talk a bit about that process, and why people should see it as relevant here?
As I read McLuhan and read other media theorists, I certainly came to agree with them that something deep happens when we adapt ourselves to a new means of communication. So that raised a question: How does that work? What’s going on inside of our skulls that allows these kind of changes to happen?
That led me to recent discoveries over the last 40 years about what’s called neuroplasticity, the incredible malleability of our brains. Our brains are constantly adapting to our environment, and when there’s a change in the environment, there’s a change in the way we think. It’s a biological change, not just a change of habit.
When we adapt to a new medium — whether printed page or television or, more recently, the internet and social media and so forth — more and more neurons get recruited to the particular brain processes that you’re using more often thanks to the different information technologies. But ways of thinking that aren’t encouraged by the technology — we begin to lose those abilities.
That’s analogous to our muscles. If you exercise a certain muscle, that muscle gets stronger. If you don’t exercise another one, it atrophies. Something similar seems to happen within our brains.
Can you give me an example from the pre-internet era? When you compare somebody living in an oral culture with somebody living in a written culture, what facilities would have strengthened and what would have weakened? What would have changed?
One thing that changed pretty dramatically is that the visual cortex, the part of our brain that processes our vision, became dedicated to deciphering text. When a child learns to read, at first it’s very slow and halting. They have to actually identify each letter and kind of sound it out in their brain and then put the letters together to form a word, figure out how to say the word, and then figure out what that word means.
As we practice that, more and more neurons get dedicated to reading. Eventually, you no longer have to decipher a particular letter or even a particular word because our brains represent those letters and words — it’s automatic. So we got all the benefits that come with being good readers, whether it’s the value of losing yourself in a novel or the value of gaining complex information from some sophisticated nonfiction book.
But we also lost something. One thing we lost is a lot of our visual acuity in reading nature and reading the world. If you look at older cultures that aren’t text-based, you see incredible abilities to, for instance, navigate by all sorts of natural signs. This acuity in reading the world, which also requires a lot of the visual cortex, we lost some of that simply because we had to reprogram our brain to become good readers.
Let’s talk about what the internet does to our brains. But I want to make a confession first, which is that when this book came out 10 years ago, I was very resistant to it. I felt like the internet was making me so much smarter, so how dare this guy come along and tell me that I’m in the shallows?
It’s funny because 10 years later, everything has just become faster and faster and faster, and my experience of what the internet is doing to me changed. I went from feeling able to contain it to totally overwhelmed by it.
I’d love to hear first what you felt the internet was doing to our brains back in 2010, and then how you feel it has changed in the ensuing decade.
It’s good to set the stage by thinking back to 2010. Our main way of being online back then was through computers. The iPhone had come out, but smartphones hadn’t taken over yet. Social media was around, but it was still on the periphery. People used it, but they weren’t living their lives through social media. So it was a very different technological world than today.
Yet back then the evidence already was strongly suggesting that the internet was a very powerful way to access lots of information very quickly. We were all concentrating on that great new bounty of information: the more information, the better — the faster it comes to me, the better.
What we lost sight of was how we actually take that information into our mind. There’s all sorts of very good evidence that if you’re distracted — if your attention is shifting very quickly — you can gather lots of information in a very swift fashion, but you’re not going to assemble it very well into knowledge. It’s going to just remain bits of information. You’re not going to develop a rich store of personal knowledge, which is all about connections and associations.
I think it was quite clear even back then that we were making this big tradeoff between getting lots and lots of information very, very quickly and developing a rich base of knowledge. What was lost was not only the ability to engage in deep reading and attentive thought and contemplation, but also when we come across new information, the ability to bring it into our mind and put it into a broader context. That takes time. That takes attention. That takes focus.
The fundamental argument of The Shallows was that we were making this tradeoff. What I worried about then, and what I still worry about, is whether that tradeoff is worth it — are we losing more than we ultimately gain?
What’s happened since then? On one level, I think it’s magnified all of my concerns. Over the last 10 years, the smartphone took over as the dominant form of the computer. Unlike a laptop, the smartphone is always on. It’s always with us. We can access it almost instantaneously. People walk around with it in their hands. So this constant distraction that I documented with laptops and desktops is now much more dominant. It goes on all the time.
Also social media exploded and became one of, if not the main, things people do with computers. And the way social media distributes information, the way it gives particular value or particular emphasis to very emotional information and simplified, kind of strong messages, I think all of this has made the problems I tried to delineate more intense in kind of [a] deeper set within society.
What has also become clearer and clearer in the last 10 years is that now there’s also a big social effect of the technology. On the one hand, all the distractions that we had 10 years ago have proliferated, but also the way we make sense of things socially has changed dramatically as social media has essentially taken over media.
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