Monday, October 4, 2010

Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows" as Genealogical History: Some Rapid Reflections on This Exciting Book

So last week I started reading Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. I find it very compelling. I only have sixteen pages or so left. I plan on finishing it tomorrow morning on the bus. What a treat.

His main purpose is to argue that the way we engage with the internet is causing changes in our brain that lead to shallower engagement with written works, and thus leading us to shallower and more superficial forms of thought in general. He argues that books effected our brain by cultivating a focused, attentive, and contemplative frame of mind that was more inclined to intellect and creativity. He believes that the transition from the age of books to the age of the internet is bringing about a new type of mind in which we mostly think in these shallow and superficial ways. Thus the title The Shallows.

All of this hinges on two things that I can think of right now: 1. the science of neuroplasticity, which claims that our brain is plastic and changes throughout the entire life span as a result of experience, and 2. the idea that the mind is a result simply of the brain.

The former is a relatively new discovery in the neurosciences, and the latter seems hard to deny. I am digging the book.

It excites me for a lot of reasons and I am going to have to give it an extended treatment in later posts. I am even thinking that I will have to simply integrate it into my essay on The Principles of Art that I am working on. But I'm not sure how I would do that exactly. But I'll worry about that when I finish reading it and when I get further along in the writing of my next large essay project (which I'm not very far into yet).

But I would quickly like to say a few things that are really exciting me about The Shallows, simply to catalog and get my thoughts flowing a bit.

First, I just want to say that I really am enjoying Carr's literary style. He has a masters in English from Harvard and so writes with a nice flourish to his sentences. Not sure how to describe this exactly. I am in someways bad at picking up on the stylistic elements in writing. But I like the way he writes. I just like the way it flows.

I also like the way that he includes memoir in the book. He discusses his personal relationship with computers, what it was like for him to grow up while computers were first being created, and what happened to him later in his life. He talks about what it was like to write the book, how he had to adjust his writing, his blogging, his access to computers. You definitely get a sense of the person. You get a sense that he is deeply troubled by the way that he has been personally been effected by the internet. I like that.

I like it because it reminds me of David Shields. I really enjoyed Shields' Reality Hunger and The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead. Creative non-fiction is a very exciting genre to me, and Carr is doing a branch of it that I am very excited about. Interdisciplinary work that combines neuroscience, history, and contemporary cultural criticism. Uh, how loud do I have to say fuck yeah? I mean, really great stuff.

And I guess one reason I find it so compelling is that the central idea to all of it is neuroplasticity. I've read two books directly about neuroplasticity and have dabbled in some other stuff. I find it to be a very exciting field that his implications for almost every aspect of life. I think that it is really important stuff. So I'm glad to see that he is thinking about how the internet would be engaging with our plastic brains.

One of the most exciting things for me is something I wrote about in my essay of 8/30 'The Genealogy of the Modern Mind'. In that essay I claimed that neuroplasticity implied that minds and history were inseparable. Because brains are plastic, and change based on experience, then minds from different historical periods must look different. Therefore, if we want to understand minds, including our own minds, we must understand history.

Carr's book seems to function on this assumption that the quality of minds and history are inseparable. In particular, I like his chapter called 'Tools of the Mind'. He discusses how in different historical moments people engaged with different external tools to shape their minds. He uses neuroscienctific research on reading to show that literate people have radically different brains than illiterate people. He then speculates about how the invention of the printing press and the spread of mass reading changed brains and thus created new types of minds.

He then does a very good job of asking very 'modern' questions. I quoted modern because I am using the term in the way the Foucault defined it. He said that modernity was an attitude in which an individual tried to understand the nature of their own being by referring to history. That is what Carr is doing. He asks explicitly the questions 'how are the ways we think changing? what is the internet doing to us? what is happening to us right here right now?' Those are the quintessential modern questions. What is happening to me? And how can history help me understand what is happening to me right now?

I think that it resembles a work of genealogical history. He is using history to try and figure out what is going on with our minds right now at this moment. History is not simply there for its own existence, it is there to help us understand our situation and to act more intelligently in our situation. If you glance at my essay of 8/30, that is precisely what I am talking about: the use of history for a tactically useful understanding of the present.

In particular, he is doing a good job of dealing with the history of the industrial revolution, and the history of computers. He never makes explicit reference to Guy Claxton's work Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, but he tackles many of the same issues. He discusses how the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalist economies made efficiency paramount. He claims that these industrial and capitalist views of the economy eventually came to influence the way that people thought about thinking. Thought became something to be measured in terms of efficiency.

He also does a good job of engaging with the question of the rise of computers. The most important issue is the frequent metaphor of comparing the brain to a computer. This implies certain things about how thought 'should' work. But he says that the metaphor is wrong. Which of course it is! The brain doesn't process things in binary, or with algorithms. Clearly neurons work differently than computers do. Here I am pleased to see Carr falls in line with John Searle, a philosopher of minds, institutions, science, and other things. I like Searle, and he has been speaking out against comparing the brain to a computer since at least 1984. Good stuff.

This is all very cursory, but to summarize, I like Carr because he has a literary style that incorporates memoir into his creative non-fiction project. I like him because he recognizes the link between minds, brains, neuroplasticity, and history. He seems to be doing something that resembles Foucault's genealogical history, which I love. He is being so modern in his writing. I'm happy to see that the ideas I have been talking about, rather abstractly, can be executed as eloquently as Carr is doing it. I am also happy to see that he is (implicitly) lining up with Claxton and Searle by recognizing the role that the industrial revolution played in creating this overly 'efficient' and shallow mode of thinking, and by rejecting the comparison of the brain to a computer.

I do have one complaint, however. It has to do with the way that he is using Jeffrey Schwartz's book The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. I loved Schwartz's book. So exciting and interesting.

Carr has it in his bibliography, and I believe only quotes it once. It is a good resource simply because it legitimates neuroplasticity and provides good background information. But Carr fails to engage with the three most important aspects of Schwartz's argument: the notion of 'self-directed neuroplasticity', the relationship between Buddhist mindfulness and self-directed neuroplasticity, and the relationship between quantum physics and self-directed neuroplasticity. Yes, I understand that those threads can be hard to pull together, especially the quantum argument. But, I dunno. To me it seems like Carr is hinting or getting so close to the idea of mindfulness sometimes. He says that by being attentive we can combat the shallow thinking encouraged by the internet. Mindfulness is all about attentiveness. Perhaps he doesn't think the US would accept these ideas so readily, or get them. The quantum thing I can understand avoiding. It would be hard to talk about that without stepping into a lot of muck. Really fascinating claims, but really tricky stuff, especially given the Schwartz is a mind body dualist, which doesn't jive exactly with the rest of Carr's argument. But anyway, the bottom line is I find it disappointing how both Carr and Norman Doidge (in The Brain That Changes Itself) fail to engage with these crucial components of Schwartz's main argument. The link to Buddhist mindfulness is absolutely essentially.

Mindfulness could give us a way to exert meaningful self-directed neuroplasticity, and fight the enticement to shallow thinking that the internet is presenting us with. My ideas all come back to creative self-directed neuroplasticity. Schwartz's book is booming with hope for this idea, exploding with this idea that we can take charge of our brains plasticity and begin to change it for the better. I just hope that in the last sixteen pages Carr is able to enable some new form of agency in this world of neuroplasticity. I want Carr to give me tools to change my own life. He is certainly giving me tools to understand myself, but is that enough? How am I to convert this new understanding into meaning changes, not only in my life, but in my brain? Which of course would be the same thing.

I just want Carr to talk about self-directed neuroplasticity that is aimed at combatting the effects of the internet. But who knows. I'll finish it tomorrow.

Over and out.

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