Carr, N. (2011) The Shallows:What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Norton, 280 pages; ISBN 0393339750.
Nicholas Carr’s Blog, Rough Type: http://www.roughtype.com/
The series of short articles and infographics through which I’ve learned of many new tech tools and trends in education made me yearn for something longer and more fully developed, so I went old-school and read a book. While I regret the 11th-hour nature of this posting, I think this book is a must-read for anyone working in education who thinks about technology and information literacy. I highly recommend it to everyone as summer reading.
Carr traces brain development in human beings through varied communication forms across human history. His book is not as strident or skeptical of technology’s impact on our minds as his blog is (see above address); nor is he sounding an overt alarm about technology’s harm to children, as Jane Healey (1999) does in her book Failure to Connect. However, Carr points out a key difference between reading linear, book-style text and reading online, with its links and sidebars: this second form of reading does keep us from reading one thing deeply; instead, it further develops our awareness to possible distractions and novel information. Carr points out this this awareness to outside stimuli was crucial, for instance, for hunter-gatherers, who had to be constantly alert to new information all around them. He describes his own experiences as a reader who came to miss the longer, deeper stretches of text immersion when he began to read–and skim– online more, but he is careful not to privilege one form of reading over the other. Instead, Carr points out that we are communicating in a way that affects our brain wiring, and that the long term effects of these changes have yet to be seen.
I was surprised by Carr’s measured tone in the book; I’d expected more of a rant. The brain research he cites does remind me of the changes I see in the middle school students I teach, though. Like many teachers, I see a big difference between the kids who read a lot independently and the kids who do not. In addition to having larger vocabularies and deeper background knowledge, the kids who read tend to be more patient, better able to venture a guess or prediction and see it through– they are easier to sit next to in a movie because they’re less apt to ask aloud what will happen next. In early adolescence– a time of tremendous brain development the maxim is that “the neurons that fire together, wire together” is true. Carr’s work points out the difference between the kinds of wiring we develop through text exposure and through online “reading.” While I know that I personally prefer deeper, longer reading, I can see as well that a more varied information field with multimedia availability has the potential to engage students who struggle with immersion in text. What will it mean for their minds to be engaged in this way, rather than less engaged? We will have to see.