Our ancestors, who lived in the forest, never had a moment’s peace.  The forest spoke to them, ordered them about, punished or rewarded them, as their descendants would say now, 24/7.  Every movement of the stone, every crack of the bough, and every cry of the bird had a meaning, and the meaning was largely binary, signifying either danger or opportunity.  The signals, moreover, came all at once, in a swarm of portents that had to be identified, interpreted, and acted upon just about simultaneously.

Civilization was, above all, time for reflection.  Not the earliest human response to the chaos of stimuli, but an innovative kind of thinking, perhaps within the protected enclosure of a dwelling—a deliberation distinguished by linearity.  History, prophecy, and speech were all born of that noble effort, as it is impossible to project a future event without analyzing the past, or without having recourse to something like syntax.  Where it had been the forest that set his thinking agenda, man was now in control of his thought, setting himself subjects for ratiocination and arriving at logical conclusions.

Millennia later, that linear world became man’s unique habitation.  Almost everything he thought and did had an if and a then as points of departure, deliberately posited on the same ratiocinative plane.  Syllogism and syntax, map and book, mathematics and medicine—and of course the weapons that secured for the more linear-minded peoples of the world dominance over the less linear-minded, such as the repeating rifle and the atom bomb—none of this would have been possible without the will, and the time, to think things through.

The thesis of Nicholas Carr’s book is that it’s all over, and that the internet has restored man to his aboriginal state.  The difference is that instead of the forest, wherein lurked danger or else opportunity, the chaos now shaping his mind is more like a training exercise, with no individual opportunity to speak of and only a collective notion of danger.  Besides, when he lived in the forest, at least he was physically fit.  Now he is just harebrained.

Carr does not address what to my mind is the key question of the epoch—namely, for what sort of existence is the training exercise preparing us?  What he does do is furnish ample proof that the neurological implications of “connectivity,” the hyperalert but quasi-animal state in which much of mankind now passes its days and nights, add up to a physiological revolution.  Like all revolutions, it is reactionary and regressive.

It is not unusual for an office worker, the hunter-gatherer of our day, “to glance at his in-box thirty or forty times an hour,” just as his ancestor would at the dark bower that he had not dared to explore.  Hypermedia, introduced by internet companies to keep his attention, subverts “the patriarchal authority of the author,” as the abundance of links on his screen smothers what it pretends to foster.  Social networks bombard their hundreds of millions of members with “a never-ending ‘stream’ of ‘real-time updates,’ brief messages about, as a Twitter slogan puts it, ‘what’s happening right now.’”

In most countries “people spend, on average, between nineteen and twenty-seven seconds looking at a page before moving on to the next one, including the time required for the page to load.”  In fact, “it almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”  From “the myriad visual clues that flash across our retinas as we navigate the online world,” there is no escape, no reprieve, not even a nanosecond’s respite.  It “turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers,” yet congratulating ourselves on our achievement the way primitive man—or the lab rat, for that matter—never did.

Sound like a nightmare?  Why, what are you, some kind of Luddite?  “The time has come,” explains Mark Federman of the University of Toronto,

for teachers and students alike to abandon the “linear, hierarchical” world of the book and enter the Web’s “world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity”—a world in which “the greatest skill” involves “discovering emergent meanings among contexts that are continually in flux.”

Sound like a loser?  Why, what are you, some kind of fascist?  “People have increasingly decided that Tolstoy’s sacred work isn’t actually worth the time it takes to read it,” declares Clay Shirky of New York University, relegating War and Peace to the remainder bin of history with “Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and other novels that until recently were considered, in Shirky’s cutting phrase, ‘Very Important in some vague way.’”  Indeed, “our old literary habits ‘were just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.’  Now that the Net has granted us abundant ‘access,’ we can at last lay those tired habits aside.”

Not only is it that, statistically, the greater part of what the new audiovisual technology gives us unprecedented “access” to is animalistic pornography, a perverse echo of the “‘sensuous involvement’ with the world” that Marshall McLuhan, for one, “believed that preliterate people enjoyed.”  It is that in living this technology “24/7”—as we have never lived television or film, to say nothing of the linear media of the tablet, the scroll, the book, and the newspaper—we have begun to alter our brains to cope with total immersion in an environment within which the stimuli it delivers are being processed.  Accordingly, Carr devotes several sections of his book to scientific studies that identify and quantify the neurological consequences of the new modus videndi.

It does not make for a pretty picture, to say the least.  As the vital paths of our brain become “the paths of least resistance,” while superficiality, instead of a weakness to be tolerated or despised, as it once was, becomes a rigorous and vaunted condition of the mind, our thinking, once “Aristotelian in its emphasis on discerning abstract patterns behind the visible surfaces of the material world,” recalls once more that of the aborigine.  In other words, its overall pattern recalls that “natural condition of mankind,” under the constraints of which “the life of man,” according to Hobbes, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

In conclusion, I should like to add a personal note.  Influenced as I was in my upbringing by the Russian literary and philosophical tradition—whose exponents gloried in the irrational, often demoting reason and logic in their hierarchy of values to such scandalous lows that it began to seem that Aristotle and Newton were no better than a cobbler and a tinker, respectively—upon reading Carr’s book I began seeing things in a somewhat less radical light.  It is all very well to have the stream of consciousness and the ecstatic moment, it is quite all right to contradict oneself and to play roulette with one’s own life, and it is wonderful to drink like this good poet or smoke opium like that one, but the truth is that it is linearity that has made us what we are in the brief oasis of time we call civilization.

It looks like the oasis is about to turn into a mirage.  Carr has issued a cogent warning, but unfortunately, nobody’s going to heed it.  With all that abundant access to women taking off their clothes, to say nothing of presidents on Twitter, who’s got the intellectual energy for reading books?


[The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) 276 pp., $26.95]