Author Nicholas Carr Asks: Is the Internet Making Us Dumber?

Lecture at Koeppel Center is a Highlight of First-Year Student Orientation

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can​ feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

HARTFORD, CT, August 23, 2012 – That passage, taken from Nicholas Carr’s attention-grabbing 2008 Atlantic Monthly cover story, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” served as a jumping off point for his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

In both his article and the book, Carr raises questions about the way the Internet and the concomitant technological revolution has changed the way that people read, concentrate and process information. The provocative and award-winning author will address Trinity’s first-year students on Friday, August 31 at 4 p.m. at the Koeppel Community Sports Center. The lecture is free and open to the Trinity College community, as well as to the public.

The Shallows, which was assigned reading for Trinity’s first-year students, has been called “a Silent Spring for the literary mind,” and “an ode to a quieter, less frenetic time when reading was more than skimming and thought was more than mere recitation.” The book was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction and a finalist for the 2011 PEN Center USA Literary Award. It’s been translated into 23 languages.

In his letter to first-year students, Trinity President James F. Jones, Jr., said the question, “Is Google making us stupid?” is an especially important one for students whose college success will depend on their ability to take in quantities of information often in the form of books. 

William Church, associate professor of chemistry and neuroscience, will moderate the discussion. Church said Carr’s book should stimulate students “to investigate exactly what is known about what the Internet actually does to our brains.” For example, asked Church, “Is the Web eliminating the range and expressiveness of language?”

According to reviewers, a central theme of Carr’s writings is that books promote deep and creative thought. By comparison, the Internet encourages “the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources.” People “are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what [they] are losing is [their] capacity for concentration, contemplation and reflection.” 

In selecting which book is assigned to first-year students, a committee solicits opinions from administrators, staff, alumni, faculty and students and decides two years in advance which book will be read, explained Margaret Lindsey, Dean of First Year Students. The author must also commit to delivering the Commencement address to the class four years hence, or in this case, in May 2016.

Lindsey said Carr has gained a reputation as a dynamic lecturer, having appeared at a great many colleges and universities and at technology conferences, on television shows and in other venues. She said the aim of the first-year reading initiative is to find a book that “will engage approximately 600 18- and 19-year-olds in a conversation on which they have some common ground.”

Lindsey said Carr’s topic is extremely timely, given the advances that have been made in information technology and the way that students are largely dependent on that technology, sometimes to their detriment. Indeed, Newsweek recently published an article about a new psychiatric disorder dubbed Internet overload.

In addition to The Shallows, Carr’s others books include The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, and Does IT Matter? He’s been a columnist for The Guardian in London and has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Republic, The Financial Times, Die Zeit and other periodicals. His article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” has been included in several anthologies.

Carr is on the steering board of the World Economic Forum’s cloud computing project, and writes the popular blog, Rough Type. He’s been a writer-in-residence at the University of California, Berkeley, and earlier in his career he was executive editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has a B.A. from Dartmouth College and an M.A. from Harvard University.