Nearly a decade ago, Nicholas Carr published “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” which offered a deep look at how digital technology impacts the brain.
The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, but it wasn’t the final word on a constantly changing subject.
After 10 years of ramped-up connectivity, Carr and his publisher are planning a 10-year anniversary edition of “The Shallows,” updated for release next spring with a new chapter on the explosion of both social media and smartphones.
The latter, in particular, will be a focus when Carr speaks at Gonzaga University at 7 p.m. Thursday in a talk titled “What Our Smartphones are Doing to Our Minds.”
“Smartphones have taken over, and social media has taken over,” said Carr, 60, in a phone interview last week from his Massachusetts home. “Even much more so than 10 years ago, we are constantly connected and checking the internet and social media throughout the day.
“There’s been quite a bit of new research focusing on that, and that’s what I’ll be looking at in the talk. If you’re trying to solve a hard problem, or think through a difficult issue, our phones are constantly getting in the way.”
Carr also plans to touch on themes he has discussed before, such as digital technology’s impact on distractedness, multitasking and information overload.
“In many ways, they’ve been magnified by the dominance of the smartphone,” Carr said.
“Some of the newer research looks at not only the distractedness that happens when we’re online and looking at a screen, but it shows that even when we’re not using our phones, they seem to have a pretty significant effect on our cognition.”
Carr acknowledges many upsides to smartphones and social media for enjoyment, accessing valuable information and making connections. But negative side effects impact everything from problem-solving to the depth of conversations, he said. And for students, the new technologies can harm their ability to learn.
“What the new studies suggest is that we’ve kind of incorporated our phones so deeply into our lives that even when we’re not using them, even when they’re just in our pockets, we’re thinking about them,” Carr said.
“It seems either we’re using our phones, or we’re thinking about using our phone, or we’re suppressing the desire to use our phones. Even if we’re not conscious of it, they take up some of our mental energy and get in the way of our ability to reach the highest possible level of thinking.”
He argues that digital intrusions affect our ability to be deeply contemplative or reflective – the kind of thinking that requires screened-out distractions and interruptions to focus the mind.
“All of those types of thinking are becoming rarer, simply because we’re getting notified and receiving alerts and finding new information online pretty much all the time now, thanks to the ever-present smartphone,” he said.
“It becomes harder and harder to withdraw from informational stimulus and actually calm down your mind and think deeply.”
Research indicates there are two main reasons smartphones impact how we remember facts and experiences, he said.
One is a side effect of distractions, “because your ability to remember something is very much tied into your ability to be attentive.”
The other effect occurs in the brain.
“There have been these experiments that show when people know that they’ll be able to find something online, a fact or something on Google, they’re less likely to remember it,” he said.
While some people might see a benefit of not clogging up the mind, Carr sees a downside.
“A lot of our most interesting thoughts don’t come from just recalling individual facts, they come from connecting everything we learn and everything we’ve experienced in our own minds,” he said.
“That’s what gives our thinking breadth and allows us to think contextually, and I think in many cases enables critical and creative thinking.”
Carr said studies also indicate social penalties, with people reporting less satisfaction, empathy and trust during in-person conversations if phones compete for attention
But he sees some ways that people and companies are tempering – or at least trying to temper – the onslaught.
“Things like turning off notifications or spending some time during the day without your phone,” he said. “These are harder and harder to do because everybody expects everyone to be connected all the time.”
Strategies need to go beyond personal discipline, he argues, because society has woven technology into social norms and activities. He said as people exchange little bits of information all day and can’t escape distractions, there’s less concentration on difficult tasks.
“If you look at the workplace, for a very long time, companies either explicitly or implicitly encouraged employees basically to check email all the time,” he said.
“Then when other forms of communication like Slack, group chat and text messages came along, the expectation was you should be monitoring these streams of work messages all the time. I think that was a mistake, and some companies are realizing that,” Carr said.
“Companies that want employees who are able to be attentive and solve complex problems need to change the messages they send and realize it’s not always in the best interest of people or companies for employees to be distracted all the time.”
Does Carr think he has a tough sell at a university? Yes and no. Both younger and older people share problems in regulating use.
He’s also teaching a college seminar on social media as a visiting professor at Williams College – a private institution in Massachusetts – and has heard from young adults aware of the technology issues. They’re open to solutions.
“I think even though they are using it all the time, they are aware there are negative effects with things like social anxiety and kind of an inability to control their own attentiveness as their phone calls on them all the time.”
At Gonzaga, Carr said he plans to bring some historical perspective to how technologies have long influenced thoughts and what people value, ranging from early maps to mechanical clocks.
Maps helped change thoughts about place and space, along with abstract thinking beyond the senses, he said. Mechanical clocks brought changes in thoughts about time and helped introduce scientific thinking and measurements.
Carr has a smartphone but only infrequently posts to Twitter and Instagram and not to Facebook.
“One thing my research has made clear to me is that social media is geared toward keeping us distracted,” Carr said. “Part of that is our natural desire to know what’s going on.
“The other part is the companies that run social media, they’re very good at designing these services to be as addictive as possible, and they are. For me, avoidance is the best strategy.”
The speech is sponsored by the Arnold Fund, Humanities Washington, Gonzaga’s Center for Public Humanities and the Gonzaga University Visiting Writers Series. Carr’s books also include “The Glass Cage: Automation and Us” (2014) and “Utopia is Creepy” (2016).