Books Technology

Are “The Shallows” Getting Shallower with ChatGPT?

It’s been fascinating to finally arrive at the end of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains amidst the AI leap we’re witnessing with ChatGPT

I’ve been reading The Shallows off and on for around two years, after learning of it via John Eldredge’s excellent (and immensely applicable) Get Your Life Back: Everyday Practices for a World Gone Mad

In chapter 10, Carr recounts Joseph Weizenbaum’s creation of ELIZA in the mid 1960s, one of the world’s first natural language processors and a primitive chat bot of sorts. 

Its success surprised and somewhat troubled Weizenbaum. A decade later he wrote a book titled Computer Power and Human Reason within which he cautioned readers of the inevitable consequences of intertwining our lives with computers.

He knew from his experience with time-sharing networks that the role of computers would expand beyond the automation of governmental and industrial processes. Computers would come to mediate the activities that define people’s everyday lives—how they learn, how they think, how they socialize. What the history of intellectual technologies shows us, he warned, is that “the introduction of computers into some complex human activities may constitute an irreversible commitment.” Our intellectual and social lives may, like our industrial routines, come to reflect the form that the computer imposes on them.

What makes us human, Weizenbaum had come to believe, is what is least computable about us—the connections between our mind and our body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy. The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers—as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens—is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate, Weizenbaum wrote, is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly “tasks that demand wisdom.”

Carr, 2020, p. 207–208

Later in the chapter, Carr goes on to pose: 

“While this cybernetic blurring of mind and machine may allow us to carry out certain cognitive tasks far more efficiently, it poses a threat to our integrity as human beings. Even as the larger system into which our minds so readily meld is lending us its powers, it is also imposing on us its limitations. To put a new spin on Culkin’s phrase, we program our computers and therefore they program us.”

Carr, 2020, p. 214

The Shallows is a fairly dense read and my time to reach its conclusion somewhat supports its premise: that our marriage to the internet is changing how our brains function and limiting our ability to apply focus and think deeply.

History shows there is no going back. But even if we could, that’s not really what Carr suggests. His message is more about knowledge and awareness: everything comes with tradeoffs and our dependence upon the internet and technology is no different.

Will I try to use ChatGPT to improve my work and life? Likely. But it would be wise to counter some of the evolutionary inevitabilities such advancements produce with some “old school” living, such as writing with pen and paper, reading physical books, working with my hands, quieting my mind, engulfing myself in nature, and producing dopamine through discomfort and exertion rather than idle scrolling.

PS – For kicks, after writing this, I engaged in a brief conversation with ChatGPT about The Shallows. This is the transcript:

Me: Write a brief summary of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows

ChatGPT: “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” is a book written by Nicholas Carr. In this book, Carr argues that the Internet and other digital technologies are changing the way we think and process information. He argues that our reliance on the Internet is leading to a shallowing of our attention span and a decline in our ability to engage in deep reading and thinking. Carr suggests that the Internet and other digital technologies are making us more susceptible to distractions and reducing our ability to focus and retain information. He concludes that the way we use technology is affecting our cognitive abilities, and that we need to be more mindful of how we use these technologies in order to maintain our intellectual capacities.

Me: What do critics think of Carr’s book?

ChatGPT: Critics have had mixed reactions to Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows”. Some have praised the book for bringing attention to the potential negative effects of digital technologies on our cognitive abilities and for raising important questions about the role of technology in society. They view the book as a thought-provoking analysis of the impact of technology on our minds and on our cultural values.

However, other critics have criticized the book for being overly pessimistic and alarmist, and for lacking scientific evidence to support its claims. They argue that while technology may have some negative effects on our attention and ability to focus, it also has the potential to enhance our cognitive abilities and to provide access to a wealth of information. They also note that it is too early to say with certainty what the long-term effects of technology will be on our brains and on our culture.

Overall, while “The Shallows” has sparked important discussions about the impact of technology on our cognitive abilities, it is important to approach the book with a critical eye and to consider both its strengths and weaknesses in evaluating its arguments.

Me: According to Carr, what are three things we should do to prevent the decay of our intellect?

ChatGPT: Nicholas Carr suggests several steps that we can take to prevent the decay of our intellect due to the Internet and other digital technologies. Some of these steps include:

  1. Limiting our exposure to screens: Carr argues that we should limit our time spent in front of screens and take frequent breaks from the Internet to allow our minds to rest and recharge.
  2. Engaging in deep reading: Carr emphasizes the importance of deep reading, which involves immersing oneself in a book or other written material and allowing one’s mind to focus and process the information.
  3. Cultivating reflection and contemplation: Carr suggests that we should create opportunities for reflection and contemplation in our lives, such as taking walks, meditating, or engaging in other activities that promote mindfulness.

By following these steps, Carr argues that we can mitigate the negative effects of digital technologies on our cognitive abilities and maintain our capacity for deep thinking and reflection.

PPS – The image used for this blog post was created by ChatGPT’s OpenAI visual cousin, DALL-E 2, using the prompt: “hand-drawn pencil image of Neo fighting against agents in The Matrix overlayed with Matrix code.”

By Joel Maust

Joel Maust is a marketer, blogger and photographer living in the beautiful Flathead Valley of northwest Montana.

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