My book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains turns ten this year, and to mark the occasion, my publisher, W. W. Norton, is publishing a new and expanded tenth-anniversary edition. It will be out on March 3.
Along with a new introduction, the new edition includes, as an Afterword, a new chapter that explores relevant technological and cultural developments over the last decade, with a particular focus on the cognitive and behavioral effects of smartphones and social media. The new chapter, titled “The Most Interesting Thing in the World,” also reviews salient research that’s appeared in the years since the first edition came out.
Here’s a preview of the new Introduction:
Welcome to The Shallows. When I wrote this book ten years ago, the prevailing view of the Internet was sunny, often ecstatically so. We reveled in the seemingly infinite bounties of the online world. We admired the wizards of Silicon Valley and trusted them to act in our best interest. We took it on faith that computer hardware and software would make our lives better, our minds sharper. In a 2010 Pew Research survey of some 400 prominent thinkers, more than 80 percent agreed that, “by 2020, people’s use of the Internet [will have] enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices.”[
The year 2020 has arrived. We’re not smarter. We’re not making better choices.
The Shallows explains why we were mistaken about the Net. When it comes to the quality of our thoughts and judgments, the amount of information a communication medium supplies is less important than the way the medium presents the information and the way, in turn, our minds take it in. The brain’s capacity is not unlimited. The passageway from perception to understanding is narrow. It takes patience and concentration to evaluate new information — to gauge its accuracy, to weigh its relevance and worth, to put it into context — and the Internet, by design, subverts patience and concentration. When the brain is overloaded by stimuli, as it usually is when we’re peering into a network-connected computer screen, attention splinters, thinking becomes superficial, and memory suffers. We become less reflective and more impulsive. Far from enhancing human intelligence, I argue, the Internet degrades it.
Much has changed in the decade since The Shallows came out. Smartphones have become our constant companions. Social media has insinuated itself into everything we do. The dark things that can happen when everyone’s connected have happened. Our faith in Silicon Valley has been broken, yet the big Internet companies wield more power than ever. This tenth anniversary edition of The Shallows takes stock of the changes. It includes an extensive new afterword in which I examine the cognitive and cultural consequences of the rise of smartphones and social media, drawing on the large body of new research that has appeared since 2010. I have left the original text of the book largely unchanged. I’m biased, but I think The Shallows has aged well. To my eyes, it’s more relevant today than it was ten years ago. I hope you find it worthy of your attention.