Is our constant exposure to electronic stimuli good for us? Can we transform the data we receive into the knowledge we need? Are we swapping deep understanding for shallow distractions?
In this book, Nicholas Carr argues that our constant exposure to multiple and faster data streams is changing the way our brains are wired. This change, which is due to the inherent plasticity of the brain, tends to reduce our capacity to absorb and retain what we read. Mr Carr cites a number of different studies to support his views, and the book makes for interesting reading.
Mr Carr acknowledges that the digital world brings both advantage and disadvantage: `Every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities.' The Internet is a wonderful tool for finding information, but value usually requires some analysis, and often requires a context which is not always immediately obvious. How do we find a balance between those aspects of life that require self-awareness, time and careful consideration, and those aspects of life where an automatic (or semi automatic) response is more appropriate and perhaps even required? Do we understand what choices we have, or are we responding in line with the immediacy of the medium we are using? Are we consumers of data or evaluators of information? Does it matter? I think it does: `The more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctly human forms of empathy, compassion, and emotion.'
The most valuable aspect of this book, to me, was thinking about the short and long term consequences of the Internet. Those of us who grew to adulthood before the Internet shaped the way we work and communicate have (to varying degrees) embraced the benefits and new possibilities afforded.
A return to the past is neither possible nor desirable - but conscious choice is both.
on 15 November 2011
When I was younger, there was no internet. I filled my days with going to primary school, playing with friends and reading books. When I went to secondary school, there were a few computers with internet access and I had no internet connection at house. At the end of six years of education the internet was available everywhere: there were many computers with internet access at school and my parents had subscribed to a fast internet plan at home. What happened in the ten years that followed is history: the internet became pervasive and was accessible from everywhere.
I have lived in two worlds: one in which there was no internet and one in which there was. Of course, I was influenced by both worlds and I have the feeling that this makes me - just like many more people of about my age - a bit special. I have learned to appreciate books and what they can teach people. But I have also discovered what the internet can bring to the table: instant access to lots of information and friends. People who are older than I am, appreciate print stuff more than they appreciate web things. For those younger than me, it's the opposite. Of course, these are generalizations and over-simplifications, but my generation has a big advantage over the ones that went before and came after: we live and lived in both pre-internet and internet times.
Why this story? Well, I think it illustrates Carr's argument quite nicely. In this book, Carr tells us that the internet has physiological and neurological effects on the brain. Because of the way the internet is structured, namely around short bits of hyperlinked information, our brain gets attuned to this new method, which is fundamentally different from the 'old' way of the book or the 5000 word article. Those texts contained long and difficult arguments and story lines, but our brains find it difficult to concentrate on understanding what is going on in the text. They got better at working with short and hyperlinked texts and superficial reading on the expense of the ability for deep-reading.
This has all kinds of interesting effects. Of course, we all know of news papers and TV shows, which have shortened material and added extra content that could be read and understood by hyperlinked minds. But the real changes are much bigger. According to Carr, we are loosing our natural capacities--those for reason, perception, memory, emotion (p.211), which causes a deep form of alienation.
And right there, when I read that sentence in this book, it struck me: I grew up in an age and time where the internet was not everywhere, one where reasoning and logical arguments were still valid for all, and one where having actual facts stored in your brain was actually valued a lot. The internet did not make all that irrelevant - at least not yet - but it did change how people approach questions, problems, ideas and change (even cultural change). I am in the strange position that I live in both worlds: I love Facebook, RSS and news sites, but I also have a few hundred books that I have read and try to use in understanding the world and what's happening in it. Both worlds are enticing to me, but I know too many people that only favor the internet and no longer are able to grasp the goods in books and long articles.
Of course, this book has also some shortcomings. One of them is that this book does not shed a lot of light on the many big and great advantages of the internet. For example, the fact that now every once-poor farmer in Africa can go up on the internet to check on the price of his product in the next town or market is great, because it enables him to decide about the best price-point to sell his product. Another example, the fact that it's as easy for me (a Dutch citizen) as for a London native to book tickets for The Lion King musical is also a very great convenience. And there is more, much more. Other books have been written about that. Carr's work could have been stronger if it also had focused on that kind of the medallion.
Another shortcoming of this book is that it's being quite firm about it's conclusions, but that the research that it's based on is not at all that old. Yes, it's possible to check for changes in the brain very soon. But to answer the question if our culture is changing because of the internet and it's mind-altering work, I really believe that it's too early to say so.
Nevertheless, Carrs book is entertaining in its breadth and interesting because of its persuasiveness.
The Shallows is a book that comes with quite a bit of hype and promise. It covers the Internet phenomenon and how its changing our deep thinking skills and ability to read and process information properly. It was also short-listed for the Pulitzer prize this year. Its not a particularly long book - just over 200 pages. However, it will take a little time to read as it can get quite technical with neurological functions being explained. It certainly isn't aimed at those whose attention has been affected by the internet. This being said it does bring quite a bit of evidence to the table and explain the issues well. The chapter on Google is very illuminating. There are digression chapters which tend to be written in the first person and relate to the authors experiences. These digressions are of some interest but sometimes they can just distract - the very thing that the author says the internet does to its users.
The problems that I had with the book, aside from getting through it which I managed to do over a period of five days, are about the missed opportunities and bias. A lot of the evidence here actually relates to people who are 30+. This is important and shows how the adoption of the internet has changed their thinking and reading. However, the internet natives of under 20 who are only used to the internet are not covered in as much depth. There is some evidence but not a lot and their experiences are vital as they are only used to the internet. I was left with the question of what the effect is on that demographic. I have experience with them at work and can probably make some assumptions but not from what is contained in this book. On the very last page some quotes for the positives of the internet of our thinking are given and the quickly dismissed. That's a shame in many ways as if a more balanced view was given before jumping to conclusions then I might embrace those conclusions more readily. Whilst I don't doubt that they are correct (for instance one being that the internet is a distraction engine that does not allow for deep learning or thinking) I do feel that I haven't been fully convinced on the evidence here for those reasons of suspected bias and demographics.
This is an important book. It does focus the mind (ironically) on the internet and its long term effects on the users and their thinking. It does this in an over-long way at times and this kind of defeats its very premise. But it is recommended as if you manage to get through the harder to read sections it contains important and useful information that can be thought provoking and also useful for those who work on the internet for extended periods, work in education and use it as a tool or those interested in Psychology and social sciences. I fit all three of those categories so was well served by this book.
on 24 December 2010
The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr puts forward the argument that the internet is changing us in ways we may not have realised before. Nicholas Carr is convinced that despite the wide benefits the internet has brought, it is also having a fundamental impact on the physiology of our brains, altering not only the way we perceive reality but how we actually take in information and process it.
It is a quite shocking assessment, and one that he backs up with a range of evidence. As a non-expert in this area, I was left somewhat convinced by the cumulative force of the evidence presented, though I retained deep scepticism on the individual bits. The evidence also at times appeared "selective" - not enough studies cited that offer contrarian position. Mr Carr clearly has become convinced of the narrative and brings all the evidence to argue for it.
Presentationally, it does start off somewhat slow, but given the subject at hand, one is forced to concentrate if only to avoid falling in the company of shallows. My main quibble is that the book really offers no alternative and for some readers it may read that he has failed to address the deeper metaphysical questions. There are deep questions raised, but it ends up quite hopelessly - not clear just how we are to adapt to this inevitable new world of shallows. Nevertheless, I think he offers enough for others to explore in more depth this fascinating subject. The internet is clearly here to stay, if the dangers cited are real then this demands much more debate than we have had in general media.
on 3 September 2010
This book starts with an absorbing history of how technological advances through the ages, such as the invention of writing and the Gutenberg press, have had a profound impact on the way in which humans think, and as a result on society as a whole. It then explores the science of how the way you use your mind actually changes the physical structure of your brain, which in turn reinforces certain thought processes in a kind of "vicious circle". The central theory of the book seems to be that the period of popular reading ushered in by the Gutenberg press was a kind of "golden era" of deep human thought, but that the internet with its endless distractions is causing us to revert to our earlier, shallower state of thinking. It presents both negative and positive sides of the net though. Generally a very accessible read but very thought-provoking.
on 21 June 2014
I have always considered that mankind’s greatest asset was probably its ability to change its mind – in other words, to adapt. Having read ‘The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr, I now realize only too well the true import of that statement and how it can cut both ways – and not always for the best. This book can be seen both as Mr Carr’s personal manifesto and as a shot across our collective bows. What is happening, according to him, is nothing less than a major transformation in the way we think, as a result of (increasingly) allowing the internet to become our primary tool for accessing information. That could be seen as either an astounding claim or just a sensationalist observation, until one begins to realize just how extensive these changes are – and what a frightening prospect this may actually be.
I read this book as a result of seeing it mentioned in ‘Our Final Invention’ by James Barat alongside Jaron Lanier’s ‘You Are Not a Gadget’. Lanier’s book is excellent but I thought that ‘The Shallows’ seemed to cover more ground in a much more cohesive way. There’s a marvellous potted history of communication in general, covering speech and writing, through the movable type of Gutenberg and into the computer age, where the really scary stuff starts. There are many relevant references to neuroplasticity – a concept with which I am familiar but the extent of which I hadn’t really been aware of until now – and the book is peppered throughout with references to scientific (and not so scientific) writing both old and new in support of his argument.
Carr is a sensible enough writer to anticipate many of the criticisms that he probably imagines will be levelled at his book. Among these is his somewhat shocking admission that having first practically cut himself off from all things digital in order to rediscover the concentration needed to write the book in the first place, he now finds himself with the book completed but being drawn back into the very real dangers he is warning us all against: an environment which is slowly dragging us into an era of short attention spans and ultimately, a lack of any real choice. In addition, there is a refreshing dearth of finger wagging here. Occasionally, he will make an unambiguous judgement such as ‘This is wrong’ but such occasions are few. Rather, with an impressive amount of germane research to back up his theories, he allows us to come to our own conclusions, thereby making each denouement even more alarming than the last. I shall certainly be working my way through the further reading list at the end.
This is one of those books that deserves to have a wider appeal but probably won’t. As an actual book (as opposed to some confusing sound bites scattered across a webpage), it represents everything Mr Carr is campaigning for in a world that’s not really listening anyway. I personally am convinced enough by his arguments to turn straight back to page one and read it through again. A thoroughly engrossing book.
on 31 October 2012
A succinct title for a fascinating book. The basic premise is that our brains changed once books became the main (but not the only) method of learning and absorbing information - with `deep' reading and thinking being required - and our brains are changing again as the net has become not only our main source of information but also, after a fashion, our long-term memory.
Carr cites numerous persuasive neuroscientific studies to back up his thesis. And, of course, for me (in my 50s, all my education in pre-internet years, heavy user of the internet for the last 17 years), a lot of what he says rings true.
Like Carr, I became aware a few years ago that my ability to concentrate for long periods was not what it once was. I would start reading a book, or even a long section of text on the net, and my attention would begin to wander. I had become too accustomed to clicking on links, to watching TV with scrolling bars of text here and there, to having my attention pulled in several directions at once.
My kids slouch in front of the TV - partly watching the TV, partly looking at YouTube etc on their phones/tablets, conducting email/Facebook/text conversations with the friends, all at the same time. On the one hand, one can admire their multi-tasking skills but, as Carr points out, research evidence suggests that very little of the information being processed in this type of situation is ever stashed away in long-term memory. Perhaps this is not important for remembering what's on the TV, or what your friend is telling you via Facebook, but it's likely to be more important if you're doing your homework on the net, while listening to music, and checking your emails every five minutes, and responding to text messages, and monitory your twitter feed.
The points he made about memory were very interesting. Many of us now need to remember very little - from how to get from A to B (Google maps, SatNav systems) to facts professionals would once have memorised but can now be called up in seconds with a few keystrokes - as the net quickly becomes (or has become already) an easily searchable repository of all human knowledge.
Carr doesn't, in the end, decide whether or not the changes are good or bad - in the end, it matter not as the changes are one-way (for now) - but the story he tells is a fascinating one, and the book certainly made me think, and reflect, on my use of the net.
Ultimately, this a thought-provoking book published too early in the history of the net. In 50-100 years, one assumes, we will be able to see just what difference - if any - the net made to our brains.
on 12 June 2011
I have just finished Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. I am usually not one to give in to technology scepticism, having built my life and career around the advent of Internet. However, Nicholas Carr, whose previous efforts Does IT Matter? and The Big Switch made nuanced but well-argued points about the usage of IT at work, brings it home with Internet's effect on our thinking, reading and writing habits. After having read it, I must admit, I shall not stick the techno-sceptic label on this book the way I shall do it on other similar efforts (For example, I found Andrew Keen's The Cult of The Amateur a pointless effort to complain about the erosion of power from the perspective of Oxbridge trained editors); this book instead is quite a balanced effort to ask the question whether Internet is truly a 'mind-expanding' technology, or this may be contributing to dumb us down.
It is indeed common to have such arguments thrown at us with the advent of every new technology and Nicholas Carr makes an effort to acknowledge this. His primary argument rests of neuro-plasticity, human brain's tendency to rewire itself when we start using a tool frequently. And, this is not about developing a new habit, but this essentially comes at the expense of an old habit, and in what is the book's most eloquent sections, he makes the point about the history and the cultural effects of the book itself. Indeed, he refers back to Socratic defence of the Oral tradition, where Socrates warns against Writing, saying that this would be a tool 'not of memory, but of reminder'. The same argument holds against the Internet today, with its infinite repository of data along with its capacity of immeasurable distraction.
The book also draws on the theory of Cognitive Load, developed by John Seweller and others, which dwells on the understanding of human memory in two parts, a small working memory and an almost infinite capacity long term memory. The argument here is that using internet puts working memory in stress, because at every step, one needs to make choices and decisions, and therefore create a bottleneck and limit our capacity to reflect and cultivate a thought.
I must admit that I could connect with this book as I reckon I suffer from a bit of a Attention Deficiency Disorder, and sometimes struggle to read a book these days. This is surprising, because I love reading. But it is common these days that as I start reading, all sorts of ideas start buzzing in my head. More interestingly, and this is where I tend to agree to the thesis put forward by the book in question, sometimes my reading gets waylaid by the references made in the text I am reading. So, often, as I see a reference of another work in the body of text, I shall stop and jump to the reference section and see what's being referred to. And, quite commonly, this will lead to another exploration, often on Amazon or on an Electronic Database or Google if I am near a computer or have my phone nearby, and - way leads to another way - will soon stop reading the main text altogether. I have recognized this as one of habits I wish to change, and Nicholas Carr's book almost explains why I may be suffering from such a problem (though I don't want to be deterministic).
In this fascinating book, Nicholas Carr investigates whether our increasing use of the expanding resources on the internet is causing changes in the way we think. The starting point for this quest is the author's observation (or suspicion) that he's finding it harder to concentrate on reading, and he attributes this to the way the internet apparently encourages a more superficial way of engaging with information, in which the myriad alternative pathways it offers constitute distractions that we're all too eager to embrace. Carr suggests that one of the reasons for this is that our brains are being rewired by our actions: while we're getting better at pointing, clicking, reading short pieces of text and looking at pictures, we've been getting worse at understanding and remembering what we've been looking at. This transition is memorably summarised on p7: "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski".
The book is an expansion of Carr's widely-discussed 2008 article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", and the extra space allows him to go into greater depth, discussing topics such as the plasticity of the brain, the place of the networked computer in the history of technology and the nature of reading. I found this topic particularly interesting - especially the transition from oral to literate cultures, the history of writing (early texts had no spaces between words, which reflected language's origins in speech), and the suggestion that the act of concentrating on a book runs counter to our naturally deep-seated tendency to be responsive to distractions which could constitute a threat or an opportunity. There's also the remarkably specific observation that readers of English have been found to draw more heavily on areas of the brain associated with deciphering shapes than do readers of Italian - probably because English words, unlike Italian, often look very different from the way they sound. Finally, Carr's survey also looks at how human memory works and its relationship to computer memory. Regarding the latter, I was reminded of Sergey Brin's 2010 comment "We want to make Google the third half of your brain" - an aspiration which would surely have been referred to - and minutely dissected - by Carr if it had been made in time for this book's publication earlier that year.
Although I greatly enjoyed reading this book, my feeling about the author's thesis is ambiguous: whilst I can testify to how the internet can distract, I'm not sure - from personal experience - about whether the Web really is "a technology of forgetfulness" [p193], or whether its all-encompassing use has affected my ability to digest the message of the printed word. To take the most obvious counterexample, I had no problem at all concentrating on this book, but doubtless that was because I found it to be well-written, stimulating and engaging. Your mileage, of course, may vary.