580 of 595 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Death by a thousand distracting cuts
In this short but informative, thought-provoking book, Nicholas Carr presents an argument I've long felt to be true on a humanist level, but supports it with considerable scientific research. In fact, he speaks as a longtime computer enthusiast, one who's come to question what he once wholeheartedly embraced ... and even now, he takes care to distinguish between the...
Published on June 8, 2010 by William Timothy Lukeman
216 of 245 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Missed Opportunity
The Shallows is an expansion of Carr's 2007 article in The Atlantic, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The question with a book of this derivation is always: does it achieve more than the article did, or is it just a puffed up excuse to gain from the notoriety of the original piece, now freely available on the Internet? To that question, I answer that it is indeed more than...
Published on July 2, 2010 by Serious Fun
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580 of 595 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Death by a thousand distracting cuts,
In this short but informative, thought-provoking book, Nicholas Carr presents an argument I've long felt to be true on a humanist level, but supports it with considerable scientific research. In fact, he speaks as a longtime computer enthusiast, one who's come to question what he once wholeheartedly embraced ... and even now, he takes care to distinguish between the beneficial & detrimental aspects of the Internet.
The argument in question?
- Greater access to knowledge is not the same as greater knowledge.
- An ever-increasing plethora of facts & data is not the same as wisdom.
- Breadth of knowledge is not the same as depth of knowledge.
- Multitasking is not the same as complexity.
The studies that Carr presents are troubling, to say the least. From what has been gleaned to date, it's clear that the brain retains a certain amount of plasticity throughout life -- that is, it can be reshaped, and the way that we think can be reshaped, for good or for ill. Thus, if the brain is trained to respond to & take pleasure in the faster pace of the digital world, it is reshaped to favor that approach to experiencing the world as a whole. More, it comes to crave that experience, as the body increasingly craves more of anything it's trained to respond to pleasurably & positively. The more you use a drug, the more you need to sustain even the basic rush.
And where does that leave the mind shaped by deep reading? The mind that immerses itself in the universe of a book, rather than simply looking for a few key phrases & paragraphs? The mind that develops through slow, quiet contemplation, mulling over ideas in their entirety, and growing as a result? The mature mind that ponders possibilities & consequences, rather than simply going with the bright, dazzling, digital flow?
Nowhere, it seems.
Carr makes it clear that the digital world, like any other technology that undeniably makes parts of life so much easier, is here to stay. All the more reason, then, to approach it warily, suspiciously, and limit its use whenever possible, since it is so ubiquitous. "Yes, but," many will say, "everything is moving so fast that we've got to adapt to it, keep up with it!" Not unlike the Red Queen commenting that it takes all of one's energy & speed to simply remain in one place while running. But what sort of life is that? How much depth does it really have?
Because some aspects of life -- often the most meaningful & rewarding aspects -- require time & depth. Yet the digital world constantly makes us break it into discrete, interchangeable bits that hurtle us forward so rapidly & inexorably that we simply don't have time to stop & think. And before we know it, we're unwilling & even unable to think. Not in any way that allows true self-awareness in any real context.
Emerson once said (as aptly quoted by Carr), "Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind." The danger is that we'll not only willingly, even eagerly, wear those saddles, but that we'll come to desire them & buckle them on ever more tightly, until we feel naked without them. And we'll gladly pay anything to keep them there, even as we lose the capacity to wonder why we ever put them on in the first place.
Most highly recommended!
147 of 153 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A work which merits deep reading,
The Internet has made the information- universes of all of us much larger. At the same time it has altered the way we read, and the way we pay attention. The major thesis of this work is that it has made us shallower creatures. In Carr's words," We want to be interrupted, because each interruption brings us a valuable piece of information... And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider. (p. 133-4)" This means in effect that our powers of concentration and contemplation, if not diminished all at once, are nonetheless put less to use. It means that we do not really take in much of what we read and see, but rather let it pass by as something new comes to attract and distract us. It too means according to Carr transformations in actual brain- structure. And he uses the results of cognitive brain studies to point out how excessive use of the Internet reshapes our brain- structure.
Carr argues that with the advent of reading humanity developed a different kind of neural structure. Reading which was an extension of story- telling enabled us to begin to speak to ourselves, to contemplate reality in deeper ways. The bookman mind is a deeper mind than the electronic - mind , despite MacLuhan's contrary take.
Still one might argue that we need not be the slaves of the predominant technology. It all depends upon the will, decision, determination of the individual. The horde may decide to operate in a certain way, but one has the power to shut the machine off. Or one has the power to turn away from the Net, and focus only on one text one wants to work with. Many of us are engaged in making these decisions all the time.
Still I would say that my own experience substantiates Carr's main thesis. I have wasted in the past few years far too much time, jumping from one thing to another.
Nonetheless there is no turning back from the Revolution which Carr considers to be certainly the greatest since the introduction of the Printing press, and perhaps greatest since the introduction of the Alphabet and the Number System.
Perhaps what is truly required is a 'proper mix of both ways of 'reading and seeing' of both 'modes of being' i.e. the short- term internet attention mode, and the longer book- concentration mode. And this as I sense that when many begin to feel an exhaustion from the jumping around, come to understand it does not really help them in pursuit of their main goal, there will be some reaction in the other direction.
52 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written reminder that each medium has its tradeoffs,
When I first came across this book I noticed that a lot of my friends on social media were expressing disgust or boredom with the thesis of "Is the Internet frying our brain?" After all, who but a curmudgeon would claim that the most vital and transformative technology of our time might have a dark side? Especially at a time when leading edge educators are working furiously to bring their field up to date by incorporating the best of the latest technology in a way that improves education. Against this background Carr's book seems reminiscent of those poor backward folks who opposed the printing press. As the brilliant and funny curmudgeon Neil Postman once said about himself, Carr is indeed playing the role of the Luddite in some ways. Still, neither Postman nor Carr were trying to dismantle the Internet or just shriek an alarm with their work. They are trying to help us understand something important. With that in mind, let's take a more careful look at this book.
The Shallows is a thoroughly and broadly researched and beautifully written polemic which I found to represent two different things. First, it is a media analysis and culture critique. Second it is a pessimistic theory about the overall effect of web media on our thinking ability over time.
The first aspect will be a delight for those interested in the evolution of human cognition, those fascinated with media effects per se, the traditionally minded book scholars, and assorted geezers. It is a very satisfying cultural media critique very much in the spirit of Marshall Macluhan and Neil Postman even though it lacks Macluhan's showmanship or Postman's remarkable ever-present humor. It was this aspect made the book a worthwhile reminder for me, introduced me to some fascinating recent cognitive science work supporting the view that different media encourage different ways of thinking, and helped tie together a number of broad ideas for me regarding the evolution of human cognition and the influence of the tools we use.
The second aspect, for the more technically psychologically minded, and the more alarmist and pessimistic part, is a clever argument for competing and mutually destructive habits of attention allocation: (1) the nimble web browsing mind that constantly reserves attention and working memory for making navigational decisions and is exposed to massive amounts of information, and (2) the sustained attention ability that we learn with great effort over time for the purpose of reading and reflective thinking.
The second aspect is the one that most of the articles and marketing have been pushing, a thesis I'll call "Help! The Internet is Frying My Brain!"
Carr argues that the nimble web mind better exploits our more natural "bottom-up" or stimulus driven attention mechanisms, which is why we find it so powerful. He also argues that the undistracted reflective mind is far less natural but has unique advantages for human cognition. So it is worth retaining, he argues, _and_ we need to keep working deliberately at it in order to retain it. That alone would be an important point. Thus far, I think the attention argument is completely consistent with the media critique, and supports it. None of this so far says that our brain is being fried by the Internet.
Now comes the trickier part, and the part of Carr's thesis that to me is most controversial, the two ways of using attention may not only compete but may actually be mutually destructive. Carr offers his own experience and that of several other serious book readers to show that they are having increasing trouble reading for prolonged periods. Carr says that there is neuroscience data showing that this may be the result of web reading rather than just advancing age or other less ominous explanations.
This "fried brain" thesis is the part that is either revolutionary, or becomes the fatal flaw in The Shallows, depending on whether or not it is true. So is it true? Does Carr persuade us that not only are we thinking differently with different media (a very strong case I think) but that the Internet is frying our brains?
Today we remember the iconic wise curmudgeon, Socrates, only through his students. That's because old Soc didn't believe in writing. It seems he was a great proponent of contemplative thought and taught that contemplation depends heavily on memory. He thought it would seriously hurt people's memory to rely too much on writing things down. His criticism seems perverse today, even as we remember Soc fondly for his deep reflection and his provocative teaching methods. That's the historical role into which Nicholas Carr has cast himself, the media critic who invokes wisdom and reflection and plays them against seemingly unstoppable cultural trends towards greater convenience, efficiency, and information distribution.
Carr is the guy who wants to warn us about the hazards of writing on our memory. About the damage that the printing press will do to culture. About how TV will change us for the worse. And now about how the Internet will shift our values, instill bad habits, hurt our reading and thinking skills, and even destroy our powers of sustained concentration.
Socrates wasn't entirely wrong even though he bucked a trend that in retrospect was downright silly to oppose. People who don't specifically practice remembering things and instead devote everything to writing do find that they have weaker memories. That's the reason for all those memory courses, the best of which essentially just teach the same methods socrates would have used. The widespread distribution of news did have negative consequences in terms of reinforcing bias and propaganda on a massive scale.
There are some adverse consequences of all the TV watching we do. However none of these things has had the dire consequences that culture critics predicted, we have adapted in turn in some way to each of them, more or less successfully.
So Carr isn't entirely wrong about the tradeoffs involved in using modern technologies. He is not a "Luddite" and he does make a number of valid points.
Carr is not telling us to dismantle the Internet. He fully recognizes the value of technology. He is rather playing Socrates to the modern students. Most people, desperately trying to keep up with the amazing new technologies and learn new ways of getting better information with them will ignore Carr's message pretty much out of hand. "Carr is the only one affected negatively by the Internet, the rest of us are thriving."
Those folks who ignore culture critics out of hand are taking for granted the skills and expertise that many people have cultivated through sheer effort using sustained concentration. They are buying into the attractive fashionable modern viewpoint that just being exposed to a lot of information via technology will make you smart. The majority of people, the ones who go along with that implicit confusion of information and personal knowledge, will indeed lose some of the things we take for granted today. I think Carr is right about that, and that is the most profound message in this book. LISTEN TO IT. Even if you think, with good reason, that it is silly to imagine that using search engines and hyperlinks will hurt your concentration.
Still, the message that the Internet will make us stupid isn't quite right. Writing didn't entirely destroy our memory, it just shifted the habits we need to cultivate to preserve it. It seems like the wisest among us will recognize the value that culture critics like Carr have always had, they will appreciate the detail and care that good media critics like Carr put into their warnings, and they will remember the real tradeoffs between different kinds of media and take responsibility for the cultivation of their own minds.
Just as wise modern students still practice the methods used by Socrates, they will still learn to read and think deeply using books or the electronic equivalent, the wisest will still turn off the TV and other distractions when sustained concentration is called for, and they will understand the difference between various conditions and different kinds of media in general and will use each to its best advantage.
So long as we aren't stupid enough to stop cultivating our individual minds regardless of technology changes, media itself will not make us stupid. Listen to Carr's message, learn it, and then apply it to your use of technology. It's easy to dismiss the claim that the Internet will somehow fry your brain. It's another matter entirely to dismiss the value of cultivating your mind through personal reflection.
Related background reading:
On the evolution of cognition and symbolic thought (and secondarily, the role of reading):
A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness
The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain
On reading and the brain:
Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
On the role of tools in cognition:
Adaptive Thinking: Rationality in the Real World (Evolution and Cognition Series)
On the role of media technology in culture:
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology
On the trend to rising IQ scores in modern times:
What Is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect
On the practical limitations of human working memory:
Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long
The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory
216 of 245 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Missed Opportunity,
The Shallows is an expansion of Carr's 2007 article in The Atlantic, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The question with a book of this derivation is always: does it achieve more than the article did, or is it just a puffed up excuse to gain from the notoriety of the original piece, now freely available on the Internet? To that question, I answer that it is indeed more than the original piece. It provides much greater depth of detail for the brain science research that centrally informs the book, and he also expands on the nature and history of deep reading, in a way that I (someone who is doing research in this field) think is quite deft and responsible. In a sense, the earlier magazine article was really a book masquerading as a magazine article, whereas these days most books are magazine articles masquerading as books.
That said, The Shallows is somewhat less than the original Atlantic article in that Carr, as he approaches the end, falls into the most predictable sort of romantic nostalgia. We're becoming machines. The machines are taking our souls away. The Internet is compromising our integrity as humans. Machines are colonizing our minds. Soon they will be more interesting than we are, just like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I've heard this all before! Certainly, a man as clever and as hard-working as Nicholas Carr could have thought a little harder.
(An aside: Perhaps he's proving his point that we've already lost our ability to think deeply. Or perhaps he's DISproving his point that going to country--Carr had to "get away from it all" to write this book--helps us to be contemplative whereas cities only distract us.)
We need people who care about the things books have done for us and continue to do for us who can *also* think beyond the nineteenth century. We can't leave this to the machine people. So, I end up in the middle on this book: 3 stars. The first 80% is good but it fails to deliver a "where we go from here..." Let the good parts inspire the rest of us to take up where Carr has left off.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Important topic, mostly well written,
This is an extension of Carr's influential article "Is Google making us stupid?", and is in many ways a fascinating look at the possibility that the medium of the internet changes our ability to process information deeply. Carr is at his absolute best when he brings up the issue, pointing out what is at stake and drawing our intuitions out.
Word for word, this is not as interesting or well-written as his original article. In many places it tends to be stretched a bit thin -- which seems odd for a book on this topic. For example, since he is essentially expanding on an originally limited argument, he feels obliged to include a lot of well-worn history to expand the scope of media. We really don't need to know about Sumerian cuneiform or wax tablets or Greek philosophers (beyond the very obvious point that there is a history of media) for the argument he's making, since they don't fundamentally affect his argument.
Another weak point about the book is the writing on the brain and neuroplasticity. Since Carr is not a scientist himself, he doesn't have the background to write about this in a really authoritative way. What he has done is to work mainly off secondary (and tertiary) sources; basically taking for granted what other people have said. This shows through in a few areas where he relies too heavily on books such as Doidge's "The Brain that Changes Itself", already a pretty diluted look at neuroscience written by a psychoanalyst. If you want to know how reading and writing have changed the organization of the brain, there is a much better book out there called "Reading and the Brain" by Stanislas Dehaene. (a little digression here -- reading/writing have changed our perceptual mechanisms in the brain, while the internet is probably changing something like attentional control and executive function, so there are some important caveats to the phrase that "the medium is the message")
However, the chapter on memory was excellent, and brought me back into his argument. He makes the very important point (and one that won't be as obvious to most readers) that memory doesn't function like a hard drive; that instead it forms a central part of the way that we think. So there is a fundamental error in trying to "offload" our memory onto the web -- by not internalizing information, and instead thinking that we can just look at it later -- and one that we are probably not aware of.
Overall, I can't help but thinking that, despite his argument, it's a better world with the internet. Carr points out that the strategy that he used in writing the book was to rely on the best of both systems -- the fast internet for preliminary thinking and gathering sources, and quiet contemplation away from the internet to gather his thoughts and write the book. To have that option is something that is useful to be aware of.
80 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important read for our current net-obsessed age,
I familiarized myself with the work of Mr. Carr after I read his Does IT Matter? article for one of my graduate business classes. Since 2007, I am a regular reader of his blog, and I eagerly anticipated his previous book The Big Switch.
His latest effort is another worthwhile read with important insights into what is happening to our minds in the age of the Internet. I, myself, have struggled with the same ideas and issues described in The Shallows and found it very relevant. The book provides great examples and scientific explanations about memory, brain plasticity, and recent advances in cognitive science. Maybe some of the examples and topics from the book would be familiar to followers of his blog, but now they are laid out in such a way, that larger implication emerge from the text.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Do the costs (of the Net) really outweigh the benefits?,
Rich with historical anecdotes and replete with scientific surveys and evidence, "The Shallows" is a book that demands your respect whether you are comfortable giving it or not. And many people won't be. After all, Carr is a bit of a skunk at the cyber-garden party. I mean, how dare he suggest that all is not wine and roses with our glorious new world of instantaneous connectivity, abundant information flows, and cheap (often free) media content! Obviously, most of us want to believe that all adds up to a more well-rounded worldview and greater wisdom about the world around us. Carr is skeptical of those claims and "The Shallows" is his latest effort to poke a hole in the cyber-utopian claims that sometimes pervade discussions about Internet. Although, ultimately, he doesn't quite convinced me that "The Web is a technology of forgetfulness," he has made a powerful case that its effects may not be as salubrious as many of us have assumed.
But the ultimate question is: Do the costs really outweigh the benefits? Is it the case that these technologies "turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities -- those for reason, perception, memory, emotion"? I think that goes a bit too far, however. Importantly, Carr doesn't really ever answer the crucial question here: Were we really better off in the decades prior to the rise of the Net? Did we really read more and engage in the more contemplative deep-reading and thinking he Carr fears we are losing because of the Net? Count me among those who think that -- whatever most of us are doing in front our our computers most nights, and no matter how distracting it is -- it has to be better than much of the crap we wasted our spare time on in the past!
It would have also been nice to have seen Carr offer up some personal suggestions for how we each might better manage cognitive overload, which can be a real problem. In a brief "digression" chapter entitled "On the Writing of This Book," Carr does mention some of the steps he took personally to make sure he could complete "The Shallows" without being driven to distraction by the Web and digital technologies. But he doesn't dwell on that much, which is a shame. A bit of a self-help can go a long way toward alleviating the worst forms of cognitive overload, although it will continue to be a struggle for many of us.
Despite the reservations I've raised here, Nick Carr's "The Shallows" is beautifully written and is my early favorite for the most important info-tech book of the year. It will be required reading in this field for many years to come. [You can find my complete review of Carr's "The Shallows" over at the Technology Liberation Front blog.]
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Only the very shallow could give this book a low rating,
If you truly want to know how technology (the Web in particular) is literally altering the functionality of our brains, buy this book. If not, go back to skimming webpages and pretend like nothing is happening.
Some great quotes from the book (if you still have the ability to concentrate long enough to comprehend them):
"Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that's the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas. With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We're able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source."- The Shallows (page 125)
"We can assume that the neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming, and multitasking are expanding and strengthening while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding. In 2009, researchers from Stanford University found signs that this shift may already be well underway. They gave a battery of cognitive tests to a group of heavy media multitaskers as well as a group of relatively light multitaskers. They found that heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted by irrelevant environmental stimuli," had significantly less control over the contents of their working memory, and we in general much less able to maintain their concentration on a particular task. Whereas the infrequent multitaskers exhibited relatively strong "top-down attentional control," the habitual multitaskers showed "a greater tendency for bottom-up attentional control, " suggesting that "they are sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information." Intensive multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy," commented Clifford Nass, the Stanford professor who led the research. "Everything distracts them."- The Shallows (page 142)
"Considering how much easier it is to search digital text than printed text, the common assumption has been that making journals available on the net would significantly broaden the scope of scholarly research, leading to a much more diverse set of citations. But that's not at all what Evans [Sociologist of the University of Chicago] discovered. As more journals moved online, scholars actually cited fewer articles that they had before. And as old issues of printed journals were digitized and uploaded to the Web, scholars cited more recent articles with increasing frequency. A broadening of available information led as Evans described it to a "narrowing of science and scholarship." In explaining the counter intuitive findings in a 2008 `Science' article, Evans noted that automated information-filtering tools, such as search engines, tend to serve as amplifiers of popularity, quickly establishing and then continually reinforcing a consensus about what information is important and what isn't. "The ease of following hyperlinks, moreover, leads online researchers to "bypass many of the marginally related articles that print researchers" would routinely skim as they flip through the pages of a journal or book. The quicker that scholars are able to "find prevailing opinion," wrote Evans, the more likely they are "to follow it, leading to more citations referencing fewer articles." Though much less efficient than searching the Web, old-fashioned library research probably served to widen scholars horizons: "By drawing researchers through unrelated articles, print browsing and perusal may have facilitated broader comparisons and led researchers into the past." - The Shallows (page 217)
"Spending time in the park, the researchers found, "significantly improved" people's performance on the cognitive tests, indicating a substantial increase in attentiveness. Walking in the city, by contrast, led to no improvement in test results."- The Shallows (page 219)
"In sum," concluded the researches, "simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control." Spending time in the natural world seems to be of "vital importance" to "effective cognitive functioning."- The Shallows (page 220)
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strong on inspiration and ideas; questionable on "truth",
I have mixed feelings about this book. I'm a strong believer in
reading. I think it changes lives. I feel that the ability to read
deeply and to think critically about what you read is especially
crucial both in the practical sense if you want to be able to live
without making lots of stupid mistakes, and in the intellectual
sense if you want a rich and rewarding inner life. But, on the
other side, I've learned so much from the Internet and it is so
important to the work I do, that I am unwilling to give it up. (I'm
a programmer, and the technical information that I need in order to
write the code I do is available on the Net.)
So, in reading this book, I'm looking less for proof that I must
give up the Internet and more for techniques and strategies that
will help me to get the best and the most from both modes or styles
of reading and thinking.
And, one technique that I use when I want to "go deep", or at least
to avoid "the shallows", is to take notes as I read, then to read
those notes, to write comments on those notes, and to write a book
review like this one. Taking notes forces me to concentrate on what
I'm reading. Writing comments on those notes and writing a review
forces me to *actively* work through some of the content from the
book. That's very much, I believe, in the spirit of what Carr is
trying to guide us toward.
But, perhaps some of the best guidance that you'll get from Carr's
book is the encouragement to increase your awareness while you read,
whether you are reading magazine articles on paper, books on paper,
Web pages, downloaded PDF files, and (soon) ePubs. Try to be aware
of when you do need to focus, and give yourself time to do that
concentrated, more linear form of thinking. And, conversely, try to
be aware of when you do need to read or even skim a variety of
related topics, when you are following a number of different
hypertext links. And, when you do, make sure you have a rational
for doing so.
On the other hand, listening to Jake Shimabukuro play "While my
guitar softly weeps" on the Ukulele at [...]
... well, I'll have to rationalize that one as a break and as
recreation. He is a master at that instrument, by the way.
Perhaps Carr's most ominous claim is that reading, skimming,
browsing the Web changes your brain physically, and not, according
to Carr, for the better. How much you worry about this might
depend on who you are and whether you have kids. A parent might
want to worry if a young (or not so young) child is spending most
of her life on the Web or with a mobile phone on the side of her
head and is no longer reading. That might have a lasting effect on
a growing brain, and possibly not a good one. However, at my age
(60+), any and all mental work and exercise is likely to the good,
as long as I get some variety.
So, what do you do, if, like me, you want to avoid a degenerating
attention span? Here are some suggestion you will find in Carr's
book, in some cases by reading and inferring between the lines:
- Do at least some of your reading on paper, or if on the Internet,
read something that does *not* have hyperlinks. Doing that will
reduce the lure of being distracted by every seemingly interesting
- Read something long. Yes, you can read deep when you are reading
short pieces, but the ability to focus for long periods of time is
one that you do not want to lose.
- Take notes while you read.
- Write a critique of what you read. Analyze and criticize the
quality and the content. Try to specify some of the consequences
- Read something that has *no* multimedia: no audio, no video, and
very few if any photographs. In addition to reducing
distractions, the lack of images and video will encourage you to
use your own imagination.
What is the future of reading? There are a aspects to a full answer
to this question. Here are a few:
- Paper will be gone. And, that's good. We cut down too many
- But, we will still have book-like content. There will still be
novels and stories that you will read sequentially, without
skimming and without skipping around. You might read them on an
ePub/eBook reader, but the experience will still be very
- Our reading material will all be search-able. In fact, we
likely have cross indexing software that will enable us to quickly
search the content of all the books and ePubs we've ever read.
- We will be able to keep huge libraries. It will not be
unreasonable to expect to keep a library of all the books you have
ever read. Tera-byte sized hard disks are getting cheaper (less
than $100 in the U.S.A. as I write this). And, perhaps in the
future we will store much of our content on the Internet or in the
- And, reading in a focused, concentrated, and attentive way will be
up to you, your choice, just as it *always* has been.
If we no longer or seldom write on paper, will it change the way and
style and content of our writing? Yes, it's likely to do so. It
already has done so for many of us. In the following ways:
- Frequent edits and easier changes -- Cut, copy, and paste, as well
as search and replace give us writing powers that paper cannot
- Easier collaboration -- We can pass our documents among us and can
share our work and the work of others more easily with electronic
documents. Plus, our use of electronic documents will lead to the
development of tools that enhance our powers of collaboration
across geographic distances. (The ability to post a book review
like this one is one aspect of that extended ability to
Still, there is something enjoyable about making marks on paper ...
What we really need to ask is: why is writing valuable? I think
part of the answer is that writing forces us to have something to
say and to express it in words. Plus, writing encourages us to
organize our thoughts, for example to produce a coherent, logical
argument and to support that argument in a 5-paragraph essay. And,
writing, possibly in the form of taking notes, helps us to be more
attentive to what we read, and to think through the ideas we
encounter. This leaves aside the most obvious benefit of writing,
which is that it produces a record that we or others can review and
But, these benefits depend very much on the kind and style of
writing that we do, and also, it's likely, on the amount of effort
we put into it.
Summarizing a bit: We need to be aware of and attentive to many of
the ideas and problems and disputes that Carr discusses. Carr
discusses lots of research from the fields of psychology and
neurology to prove his points. That research is questionable, it
seems to me, especially given the use to which Carr puts
it. Thinking these issues through, however, and then being aware of
them as we use computers and the Internet and as we read will
trigger suggestions about how you and I can become better readers
and better computer users. You and I will need to define for
ourselves what we mean by "better".
42 of 49 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Started out as an essay and never gets deeper,
Nicholas Carr's _The Shallows_ began life as an essay on whether Google use (and computer-related work in general) is making us stupid. An interesting premise for sure, and one that needs an in-depth treatment.
Much like the title, though, Carr's work never makes the transition from essay to full-fledged book. It avoids the deep end, reading like a meditation on consciousness when it should be a hard-hitting science book that repeatedly backs up its premise that Internet use is diminishing us. _The Shallows_ better resembles the brain physiology equivalent of _Pilgrim at Tinker Creek_ than a hard-hitting exposé and warning.
Problems with Carr's direction manifest early on, as the buildup to the core premise takes forever to unfold. While Carr will argue that today's readers can no longer follow an extended argument because they spend too much time scanning text for keywords, his own book only adds grist for that mill. It is one thing to lay out a nuanced argument, but eventually one must present that argument. That we get too much of a history of learning at the beginning of _The Shallows_ only forces the reader to acknowledge that perhaps not much real argument follows, as the remaining bundle of pages look slighter and slighter as one reads on.
And this is too bad, as _The Shallows_ does eventually present some interesting facts about our use of computer-related tech and gadgetry. The problem is that extracting meaning from those facts eludes the author. What can we truly make of the reality that our use of tech is making us more like machines and less like humans beings? If the way we work online does alter the physical layout of our brains in harmful ways, we need to see worst case scenarios. Sadly, there's a sense of guilt in Carr that appears to prevent him from delivering the death blow to the detrimental effects of Internet usage, allowing himself an out in case he's wrong. Indeed, after detailing his own fast from tech that allowed him to finally concentrate enough to write _The Shallows_, Carr confesses to lapsing back into the wired lifestyle he supposedly decries.
All this leads the reader to ask, "Well, is the Internet bad for us or not?" The hints are there that it is, but Carr never goes all-in. Worse, even the points he makes in favor of the premise that it could be harmful don't lead to much conjecture about the fallout of such a slide. His section on the shallowness of multitasking COULD have been a profound indictment of the modern work world, but we instead get more of a meditative answer than anything hard-hitting. We read how traditional facts are no longer memorized (such as dates of events), as we instead relegate them to databases and fill our minds with "other" things. Yet is this a good or bad course? And how would the negative course alter society for the worse? Carr hints at negative outcomes, but we need more than hints and a few philosophical musings.
The lack of substantive premise support and forceful, dystopian warnings renders _The Shallows_ shallow. It's a book that could have been a contender, but instead it reads like a padded essay that was rushed into print. How sad that a book that decries reading by skimming almost forces readers to skim it as they search for something substantive to latch onto.
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The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (Paperback - June 6, 2011)