Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Book: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
Author: Nicholas Carr
Edition: Hardback
Read: June 2011
256 pages
Rated: 4 1/2 out of 5

You read each book with a certain amount of prejudice going into it. There is the anticipation of learning something new, of being excited or challenges, or even confirmations, to your existing ideas. With Carr, it was a mixture. A few years back he wrote a book saying that information technology departments will become obsolete—if that comes, it will be over a decade away and more likely be trans-formative than revolution.

But what drew me to the book was an Atlantic Monthly article called, Is Google Making Me Stupid? This was the forerunner to The Shallows. Carr starts with how his ability to do deep thinking is deteriorating. He traces this with three threads: how our brains function, how various technology innovations affect our thinking and how the Internet works.

As we have gone from oral to writing to the printing press to newspapers, each has made a difference in how we process our information. With each advance, we have generally advanced our ways of thinking. With writing, we can develop thoughts; with the printing press, we are able to distributed our thinking—and make it widely knows. But we also lost the need to keep thoughts in memory; we lost the personal connections.

Carr talks extensively about how the brain functions. He emphasizes how dynamically the connections are made and easy the brain re-connects itself. Also, how the brain stores and processes what comes to it. As situations occurs, the brain either makes new connections or-and strengthens old ones. This is the crux of Carr's concern. What types of are being made and is it good for us—good for us in that we can be broader and deeper?

This brings us to the third thread. The Internet, and Google is the representative here, thrives not so much on content, but on how quickly we can jump from place to place to place. The hyper-linking of pages leads us not to assimilate a page as a whole, but to jump and be sure to do it soon. This jumping is not from point to point to point, but from document to document to document. This leads not to understanding and comprehension, and not even to breadth of subject matter, but to a disjointed view of the material.

You take all three threads together and you get a picture of modern man's brain, being rewired to be focused on short, intense bursts of information. But then not being able to correlate the information into a coherent structure. This is the demise of deep thinking which Carr started the book with.

Somethings Carr talks about are:
  • Our society loves the thought we can multi-task, but can we really? He quotes  Grafman and points out that as you become busy multiple tasking, you become more dependent on conventional or suggested solutions and ideas than looking at original ideas or challenging the solutions as being the solution for the problem. I can say this was true for me. The busier which I got, the less likely which I to be able to figure out solutions. Carr also quotes a couple of people, Clifford Nass and Michael Merzenich—they both indicate that mutli-taskers are trained to pay attention to “crap” and  that they are “suckers for irrelevancy.”
  • There is an interesting contrast where Carr references Steven Johnson's book, Everything Bad is Good for You. Johnson points out the computer users brains are more stimulated than book readers. Johnson interpretation is that reading books under-stimulates the senses. Carr says that is the wrong interpretation—it should be that book readers use that extra capacity to enjoy their activity. I am not sure that Carr is right on this as it would make more sense that up to a point, an active brain is one which is”in the game.”
  • One of Carr's main points is that the Web is designed to break our concentration. Hyper-links are the main culprits. Each time which we click on a linnk, it creates a break in concentration, which disrupts our thinking. He points out that Google gets paid more when we click through. The statement Carr makes is that Google is literally in the business of disruption. (157)
  • Carr continues on with this thought with online reading of books. While the words are the same, the context is not. With a book, the words are surrounded by the whiteness of the page border. But when reading a book online, there are all kinds of distractions surrounding the page. Carr states, to make a book discoverable and searchable online is also to dismember it. The cohesion of its test, the linearity of its argument... is sacrificed.
  • Erasmus had his students keep a list of quotes which was really a notebook of memorable quotations. These became commonplace books for readers to have. They aided in recording the writer's thoughts to memory. It was a stimulus to the imagination. As we have progressed, educators have decided they were a hindrance rather than a help. Today, why have the aide to memory when you can Google what you want to get everything without the effort?
  • When we recall our memories, it brings our thoughts back into a short term memory. This very act will give the memory/thought a new set of contexts and meanings. Consequently, there is a deepening of the thought.  Having the Internet cannot be a substitute for our memories according to Carr. But isn't this a round-about argument for having an external source for our memories? That the mere act of bringing in our memories causes the memory to change. This means our memory is no longer fact, but context. Carr references Sheila Crowell where she indicated that the very act of remembering appears to modify our brains to make it easier to learn future ideas and skills.
  • Our technologies not enable us, but they mold us. Both Nietzsche and TS Elliot's writings were enhanced, but also changed by the use of the typewriter-Nietzsche only used it a few months before it became unusable. Both for good and to some extent, a lessening of the quality. Elliot noted that his sentences became shorter, more staccato rather than thoughtful and doted upon. Carr points out that our technologies amplify certain aspects of our capabilities. But the very act of amplification, makes us oblivious to other parts of our being. The speed our current technologies give us numbs things like our reasoning, perception, memory and emotion.
  • Can our software be too helpful? Carr works through what Christof van Nimwegen had found out. Van Nimwegen found out that while helpful software did assist users and made their experience better within the bounds of the software. But if there was issues outside of what the software could help the user on, then the users of the helpful software was less able to deal with the more complex issues.
  • Towards the last of the book, Carr talks about things which can help us regain our ability to do deep thinking. He looks at a study by Marc Berman which shows that going for a walk in a park can do much to deepen our thinking patterns.

Several questions occur to me. I assume the biology is correct. But the questions would include:
  • Is the impact to us undesirable? When you look at the examples Carr gives, each development cited brought us to where we are today.   But if I was in the age of starting the printing press, I might say the same thing. The suspicion is raised that what is being experienced is not enhancing us, but putting us dependent on our machines and software.
  • Do we need to read in depth? Or is this something which we can relegate to specialists?
  • How can we link around, get the benefits of being able to retrieve reference materials?

 I think that individually, you can quibble with the points Carr makes. But overall, his argument is impressive. The biggest question which he does not prove is, the direction which we are going, bad for humans, both individually an collectively. Is this a transitory state which we are in? Or are we now on the back side of our evolution?  Which ever way, Carr issues the warning which we should all heed.

Good Quotes:
  • The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem. Jordan Grafman, quoted in Growing Up Digital. (141)
  • To be everywhere is to be nowhere. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, 33
  • With writing online, we're still able to decode text quickly...but we're no longer guided toward a deep, personally constructed understanding of the text's connotations. (186)
  • The best rule of reading will be a method from nature, and not a mechanical one of hours and pages.  Let him read what is proper to him, and not waste his memory on a crowd of mediocrities. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Atlantic Monthly, January 1858, “Books”
  • 1. Never read any book that is not a year old. 2. Never read any but famed books. 3. Never read any but what you like; or, in Shakespeare's phrase,   "No profit goes where is no pleasure ta'en;   In brief, Sir, study what you most affect."  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Atlantic Monthly, January 1858, “Books”
  • In Google's world, which is the world we enter when we go online, there's little place for the pensive stillness of deep reading or the fuzzy indirection of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight, but a big to be fixed. (173)
  • It [the principle of appropriateness] requires that the student digest or internalize what he learns and reflect rather than slavishly reproduce the desirable qualities of the model author. Such a process requires creativeness and judgment. Erika Rummel, Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia, article on Desiderius Erasmus
  • The Web is a technology of forgetfulness. (193)
  • learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon Commencement Speech 2005
  • Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies. (209)

  1. Amazon 
  2. Technology Liberation Front, Adam Thierer
    New York Time
    The Guardian - Note: Carr used to write columns for the Guardian
  3. Slate
  4. Gartner

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