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

Monday, July 4, 2011

How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free

Book: How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free
Author: Ernie J. Zelinski
Edition: Paperback, 2004
Read: June 2011
229 pages
Rated: 2 out of 5

Talks about what you need to retire. Not just in terms of financial, but also in terms of well-being. He talks about how you should be active and what kinds of activities, considerations on where to live, as well how living healthy.

  • Breadth of interest is important. Retirement will fell empty if the interests are not varied.
  • Purpose of your life and living it is an important part of the book. He has a list of questions to help you figure out things:
  1. What is extremely important to me?
  2. What makes me happy
  3. What made me happy in childhood and my teens that I would do again?
  4. What made me happy in my career that I would like to continue doing?
  5. What would make me a much happier person? Having a lot of money or beoming famous cannot be one of them.
  6. What talents or skills am I most proud of?
  7. What field of endeavor invariably challendes me in new and exciting ways?
  8. What makes me feel creative?
  9. What special talent have I neglected while putting in long and hard hours in my career?
  10. What would I like to do that I have always wanted to do, but never got aorund to doing?
  11. What sort of legacy would I like to leave?
  • The author talks about what a fun job is. He says that it is an opportunity to work at something for personal satisfaction of doing it well. I would also say that it should have significance and meaning as well.
  • You can slow down the aging process by living a good life.
  • He suggests that you go on a two day a week fast and donate the saved money to charity which helps hungry people, if you have problems losing weight.
  • He thinks that TV watching is a waste of time.
  • He advocates learning—taking classes, being out and about as a means to keep your mind fresh and active.
  • Learning in Retirement Institute
  1. Elderhostel
  2. Elder travel
  3. Eldertreks
  7. work vacations: Earthwatch Institute in Maynard, Massachusetts
  • Travel Advice
  1. Choose destinations wisely—chose spending time with people which you enjoy more than exotic places with those whom you do not.
  2. What is your passion in life? Incorporate
  3. Enjoy the journal, you no longer are goal oriented.
  4. Free time—spontaneity.
  5. Look for points of historical interesting
  6. Plans are meant to be changed.
  7. Use a trip to scout out a change in location if you are thinking of moving
  8. Eat and stay at local places—you will find things of more interest.
  9. Use apartments, villa and cottages to save money
  10. Take a vacation to places of special interestingFantasie about a vacation
  11. Go for off the beaten track destinations
  • Happiness
  1. Am I in control of my lifestyle?
  2. Do I make the most of my money to give me the best quality life?
  3. What can I achieve which would make me proud?
  4. What can I do which is truly unique?
  5. Do I have great friends?
  6. Do I see see my close friends?
  7. Do I watch too much TV?
  8. Does my lifestyle complement my partner's?
  9. Do I travel like how I want to?
  10. Do my time commitments allow me to contribute to a better world?
  11. Do my time commitments allow me to be creative?
  12. Am I developing spiritually?
  13. Do I exercise enough?
  14. Do I complain too much?
  15. Am I grateful?
  16. Do I continually learn?
  17. Do I do something special for myself each day?
  18. What will make me feel better?
  19. Do I have everything which I need to make me happy?

 This book would have been pretty good. He has some good quotes, humorous cartoons, as well as good advice.  There are good lists of questions. The problem is that the book could have said the same thing if it had been about a third of the length. Consequently, you feel like you are having to wade through the book, rather than taking away nuggets.

Good Quotes:
  • Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.  Seneca (17)
  • The key to a happy retirement is to have enough money to live on, but not enough to worry about.  Unknown Wise Person   (31)
  • When People Are Free To Do As They Please, They Usually Imitate Each Other. Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, pg 33
  • The best intelligence test is what we do with our leisure. Laurence J. Peter , 43
  • The happiest people are those who think the most interesting thoughts. Those who decide to use leisure as a means of mental development, who love good music, good books, good pictures, good company, good conversation, are the happiest people in the world. And they are not only happy in themselves, they are the cause of happiness in others. William Lyon Phelps, 44
  • If the soul has food for study and learning, nothing is more delightful than an old age of leisure.  Marcus Tullius Cicero, 44
  • The great and glorius masterpiece of man is to know how to live to purpose. Michel de Montaigne, The Ecelectic magazine of foreign literature, science and art, Volume 111, 1888
  • Nothing contributes to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose. Mary Shelley, 53
  • Leisure is time for doing something useful. Benjamin Franklin, The Way to Wealth, pg 45
  • Every moment comes to you pregnant with divine purpose. Fulton J. Sheen, Preface to Religon
  • Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things. Denis Diderot, Diderot, pg 77
  • Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight. Thomas Carlyle, 96
  • I made a pact with myself a long time ago. Never watch anything stupider than you. It helped me a lot. Bette Midler, 127
  • In a disordered mind, as in a disordered body, soundness of health is impossible, Marcus Tullius Cicero, 127
  • Real education should educate us out of self into something far finer; into a selflessness which links us with all humanity. Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, My Two Countries, pg 75
  • Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience. This is the ideal life. Mark Twain, “More Maxims of Mark:, Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1890-1910, pg 943
  • The more people who truly care whether you get up in the morning, the richer you will feel. 142
  • The one who never asks you what you are working on; who never inquires as to the success of your latest project; who never uses the word career as a noun—he is your friend. Roger Rosenblatt, Rules for Aging: A Wry and Witty Guide to Life, pg 26
  • Books and friends should be few but good. Greek proverb, 147
  • A friend is someone who sees through you and still enjoys the view. Wilma Askinas, 147
  • The only way to have a friend, is to be one. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friendship, Essays and English Traits, pg 121
  • It is only after you can establish a meaningful relationship with yourself that you can build strong, healty and lasting relationships with other people. 163
  • The world is a book and those who do not travel, read only a page. Saint Augustine, 175
  • A good holiday is one spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours. JB Priestley, Delight, pg 132
  • Retirement is not a time to sleep, but a time to awaken to the beauty of the world around you and the joy that comes when you cast out all the negative elements that cause confusion and turmoil in your mind and allow serenity to prevail. Howard Salzman, 192
  • To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its bestm night and day, to make you like everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. e.e. Cummings, a miscellany, pg 13
  • Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Rosa Luxemberg, The Russian Revolution, ch 6
  • There is nothing in its nature [money] to produce happiness. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one. Benjamin Franklin, 202
  • I have the greatest of riches: that of not desiring them. Eleonore Duse, 205
  • I look at what I have not and think myself unhappy; others look at what I have and think me happy. Joesph Roux, Meditations of a Parish Priest: Thoughts, xxxviiii
  • Be happy while you are alive because you are a long time dead. Scottish proverb, 209
  • A good folly is worth whatever you pay for it. George Ade, 215
  • He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressures of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition you and age are equally a burden. Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, Book I, pg 147
  • In the end these things matter most, How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you learn to let go? Buddha, 225
  • Consider each day you haven't laughed, played, and celebrated your life to be a wasted day. You were given three special gifts when you were born: the gift of life, love and laughter. Learn to share these gifts with the rest of the world. And the rest of the world will play happily with you. 228