- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (27 May 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393339750
- ISBN-13: 978-0393339758
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 2 x 21.1 cm
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #29,931 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains Paperback – 27 May 2011
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A thought provoking exploration of the Internet’s physical and cultural consequences, rendering highly technical material intelligible to the general reader. — The 2011 Pulitzer Prize Committee
A must-read for any desk jockey concerned about the Web’s deleterious effects on the mind. — Newsweek
Starred Review. Carr provides a deep, enlightening examination of how the Internet influences the brain and its neural pathways. Carr’s analysis incorporates a wealth of neuroscience and other research, as well as philosophy, science, history and cultural developments ... His fantastic investigation of the effect of the Internet on our neurological selves concludes with a very humanistic petition for balancing our human and computer interactions ... Highly recommended. — Library Journal
This is a measured manifesto. Even as Carr bemoans his vanishing attention span, he’s careful to note the usefulness of the Internet, which provides us with access to a near infinitude of information. We might be consigned to the intellectual shallows, but these shallows are as wide as a vast ocean. — Jonah Lehrer (The New York Times Book Review)
This is a lovely story well told—an ode to a quieter, less frenetic time when reading was more than skimming and thought was more than mere recitation. — San Francisco Chronicle
The Shallows isn’t McLuhan’s Understanding Media, but the curiosity rather than trepidation with which Carr reports on the effects of online culture pulls him well into line with his predecessor . . . Carr’s ability to crosscut between cognitive studies involving monkeys and eerily prescient prefigurations of the modern computer opens a line of inquiry into the relationship between human and technology. — Ellen Wernecke, (The Onion A.V. Club)
The subtitle of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains leads one to expect a polemic in the tradition of those published in the 1950s about how rock ’n’ roll was corrupting the nation’s youth ... But this is no such book. It is a patient and rewarding popularization of some of the research being done at the frontiers of brain science ... Mild-mannered, never polemical, with nothing of the Luddite about him, Carr makes his points with a lot of apt citations and wide-ranging erudition. — Christopher Caldwell (Financial Times)
Nicholas Carr has written an important and timely book. See if you can stay off the web long enough to read it! — Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change
Neither a tub-thumpingly alarmist jeremiad nor a breathlessly Panglossian ode to the digital self, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is a deeply thoughtful, surprising exploration of our “frenzied” psyches in the age of the Internet. Whether you do it in pixels or pages, read this book. — Tom Vanderbilt, author, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)
Nicholas Carr carefully examines the most important topic in contemporary culture—the mental and social transformation created by our new electronic environment. Without ever losing sight of the larger questions at stake, he calmly demolishes the clichés that have dominated discussions about the Internet. Witty, ambitious, and immensely readable, The Shallows actually manages to describe the weird, new, artificial world in which we now live. — Dana Gioia, poet and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts
The core of education is this: developing the capacity to concentrate. The fruits of this capacity we call civilization. But all that is finished, perhaps. Welcome to the shallows, where the un-educating of homo sapiens begins. Nicholas Carr does a wonderful job synthesizing the recent cognitive research. In doing so, he gently refutes the ideologists of progress, and shows what is really at stake in the daily habits of our wired lives: the re-constitution of our minds. What emerges for the reader, inexorably, is the suspicion that we have well and truly screwed ourselves. — Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class As Soulcraft
Ultimately, The Shallows is a book about the preservation of the human capacity for contemplation and wisdom, in an epoch where both appear increasingly threatened. Nick Carr provides a thought-provoking and intellectually courageous account of how the medium of the Internet is changing the way we think now and how future generations will or will not think. Few works could be more important. — Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
About the Author
Nicholas Carr is the author of The Shallows, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and The Glass Cage, among other books. Former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, he has written for The Atlantic, the New York Times, and Wired. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
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It is a testament to the incendiary nature of the topic, to suggest that the internet may affecting our minds in in ways that may not be always positive, or it may actually be harming our capacity to focus, and doing so by actually altering the way our brain is wired, that even smart and reasonable people as John Battelle, author of the bestselling and an excellent book on the history of search engines on the net, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, become unhinged when commenting on the topic (see his post, no, more a hasty, flustered rage, "Google: Making Nick Carr Stupid, But It's Made This Guy Smarter from June 2008", in response to Nicholas Carr's article, "Is Google making us stupid?" in the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic).
Carr's book, however, is a very well-written book on the topic. Even if you disagree, for whatever reason, with the premise of the book, you owe it to yourself to read it. This is also not to gainsay the fact that Carr does have a predilection for sometimes succumbing to provocative, almost needling, sensationalistic headlines. Which can sometimes overwhelm the sound reasoning underneath. A minor broadside against Google (and Google Books) notwithstanding in the book (to sample, "The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction", pg 157), this is not an incendiary hatchet job against the internet or any company. Whether you are convinced or not is besides the point, this book will surely enlighten you in at least some ways on how we think and and how we remember what we remember. And this is worth something, surely.
At some point in the past, we all remembered stuff we needed to know. The written word did not exist. Then humans started writing, on caves, and then on tablets, then papyrus, then paper. The history of the written word can be traced back several thousand years, when the Sumerians started to use clay tablets inscribed with a reed. The Egyptians used scrolls made from papyrus (a plant) around 4500 BCE. The Greeks and Romans adopted these scrolls for their writings. And the writing then was hugely different than what we know it today. Like how? Well, it turns out, there were no spaces between the words. Right. So a sentence like "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" would have been written as "thequickbrownfoxjumpsoverthelazydog". Rather painful to read, right? The reason seems to be that the "lack of word separation reflected language's origins in speech. When we talk, we don't insert pauses between each word--long stretches of syllables flow unbroken from our lips". Not good. Certainly not good. Writing was not read as much as it was read out loud. The practice of reading silently came much later.
When the practice of placing spaces between words did occur, it "alleviated the cognitive strain involved in deciphering text, making it possible for people to read quickly, silently, and with greater comprehension. Such fluency had to be learned. It required complex changes in the circuitry of the brain, as contemporary studies of young readers reveal."
"Readers didn't just become more efficient. They also became more attentive. To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to "lose oneself" in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what's going on around us as possible."
And herein lies one of the reasons why the internet functions as a distracter, a destroyer of attention. Why? Because the internet presents information in a way that requires us to evaluate all available information, like hyperilnks, text-boxes, adverts, popups, tooltips, the chrome, everything, and make assessments as to their utility.
It is about two-fifths of the way through the (on page 111 or thereabouts) that the question that really forms the title of the book makes an appearance.
"Now comes the crucial question: What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?"
"Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It's possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it's possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that's not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards."
"Our senses are finely attuned to change," explains Maya Pines of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "Stationary or unchanging objects become part of the scenery and are mostly unseen." But as soon as "something in the environment changes, we need to take notice because it might mean danger--or opportunity." Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we'd overlook a nearby source of food. For most of history, the normal path of human thought was anything but linear.
"Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us - our brains are quick - but it's been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it's repeated frequently."
The brain becomes better at what it is made to do. Simply put, practice makes perfect. Perfect at good things, perfect at not-so-good things. Perfect at insane things. Fungibility is a term used more in an economic sense, as in when money is termed as fungible, capable of being spent on interchangeable things. We can use money to buy a popcorn or a soda at the movies, or we can use the same money to buy a book and a coffee. The mind is not dissimilar. If we use it for something, then it is not being used for something else. It then becomes good at performing task A, and in fact it becomes over time less capable of doing task B. The mind allocates resources, in a recursive loop almost, to the task it is made to do most often.
Sometime during the industrialization of society, with the advent to machines, and calculators, and computers, and recording tape, and so on, the ability to memorize became more a sign of primitive mind unwilling to adapt with the times, ridiculed as nothing more than trying to "learn by rote", something frowned upon, as old-fashioned and out-of-tune with the modern direction the world was moving towards.
"...by the middle of the twentieth century memorization itself had begun to fall from favor. Progressive educators banished the practice from classrooms, dismissing it as a vestige of a less enlightened time. What had long been viewed as a stimulus for personal insight and creativity came to be seen as a barrier to imagination and then simply as a waste of mental energy."
"When our brain is overtaxed, we find "distractions more distracting." (Some studies link attention deficit disorder, or ADD, to the overloading of working memory.) Experiments indicate that as we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise. We become mindless consumers of data."
Hyperlinks are, simply put, distractions. They distract from the text we are reading. Visually, mentally, cognitively.
"Deciphering hypertext substantially increases readers' cognitive load and hence weakens their ability to comprehend and retain what they're reading. A 1989 study showed that readers of hypertext often ended up clicking distractedly "through pages instead of reading them carefully." A 1990 experiment revealed that hypertext readers often "could not remember what they had and had not read.""
"...research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links."
"A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition."
So the internet is an unmitigated disaster, huh? So you are a luddite who would send us back to the good old days when there were no computers, no internet, no telephones, no television, no telegraph, no paper? No, the author does not say that. Quite the contrary.
"The ability to skim text is every bit as important as the ability to read deeply. What is different, and troubling, is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for deeper study, scanning is becoming an end in itself..."
"Research shows that certain cognitive skills are strengthened, sometimes substantially, by our use of computers and the Net. These tend to involve lower-level, or more primitive, mental functions such as hand-eye coordination, reflex response, and the processing of visual cues."
Maybe technology and science will evolve where they don't place such a distracted burden on our cognitive senses. Maybe humans themselves will evolve, as they continually do. Maybe not. In which case the winners in this world of technology will be the ones who learn to keep technology at arms length while learning the technology itself. Maybe.
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At the same time that the Internet is changing the world, bringing us closer together around masses of information, it is changing our ability to think and it is changing our brains in dangerous ways. The issue is not the content of the Internet, but its process.
The human adapts to its tools and its tasks. Give a man a hammer for a lifetime’s work and his body shapes to effectively drive nails. Take away his pen and give him a typewriter with a ball and his prose turns from fluid to staccato. (That happened to Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century.) In that process of adaption the brain, since it is not a machine but an organ, changes. These changes can be seen with instruments and their results observed in human behavior. This is the world of Nicholas Carr.
I will describe a tiny fraction of what the Internet is doing to our brains.
1) The brain, confronted with a glowing screen and the ability to hypertext its way from one interruption to another across the universe of knowledge from what its buddy in Australia thinks of rutabagas, to the spelling of rutabagas to the history of rutabagas to dishes that can be prepared from rutabagas leaves the brain sliding from one fact of surface interest to another fact even less useful, until it occurs to the brain to pursue the prompt on the pop-up menu and check the weather and get off of this slide onto the weather channel where a five minute video on playful seals on San Francisco Bay can be watched for free which does remind the brain that it could slide over to Facebook and find out if anyone “liked” the picture of the family cat posted an hour ago. And many do. Twenty-three “likes,” praise the Lord.
Just as the carpenter’s arm grew it muscles to deal effectively with the hammer the brain changes to succeed in a slippy slidey world of itty bitty bits of knowledge intended to interest momentarily and then disappear.
So what will happen when it confronts a life choice? Will this passive instrument skidding from meaningless bit to another meaningless bit see itself suddenly as an agent? A “decider?” Or will it in panic seek the next button to push, even if that button bears the label “Self Destruct?”
According to Time magazine this is happening now in the Silicon Valley high schools; kids depressed and without a sense of agency pushed around by the ripples on the surface of the Internet are choosing to leave life. Rutabagas have lost their interest. Having your cat liked did not fill the hole intended for having yourself loved. And this child is not accustomed to doing things about things. This child does not do. This child is done to. With the same alacrity that he or she pursued the prompt to watch the seals he or she may “decide” it is time to end this.
2) I discovered my wife of the last forty-three years with whom I have raised two children and now five grandchildren with much happiness when while sitting on her front lawn, I seriously told her my goals in life. She thought they were so funny she actually rolled over laughing.
If I had instituted a computer search what algorithm would have found her an appropriate match? Yet this brain of mine sorted through whatever book-formed channels it had and locked in immediately on her as the “one,” the antidote to the man who takes himself too seriously. The Internet would have provided me many potential companions, each more serious than the last. That is the way it works. It finds my interests and then adds to the pile. If I follow its suggestions I become narrower and narrower, a better candidate to respond to the advertisers, a defined target, and a wealth of possibilities pass me by.
3) For something to remain in long-term memory it must spend two hours in short term memory. (There is actually a tiny physical growth that must happen.) But on the trip through rutabaga land, things go in and out too quickly to be grafted on the long-term nodules. Of course it still exists in the computer’s memory. When you know you need it, it can be sought. However the advantage of the human memory is that it coughs up stored information when you need it but do not know you need it. Not only does your intellect call on your memory, but your memory initiates conversations with your intellect. You won’t have that ability any longer. And since your long-term memory is not being used the section of the brain devoted to long-term memory has already begun to shrink.
Distant memories of your mother’s tears, your father’s embrace, your sisters admiration and your little brother’s needs will be crowded out of the brain, and I doubt if you will find them in Internet land either.
4) There are now residential therapy centers to assist the hooked to unhook from the Internet. The Internet lights up the same section of the brain as does cocaine. Didn’t’ know those grade school kids were getting a buzz? Makes what may be happening to my grandchildren a little less cute and a little less funny.
Read The Shallows yourself. What I have written is just a corner of the future described there. See if it scares you! And if it does, see who else you can scare with it. Hope they have enough of an attention span left to read the book. (A sign of the times is that people who used to write books no longer can read them. Not enough slippy and slidey. Boring!)
Can the majority of us survive without complex and nuanced thought? Without deep and poignant memories? Do we want to?
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.
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I think educators and particularly parents should read, understand, and act on the ideas offered here.
What he says about the history of information technology was also really interesting.