- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (27 May 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780393339758
- ISBN-13: 978-0393339758
- ASIN: 0393339750
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 2 x 21.1 cm
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #89,826 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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.