Friday , April 12 2024
Because language is the primary vessel of conscious thoughts, the technologies we use exert great influence over our intellectual lives.

Book Review: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Many are still quoting from Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Here in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, he elaborates to illustrate precisely how the Internet changes our lives. Along the way, Carr’s highly entertaining book reminds us of how the great thinkers of past centuries did just fine without a hyperlinked database of all the world's knowledge at hand.

In the 21st century, we are facing the consequences of our distracted and scattered society, and we make choices about the impact of technology, weighted with assumptions about the nature of knowledge and intelligence. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains presents a thoughtful, if frightening, look at what we’re doing to ourselves.

We learn to take in information the way the Internet distributes it, “in a swiftly moving stream of particles.” At best we skim the surface, rather than go deep into information, and our fragmented journey results in lack of concentration and comprehension.

Pay attention as the author cites his own difficulties with reading and that of others who find problems with their ability to read and absorb. Sadly much of our reading has become “skimming and scrolling.”

In just twenty years, since the web’s graphical browser was created, the Internet has become the communication and information medium of choice. Those of us who grew up in an analog youth can still remember when AOL was the top consumer choice for web use. Do you remember AOL's weekly allotment of a limited amount of web surfing?

Carr colors his analysis with interesting stories and profiles of some of the world’s greatest thinkers and writers, including Socrates and Plato. He reaches far back in time to bring us a full understanding of the development of human intellect over centuries.

In the late 19th century, when first using a typewriter, Nietzsche quickly found a difference in his work when not using paper and pen. ”Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”

The Shallows illustrates that every technology is an expression of human will and changes how we think. The typewriter, sextant, globe, book newspaper and computer are all tools for self-expression, our identity and relations with others.

In Chapter Four, “The Deepening Page,” Carr creates an interesting parallel between today’s technology divide and Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press invention, developed in the mid-15th century. While it was as central an event as the Internet is today, it too was out of reach for the poor, illiterate, isolated or incurious. The biggest difference between the printing press and the web today, other than speed, is the web’s bi-directional communication ability. Yet, Carr quotes Marshall McLuhan stating, “A new medium is never an addition to an old one. Nor does it leave the old one in peace."

“Today, when a printed book is transferred to an electronic device connected to the Internet, it turns into something very like a web site,” says Carr. Yet, he reflects on what this means, when the ability to continually update a book removes the sense of closure from book writing. He raises the question of whether an author's pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with artistic rigor that pressure imposed.

“The Juggler’s Brain," Chapter Seven, should be mandatory reading for us to understand effects of technology in the school system, after a decade of using hypertext on computer screens instead of printed pages. Over time, it was apparent that evaluating links and navigating paths was mentally challenging, and extraneous to the act of reading. Studies quickly determined that hypertext increases readers’ cognitive load and is more than the average reader is capable of handling and remembering.

As skimming becomes our dominant mode of reading, we as a society and individually, pay a price. With lessened comprehension and compulsive multitasking, we’re easily distracted, compounding our problems. As Carr says, “The Net is making us smarter, in other words, only if we define intelligence by the Net’s own standards."

Do yourself a favor and turn off your browser and email while you read the section on attentiveness. It points to a problem many of us experience without understanding, thinking we’re faced with "too much information." The reality may be that changes in our brains, as we use the web, turn us into shallow thinkers.

The Shallows is more than a report on the current state of technology in society. The greatest problem is the more we use the web, the more we train our brain to be distracted – to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. It’s worth reading this book to remind ourselves that we are responsible for the priorities we set and the choices we make.

Reviewers note: In the complexity of today’s technology, and as proof of the dramatic changes the simple act of reading a book, The Shallows is available in hardcover, as well as a Kindle edition, audio book, CD, Audible Audio edition, cassette and MP3. Such is the reality in the modern world.

(Review based on hardcover 2010 edition, provided by publisher.)

About Helen Gallagher

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