THE SHALLOWS: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Editorial Review - Kirkus - Jane Doe

"Is Google making us stupid?" So freelance technology writer Carr (The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, 2008, etc.) asked in a 2008 article in the Atlantic Monthly, an argument extended in this book.The subtitle is literal. In the interaction between humans and machines, the author writes, machines are becoming more humanlike. And, "as we come to rely on computers to mediate ... Read full review

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I absolutely love this book. It changed my view of the internet, and it makes me want to change my habits. It is very deep and the diction is perfect.

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Stayed engaged throughout, made me reflect on what my own intellectual practices are and how I might improve them.

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It’s funny that I should rush to the internet to write a review of this book now that I’ve finished it. This is one of the most sobering books I’ve read. In it the author presents the case that the internet is a tool that is making it harder and harder for us to focus, harder for us to engage in contemplative thought, harder to remember things, maybe even harder to experience higher emotions like empathy. He discusses study after study in which the distractions of hyper-linked text have been proven to make it harder for us to focus & remember. As our brains are hyper-stimulated we become excellent at processing information extremely fast, but we lose the ability to retain it or to think deeply about it. The author is concerned that we will lose much of what has been gained over the past 1,000 or so years in culture & thought as we turn increasingly to computers to do everything. He is especially concerned as we turn things “requiring wisdom” over to computers. I think his fears are well founded, I can see it so easily in my own life & mind. As a result of reading this book I have turned from my online (private) blog/journal & am dedicating myself to writing long hand, in that forgotten skill cursive. I’m struggling a little to remember letters – and here is the paradox – so I looked up the strokes on the internet. The author said he moved to the country & deliberately cut himself off from the internet, blogs, RSS, etc – and this helped him complete his work. However, having completed, he says he has gone back to the ‘net, at least some; I think the important thing is to find a good balance & I hope I can do so. Certainly, I need to turn down my connectedness & work on doing things that build my ability to concentrate. 

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A lot of what Carr says is on target and supports the notion that our culture is quickly becoming less interested in substance and more interested in flash. However, Carr seems to sound as panicky as many people in the past have when addressing new technologies. The truth is that a lot of the literature available prior to the internet, television, and radio was crap. So there is a good chance that many of the people who consumed crap in one medium are just doing so in another. While the folks who were reading the substance will still continue to do so.  

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A very compelling and timely read. The author makes a great case for why and how technology may be meddling with our brain power.
It would have been a more useful book had he also been able to
highlight some study/research/techniques/ideas on how to continue to abide in a technological world without letting it overpower us while also not isolating oneself from what it has to offers.
Based on everything the author has to say the answer kind of seems obvious, even if not very practical.

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The question is whether people are losing their minds or society is constructing a new type of one. Tools have sticky cognitive effects on their users and the internet, while figuratively turning on the light for many, may also tend to make it harder to look as deeply as before. In order to write the book, the author attempted to disconnect and find seclusion for a while. He cites how changes of this magnitude have been perceived in the past, e.g. Socrates’ lament that writing destroyed the capacity for individual memory, or how the typewriter changed authors’ styles since they could not dwell on the feeling of writing in longhand. Information is meted out in lots of brief interlinked pieces. Email has become streams. Ads are pervasive. The ten chapters review the mind, book, maps, clocks, tech, computers, and AI, amid the dimension of networking. Rather than point to URLs, the story is told in flashbacks, e.g. how Weizenbaum’s ELIZA could earn the empathic confidence of people even though it was mindless. There are ten chapters and four digressions, the last of which looks at the irony of a book on the disappearance of long-term concentration. Notes and further reading are appended. Much of these are valid issues and worth further study. Whether the realtime flow and exponential increase in data to analyze can be paused often or enough is unknown. More direct types of mind links may not be too far off in the future.
For the attention-challenged, a way to get through this book might be to survey it quickly, then skim a few times to make raw impressions, not word for word, rather similar to becoming familiar with a song or painting, then read it backwards for the verbal reassurance. The reader can increase the pass-throughs to pick up more detail where necessary and as time allows, thereby rendering textual memory as well as consideration and opinion. It may turn out that reading is more of a creative process than previously thought, or that there are better tools for the task, as there are for other kinds of digital composition, e.g. like sculpting 3D art. It may then still be possible to frequently parse titles in dedicated slices while otherwise attending to the network. Eventually a learning process may be discovered, akin to development of Gladwell’s outlier mastery status, And, of course, each of the chapters can become a book or digital museum or web-service in the interim, so none of the 3R’s may remain sacrosanct for much longer. There may be a video about this floating around somewhere.

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Rich with historical anecdotes and replete with scientific surveys and evidence, "The Shallows" is a book that demands your respect whether you are comfortable giving it or not. And many people won't be. After all, Carr is a bit of a skunk at the cyber-garden party. I mean, how dare he suggest that all is not wine and roses with our glorious new world of instantaneous connectivity, abundant information flows, and cheap (often free) media content! Obviously, most of us want to believe that all adds up to a more well-rounded worldview and greater wisdom about the world around us. Carr is skeptical of those claims and "The Shallows" is his latest effort to poke a hole in the cyber-utopian claims that sometimes pervade discussions about Internet. Although, ultimately, he doesn't quite convinced me that "The Web is a technology of forgetfulness," he has made a powerful case that its effects may not be as salubrious as many of us have assumed.
But the ultimate question is: Do the costs really outweigh the benefits? Is it the case that these technologies "turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities -- those for reason, perception, memory, emotion"? I think that goes a bit too far, however. Importantly, Carr doesn't really ever answer the crucial question here: Were we really better off in the decades prior to the rise of the Net? Did we really read more and engage in the more contemplative deep-reading and thinking he Carr fears we are losing because of the Net? Count me among those who think that -- whatever most of us are doing in front our our computers most nights, and no matter how distracting it is -- it has to be better than much of the crap we wasted our spare time on in the past!
It would have also been nice to have seen Carr offer up some personal suggestions for how we each might better manage cognitive overload, which can be a real problem. In a brief "digression" chapter entitled "On the Writing of This Book," Carr does mention some of the steps he took personally to make sure he could complete "The Shallows" without being driven to distraction by the Web and digital technologies. But he doesn't dwell on that much, which is a shame. A bit of a self-help can go a long way toward alleviating the worst forms of cognitive overload, although it will continue to be a struggle for many of us.
Despite the reservations I’ve raised here, Nick Carr’s "The Shallows" is my early favorite for the most important info-tech book of the year andwill be required reading in this field for many years to come. [You can find my complete review of Carr's "The Shallows" over at the Technology Liberation Front blog: ]

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