The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

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W. W. Norton & Company, 2010 - Computers - 276 pages
12 Reviews
“Is Google making us stupid?” When Nicholas Carr posed that question, in a celebrated Atlantic Monthly cover story, he tapped into a well of anxiety about how the Internet is changing us. He also crystallized one of the most important debates of our time: As we enjoy the Net’s bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply?

Now, Carr expands his argument into the most compelling exploration of the Internet’s intellectual and cultural consequences yet published. As he describes how human thought has been shaped through the centuries by “tools of the mind”—from the alphabet to maps, to the printing press, the clock, and the computer—Carr interweaves a fascinating account of recent discoveries in neuroscience by such pioneers as Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel. Our brains, the historical and scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. The technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways.

Building on the insights of thinkers from Plato to McLuhan, Carr makes a convincing case that every information technology carries an intellectual ethic—a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and intelligence. He explains how the printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. In stark contrast, the Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources. Its ethic is that of the industrialist, an ethic of speed and efficiency, of optimized production and consumption—and now the Net is remaking us in its own image. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

Part intellectual history, part popular science, and part cultural criticism, The Shallows sparkles with memorable vignettes—Friedrich Nietzsche wrestling with a typewriter, Sigmund Freud dissecting the brains of sea creatures, Nathaniel Hawthorne contemplating the thunderous approach of a steam locomotive—even as it plumbs profound questions about the state of our modern psyche. This is a book that will forever alter the way we think about media and our minds.

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The author takes a rather bleak view of our future with technology, pointing out the unconscious and possibly sinister changes our brain is undergoing with exposure to novel stimuli. While his arguments are compelling, I feel he does not give enough merit to the advances being made in artificial intelligence, advances that are predicated almost entirely on a philosophy which he tries to invalidate here.
To argue for the inaccuracy of the brain-computer metaphor, for example, is to ignore the insight it has allowed us in our attempts at creating "intelligent" systems. One need look no further than Hofstadter's magnificent Godel Escher Bach, to see its usefulness. Of course, this analogy is abused, as Carr has accurately pointed out, but to decipher a system as complex as the brain, we must often resort to such abstractions.
In short, Carr seems uncomfortable with the entire idea of artificial intelligence.At times, I couldn't tell whether I was reading an exploration into the pitfalls of technology or a plaintive reflection yearning for a time when the brain was still considered an unknowable substance. Yes, things are moving fast, and it is good to be wary of this, but I believe this is an instance where "the good outweighs the evil," so to speak.

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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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a digression
on lee deforest and his amazing audion
a digression
a digression
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About the author (2010)

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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