On The Shallows

If asked to recommend to anyone of high school or greater age only one book I’ve read in retirement, the choice would be easy: The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr (not that long; a bit over 200 pages). I consider it a horror story, perfect for the Halloween season; Mr. Carr addresses “What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.” I would submit that it is yet scarier today than when published in 2010; given another decade’s passage, and even taking into account my readily-apparent Luddite tendencies, the book is arguably a description of what the Internet has done to the brains of many of our people. Delving too deeply into Mr. Carr’s text may dissuade a reader of this note from reading the book; thus, only a few snippets:

“What we’re trading away in return for the riches of the Net – and only a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches – is what [Online Media Blogger Scott] Karp calls ‘our old linear thought process.’ Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster, the better.”

“I began to notice that the Net was exerting a much stronger and broader influence over me … It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes … Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling.”

“[T]he Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli….If the slow progression of words across printed pages dampened our craving to be inundated by mental stimulation, the Net indulges it.”

“In reading online, Maryanne Wolf says, we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible. We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged.”

“[Researcher Erping Zhu] found that [online readers’] comprehension declined as the number of links increased. Readers were forced to devote more and more of their … brain power to evaluating the links … That left … fewer cognitive resources to devote to understanding what they were reading.”

The following passage, well into the book, particularly resonated with me:

“In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman [said], ‘I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality – a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self – evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.” As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” [we risk turning into] “pancake people – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”’”

Mr. Carr does describe manners in which we as a people can safeguard against the dangers he trumpets; there is an extensive discussion of the brain’s neuroplasticity – i.e., the brain’s ability to re-form itself in response to new challenges. He acknowledges that “tuning out is not an option many of us would consider,” but offers that if the Web has addicted us with easy fixes of alluring data snippets, making a conscious and concerted effort to focus without distraction for longer periods on complex material can remake our brains in the same manner as one can strengthen muscles through physical training (my analogy, not his). He describes the reactions of Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT, who created groundbreaking programs in the 1960s, and then came to be alarmed by the manner in which even those who knew better came to perceive his creations:

“Weizenbaum had come to believe [that the] … great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers … is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate, Weizenbaum wrote, is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly ‘tasks that demand wisdom.’”

In the mid-90’s an executive in the cradle of Silicon Valley told me that what he loved about the Internet was the “Knowledge” it made available. I came to have the highest regard for him as we worked together; but if I saw him today, I’d gently suggest that the Internet has certainly proven to be an efficient purveyor of Information … but it remains up to us to maintain the mental diligence and discipline to develop the connections that yield Knowledge.

Please don’t download The Shallows – buy a hard copy ;).

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