Hi everyone, and welcome to my digital book report! To begin, I have to admit that that I was a little apprehensive about doing this project. I used to be an avid reader, and always put together great written book reports. So what’s changed?
Wanting to investigate that question is what led me to choose the book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. The book is written by Nicholas Carr, a tech writer who has been critical of the technological advancements and proclamations coming out of Silicon Valley for the past 15 years or so. His articles have been widely read and debated, and as proof that he is not just a mere cynic or naysayer, this particular book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize back in 2011.
The fact is, more people are reading thanks to computers and, in particular, the Internet, but books account for a much smaller portion of the reading these days. However this is more than a contemporary study of a current technology. Carr takes us through the evolution of human thought patterns and how they have been influenced in the past by technological developments. The most important of these is, unsurprisingly, the advent of writing and the written language.
This expanded the scope of human thought and imagination, and eventually evolved into cartography and mapping. As Carr says, we went from drawing and describing only things we could see to more abstract things and places that were beyond our immediate vision. This led to other developments that allowed us to chart courses across oceans we had never crossed. Somewhere along the way we gained the ability to make precise and portable time pieces and opened humanity up to the wonderful world of scheduling.
The next invention that changed human thought patterns was, again unsurprisingly, the printing press. What is notable about this invention is that the significance is not in a change of how much or even what people read, but how they read. With the spreading of the written word, reading transformed from an oral, often group exercise, to a silent and solitary one. This caused the mind to focus inwards, to shut out external stimuli. The words on the page now occupied all of our minds, while we shut off our senses and went against our mammalian survival instincts to become truly literate beings.
Skipping ahead some, Carr says that what the Internet has done to our brains, more so than unconnected computers alone, is to reverse that process. Now we are less concentrated. Now our brains are reprogramming themselves to take in more sensory inputs again. We are reading more, but comprehending and storing less. The distractions pile up and prevent us from efficiently digesting the information that we gather from our new, ever-present, ever-more-demanding media.
Carr focuses particularly on hyperlinks and how hypertext was once touted as a way of increasing comprehension and information digestion. Instead, they have been proven to have an opposite effect. He illustrates this by using a thimble to symbolize short term or working memory, and a bathtub to symbolize the capacity for long term memory. To move knowledge from the faucet of a book to the bathtub is a simple (yet time-consuming) process. To move it from dozens of sources would be even more time consuming, and result in a great deal of spilled water.
The Shallows has some great asides too that build on the central thesis, bits where Carr compares his mind to the AI of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and how he is self-aware that his thought patterns are changing and sacrifices are being made without his consent. These are contrasted with other pieces where Carr talks about ever-rising IQ scores, but how these scores have stemmed from increases in certain intellectual areas and drops in others.
All in all the book reads less as the condemnation of technology that I expected, and more as a matter-of-fact study on how this new and unstoppable media will shape our brains and thought patterns for generations to come. Hopefully, in the epilogue, he states that technology will never be able to replace human creativity.
This book is full of great insights, and is expertly written to appeal to both experts and lay persons alike. Carr effortlessly picks up heavy topics like neuroplasticity and easily segues to discussions on McLuhan’s theories of media versus messages. There’s something for everyone in here, from computer historians to anthropologists to digital media theorists.
Not only that, but the book is thoroughly populated with endnotes and contains a comprehensive index for those who want to quickly look up a particular topic or browse for some further reading. Of course, given that it is now 2017, some readers may be wishing for some more hyperlinks and fewer pages.