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The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to…

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010)

by Nicholas Carr

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Our daughter who is doing a Library Science degree suggested this book to us. She had read the [End of Absence] by [[Michael Harris]] at our suggestion. EofA won the Canadian Governor General Award for non fiction in 2014. [The Shallows] was mentioned in the EofA bibliography and it is a very interesting read. It is now 5 years old and in this computer driven world, 5 years is a long time and what he discusses is in many ways in sharper focus. He discusses brain plasticity and the effects of computer use.

(from the book jacket)....He challenges that with Net use we are sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply.....the technologies that we use to find, store and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways,....we are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation and reflection.

This is a very interesting and somewhat disturbing book. It is well written and well referenced.
It is very easy to be whisked away by technology without seeing the changes that it is making in us and for us over time. It brings many of those changes to a conscious level. ( )
1 vote mdoris | Aug 29, 2015 |
The title says it all. The premise is that the internet is making our brains more "shallow." I found the various historical tidbits quite fascinating. Whether it is actually accurate or not, the author states that Socrates opposed the use of writing because that act would lessen the need for an individual to remember anything - all he would have to do was read it when he wanted to recall it. The same argument applies to computers - why remember anything when all information is available in a nanosecond from Google or Wikipedia?
Another chapter in the book is devoted to clocks and how their presence completely changed the way people lived and worked. Think about it! Are you really hungry or does your watch tell you that it is 12:00, so you must be hungry.
(I should always review a book imediately after I read it - I forget too much to write my review a month later! Is my brain too shallow for deep-reading?)
Thee were many other and better examples in the book. I agree with Becky that this is a book that educators should read. I see examples of the author's ideas each day as I work with college students. ( )
  TheresaCIncinnati | Aug 17, 2015 |
I didn't love this book. It took me a while to get through it, and I wavered between two and three stars. I liked the premise and a lot of the information about the effects of the internet on the human brain was fascinating. Honestly, I was a little bored at times. The book dragged on and there wasn't enough to hold my interest. I realize that what I just wrote fully proves the author's point about how the human brain is becoming incapable of "deep reading," and we are too easily distracted to pay full attetntion to one subject matter in the form of a book. But in this case, I would have prefered an article.

This book strengthened my resolve not to have an iphone or the internet (for now). Strangely, it also made me want to spend less time reading and more time shaping my brain in other ways: creative pursuits, learning a trade, etc. ( )
  klburnside | Aug 11, 2015 |
The point of Nicholas Carr’s fascinating book is simple: the proliferation of digital “answers” to human problems has a huge and - if you care about quality - damaging impact on the way that we live and think. The technologies of hypertext, always-on notifications, and omnipresent “smart” phones are actively rewiring human brains. Although we can’t know the end result of our interaction with the technological plagues that we have unleashed on ourselves, it is now measurable and demonstrable that things are happening to human brains. And no, before you ask, these are not good things.

Carr begins his discussion with a famous fictional computer, the HAL 9000 from Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, before moving on to the invention which allowed Nietzsche to continue to write, but also changed his style (the typewriter). There’s a lot of fascinating background to show how previous media revolutions (if I may use such a revolting term), have improved human life. The defining moment, that being the 15th century invention of the printing press, has held sway for five hundred years.

Not anymore, it would seem. The birth of the computer, from Alan Turing’s first tentative steps toward AI at Bletchley Park through the first developments of the GUI in the 1970s and the personal computer “revolution” of the 1980s, up to the proliferation and transformation of the Internet from geek haven to business essential in the 1990s and 2000s: all of these fall under Carr’s sweeping narrative. In some ways, it has been revolutionary. The difference between trying to find a reference in a library when I was an undergraduate over twenty-five years ago and searching now for similar information online is truly staggering. The difference between trying to find a particular piece of media, be it book, music, film, or magazine, then and now is also staggering.

But all of this convenience and accessibility comes at a price. The “distraction technologies”, as Carr calls them, are now everywhere, embedded in every single page of the internet. Studies, which Carr presents damningly, one after another, have shown that hyperlinked reading is more distracted than print reading, that software-aided problem solving ultimately results in fewer correct solutions, and that memory aided by computers is in fact poorer memory. That the ultimate aim of technology companies like Google is to not only have a virtual monopoly on media (their effort to scan every book ever printed, flying in the face of copyright in many cases, seems truly sinister at best), is merely the cherry on top of the cake. There is more: I’ve merely scratched the surface.

Seen in the context of our growing understanding of how the brain works, these findings are made clear. Human brains change and re-wire themselves (so to speak) based on their external stimuli, and that they are able to do so even as we age is a relatively recent discovery. But the most consequential finding for learning, attention-span, comprehension, and deep-thinking follows from learning how memories are formed, over time, in a transition from the short-term to long-term memory. By overloading the short-term memory with useless or inconsequential stimuli (which can only juggle three to seven things at any given moment), internet-enabled distraction technologies ensure a lack of deep comprehension, from which real understanding comes. We’ve all met (or even been) the “Wikipedia expert”, ie; the person with the “smart” phone. How many times does that person actually deeply understand the answer they are giving? And you could spend days, weeks, or months, even, trawling through Twit-Face and Google+ for an informed opinion. Do we really have that kind of time in our short lives?

As schools race to thrust all sorts of techno-gadgets into the hands of children, operating under the unexamined and unsubstantiated premise that kids will “learn more gooder” with an iPad than with a book, we really need to pay attention to books like Carr’s. At my kids’ school, the advent of the iPads was not accompanied by the creation of four hundred well-rounded and intellectually challenging Renaissance Children. It was accompanied by network problems, teachers running interference against kids playing games, arbitrary and random enforcement of various rules, and broken screens every other day. Any parent with a teenager will tell you that their child already spends far too much time with their nose stuck in a mobile or a tablet. The whole notion of the educational value of this technology is a boondoggle (a word I’m quite giddily pleased to use, as it's staggeringly appropriate here), in which fools with education degrees sell taxpayers on a ridiculous fallacy.

Some critics have taken Carr to task for lumping all of the internet technologies together under one umbrella. I honestly think this is a rubbish, apologist’s view, but if you want, call them “internet-enabled technologies” as I have done, and I think that deals with a lot of the semantic quibbles. Not everything about the internet is bad. It has some tremendous benefits, as both Carr and I will concede. Those benefits, however, must been seen in the context of the concomitant detriments, and weighed accordingly.

One point that Carr misses, to my mind, is the role played in the decay of human brains by television. While internet-enabled devices are more interactive, the “distraction technologies” on which Carr rightly foists blame began in both the cinema and on TV, with the ever-increasing number of commercials, high-speed jump cuts in productions, tedious and needless special effects, chirons and crawls, and all the rest of the crap that comes with making the mistake of turning on the telly. Television is implicitly culpable, however, if you include such internet-enabled abilities as streaming of television, and the phenomenon of “binge-viewing”.

If you’re reading this review, then you are probably already at the point where, although you enjoy cataloguing your books online, you are concerned that they may be supplanted, that books might finally, after a century of it being promised, somehow become “obsolete”. And if you're looking for an optimist to tell you otherwise, I’m not the guy. Carr doesn’t give the reader answers, however his suggestions are implicit in what he criticizes. Do what you’d probably do anyway: keep reading print books, avoid e-books unless necessary for some compelling reason, support your local book and record shops (if you still have any), and encourage family and friends to do the same. Do it in person, too: dropping social media like a hot brick is sure to add twenty points back to your IQ almost immediately! Reduce your time online, and who knows, maybe even look up some of Carr’s reference books (real, print books) for follow-up reading.

I think I can fairly say that you’ll be smarter for it. ( )
  Bill_Bibliomane | Jul 24, 2015 |
I am not usually a non-fiction reader, but I read this book for my Abydos certification and LOVED it! It was really interesting to see how our brains have a plasticity to them that allows us to learn and how the internet has really adjusted our brain connections.
I would recommend this book for anyone in the educational field. I think it really opened my eyes to how our children's minds are affected by digital media which is affecting how they read and process information. ( )
  dmoitzh | Jul 17, 2015 |
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Like the majority of contemporary books, then, The Shallows does not justify its length: its natural form was always that of a pithy provocation, so as an argument for the superiority of book-length prose it is rather self-defeating.
added by mikeg2 | editThe Guardian, Steven Poole (Sep 11, 2010)
Carr’s ability to crosscut between cognitive studies involving monkeys and eerily prescient prefigurations of the modern computer opens a line of inquiry into the relationship between human and technology. Hopefully, other writers will follow.
added by lorax | editA.V. Club, Ellen Wernecke (Jun 3, 2010)
His new book is an expanded survey of the science and history of human cognition. ... Mr Carr’s contribution is to offer the most readable overview of the science to date. It is clearly not intended as a jeremiad. Yet halfway through, he can’t quite help but blurt out that the impact of this browsing on our brains is “even more disturbing” than he thought.
added by tim.taylor | editThe Economist (pay site)
Carr is a beautiful writer. His word choice, his syntax, his sequencing... all great.
Born in 1959, Carr straddles the book-dominated and web-dominated worlds and is at home in both. Members of his generation, he believes, have lived their lives as a “two-act play,” consisting of an analogue youth and a digital adulthood. You could conclude that when the people educated after, say, 1990 die, there will be, in the strictest sense, no literary culture left to speak of. Mild-mannered, never polemical, with nothing of the Luddite about him, Carr makes his points with a lot of apt citations and wide-ranging erudition. Either he is very well read or he is a hell of a Googler.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nicholas Carrprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pietiläinen, AnttiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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And in the midst of this wide quietness

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With the wreath'd trellis of a working brain...

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In 1964, just as the Beatles were launching their invasion of America's airwaves, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and transformed himself from an obscure academic into a star.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393072223, Hardcover)

Finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction: “Nicholas Carr has written a Silent Spring for the literary mind.”—Michael Agger, Slate

Finalist for the 2011 PEN Center USA Literary Award

“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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:59 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

As we enjoy the Internet's bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply? Carr 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--and interweaves recent discoveries in neuroscience. Now, he expands his argument into a compelling exploration of the Internet's intellectual and cultural consequences. Our brains, scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. Building on insights of thinkers from Plato to McLuhan, Carr makes a case that every information technology carries a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and intelligence. The printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. In contrast, the Internet encourages rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information. As we become ever more adept at scanning and skimming, are we losing our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection?--From publisher description.… (more)

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2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393072223, 0393339750

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