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The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to…

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (original 2010; edition 2011)

by Nicholas Carr

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Title:The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Authors:Nicholas Carr
Info:W. W. Norton & Company (2011), Paperback, 280 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:computers, technology

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


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Showing 1-5 of 132 (next | show all)
The Shallows grew out of an article that Carr wrote for the Atlantic, and, while I haven’t read the article, I suspect that if I had, I would be more impressed with Carr than I am. By its very title (and subtitle), The Shallows promises to be a lively polemic against the inattention machine that we all know and love. But Carr is too much of a milquetoast to make the point, or at least make a point other than the one we already know and have known for years: the Internet is distracting us and changing the way we think. The book’s many digressions into the history of mapmaking, clocks, and books are fine in themselves, but I wish they were edited out to stick to the promise of the title.

At times, Carr sounds a little Mr. Burns: when he tells us that companies like Facebook and MySpace “are dedicated to provide millions of members with a never ending ‘stream’ of ‘real-time-updates,’” I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Burns telling Smithers that he was enjoying “this so-called ‘iced cream.’” That may have been a cheap shot on my part, pulling a quotation from 250 pages of sentences, but it reflects the overall impression one receives: Carr speaks as if the issues he tackles regarding the Internet are some newly-discovered set of problems.

There are moments where Carr makes his case, if an obvious one, very well—none more so than when he offers Wallace Stevens’ “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” to illustrate a text that both describes deep reading and demands it as well. But too often he resorts to this kind of mealy-mouthed tone:

“There’s nothing wrong with browsing and scanning, or even power-browsing and power-scanning. We’ve always skimmed newspapers more than we’ve read them, and we routinely run our eyes over books and magazines in order to get a gist of a piece of writing and decide whether it warrants more through reading…What is different, and troubling, is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for deeper study, scanning is becoming an end in itself—our preferred way of gathering and making sense of information of all sorts.”

Anyone who picks up Carr’s book already knows this—which is most likely what drew him or her to the book in the first place. (Can you imagine someone saying, “Wait—you mean that Twitter and email are not making me smarter?”) At least that was my motive, and I wish he were a little angrier, a little more polemic, a little more like Thoreau or Neil Postman. In a book that begins and ends with scenes from 2001 regarding the HAL-9000, Carr sounds oddly like HAL himself, always calm even when discussing something that we wish could get him more emotional.

The best thing about the book is its title, which is inspired.

( )
  Stubb | Aug 28, 2018 |
The thesis of this book seems to be that:
* Our brains are plastic, and what we do changes the way our brains work
* The practice of immersive reading, made possible by books, was an anomaly in our culture. It is being replaced by online reading, and this online reading is shallow and superficial because the medium, our computers, encourages us to drift, and switch our attention to something novel regularly.

The author is probably more or less correct about this. I'm lucky, in some ways, to have been brought up in the age before the internet, and to have developed reading ability and habits untroubled by the internet. Unlike the author, the most social of the social media that I use is GitHub, which isn't really social. My interest in the tweets of anybody is less than nil.

This book is really more of an extended essay, than a full book. The author starts out with some biographical discussion about what he has observed happening to his own mind. Then he dabbles in some pretty dubious neurophysiology for a bit. Then he gives quite a fun history of the development of reading, writing, and the book. He quotes from various authors, e.g., T. S. Elliot, Nietzche, who felt that their use of the typewriter was changing their prose. He describes a number of psychology experiments on memory and the formation of long term memories.

Ultimately, he says that we lose something if we fail to retain our ability to concentrate, to be able to follow complicated arguments, to think deeply. He asserts that heavy dependency on the facilities of the internet must lead to that loss. I'm sure he's correct.

The book includes an interesting argument that I had not heard of before: when Plato, in his Republic, advocates banning poetry, what he means by poetry is not elevated sentiments in rhymes and meters, but the oral tradition. Plato, apparently, is coming down on the side of the written word, in opposition to Socrates, who believes that the written word weakens the mental fibers.

This book included an excellent quotation from a 16th or 17th century author about how the world was being overwhelmed by all the books with all their trivial subject matter. I can not recall the author's name, so I must look for the print copy to find it again.

The references to 2001: A Space Odyssey were well thought out and fun to listen to. Poor HAL!

I wish I could have a keyboard like Nietzche's!


I intend to reread this, in physical form rather than audio.

Introduction: The Watchdog and the Thief
Introduces the work of Marshal McLuhan who coined some real zingers. "Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how it used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot".

Chapter 1: HAL and me
The author's own history with various computing technologies. The early bit is similar for me, but I never had his enthusiasm for "social" media. There are some remarks about John Kemeny, an early computer scientist and president of Dartmouth. Some people the author knows confess that they have mostly given up reading whole books as it is either less efficient or too hard. The kind of thinking that arises from or perhaps during book reading is for some reason described as linear.

Chapter 2: The Vital Paths
Nietzche gets an awesome typewriter but finds that using the typewriter seems to affect his prose. This is not too surprising. Freud speculates about the brain and there are two factions, those who believe that the brain is plastic throughout adulthood and those who believe that it becomes fixed in adulthood. Michael Merzenich does an experiment on monkeys. He correlated areas of monkey brains with regions in their hands. Then he cuts nerves in their hands and lets them heal. Subsequently, he maps again and finds that the mapping between hand and brain regions has changed. But later, he finds out that the mapping is back to what it was before the induced injuries. What we are to conclude from this is not clear. There is also a tale of an absolutely improbable experiment on a sea slug. It is asserted that if our brain regions lose the ability to receive input from one source, they will take over some other data processing role. Probably true, somehow. Phantom limb syndrome may be caused by the areas of the brain that used to receive sensations from the missing limb being repurposed to process sensations from other parts of the body. There is the assertion that the tools we frequently use become directly mapped to regions in our brain. This too is kind of plausible. But all this plasticity has a down side; we can train our brain to be stupid and unhelpful, give ourselves compulsive behaviors and regularly repeat the same mistakes.

Chapter 3: Tools of the Mind
maps, clocks, and the written word. in each case we discover an abstraction and guide our lives by it. There is a classification of technologies into four kinds which may or may not be useful. There's a malapropism; Socrates is called an "orator", but he is not supposed to have stood up and make speeches regularly. But the change from an oral to a written culture that used an alphabet must have affected language. And language affects a lot of things.

Chapter 4: The Deepening Page
About the development of reading, writing, and the book. Overtime the book detached itself from its oral roots. The book delivered the words more and more easily and rapidly to the brain of the reader. And so, untroubled by the problems of lexing and parsing, the reader was able to become more and more directly immersed in the book. So books became longer, more complicated, and the table of contents was introduced.

Chapter 5: A Medium of the Most General Nature
Previously distinct media can all be digitized and become one. Other media try to imitate the web; books add distractions to their regular text in the form of boxes that are distinct from the main narrative. Everything has got to be eye-popping.

Chapter 6: The Very Image of a Book
On e-books. Reading an ebook is not like reading a paper book, because an ebook, too, is connected and hyperlinked. Actually, this doesn't have to be true; my nook does not connect to the internet, and I put books on it by an interaction with my laptop. But, while there are advantages to e-books, like configurable font size, much is lost. There are the niceties of typography and, the quality of illustrations. I have "Programming Rust" on my nook, and I think the format is too much for the nook, I simply can't read it. Some hope to turn the experience of reading a book on an e-book reader into a social media experience, with real time interactions with other readers, commentaries, etc. As mentioned, this could not happen to me. Mention is made of the cell-phone novels that became popular in Japan. And it is suggested that if the e-book comes to dominate the following may occur:
* less challenging prose, so that the reader doesn't want to leave
* careful selection of chapter headings so forth, so that they show up higher in search engine rankings
* carelessness in writing, because e-books can always be updated
I've noticed that even physical books from reputable publishers seem to be much less well edited than previously. For example, Peter Atkins' "Reactions" is full of typos, and I think it is from the OUP.
Some intellectuals are making the loss of the ability to read well intellectually respectable; this is no surprise. Back in the day it was believed that the phonograph record would replace books. It didn't, but it turns out that the audio book is a pretty enticing thing. I listened to this book before I read it, and I would say that I got less from the audio than the physical book. On the other hand, I'm much more likely to read outside my usual interests if the book is on audio, as I ride the bus and would become quite nauseated from looking at text.

Chapter 7: The Juggler's Brain
Following hyperlinks all the time is not so healthy. Reading websites shows the F pattern. A quick scan of the first few lines, a scan down the left side, hit something interesting enough a bit down to go all the way to the right once more, and then a tail off. There is one fundamental flaw among the studies described, though. In my work, which is when I'm usually reading text online, I'm looking, consciously shallowly, for some particular bit of information, Yesterday, I was trying to find out why I could not get a recursively defined closure to compile in the Rust language. In my leisure, when I'm often reading a book, I'm looking for a deeper understanding of something or other. I've course, I approach the act of reading differently. But this really is a conflation of separate phenomena. When the internet began, hyperlinks were judiciously inserted by diligent people. Now, almost everything is automatically generated clickbait, anyway. Nowadays, following hyperlinks is a lot less helpful and more undisciplined than it used to be. Reading online has a higher cognitive burden, because we must decide whether to follow links in the text or not. This is, even a bit true of Wikipedia. When we follow hyperlinks at too rapid a pace, we fail to internalize anything about what we read. That should be self-evidently true.

A Digression: On the Buoyancy of IQ scores
Flynn's explanation. Most people now think a lot more like the people who originally designed the tests, and we are getting better at telling them what they would like to hear.

Chapter 8: The Church of Google
I find the quotation by Barnaby Rich. "One of the great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world." But there is no original source, the source given is Durant and Durant's "The Age of Reason Begins". This is really about Google as scanner of all books, copyrighted or not, and some excitable pronouncements by the Google founders.

Chapter 9: Search, Memory
On the organic nature of human memory. A nice quotation from Seneca about bees, nicely translated. I tend to agree with the great importance of internalizing things in order to fully understand them. And I suspect, based on my experience as a professor, that most twenty year olds today can't even fully grasp that idea, much less pursue it as a policy. Sadly, the concept of plagiarism has no meaning for them for that is their only mode of operation. This book also includes a technical discussion of short and long term memories and argues that interacting with the web clutters up short-term memory so that very little of it can be processed into any sort of organized long term memory. It points out that the calculator, or the abacus for that matter, reduces the short term memory clutter, and so does not fall into the same category.

A Digression: On the Writing of this Book
The author describes how he isolated himself from the pressures of the internet and avers that he experienced some symptoms of withdrawal. Now that he is nearly done the book he is relaxing, and checking his email, etc. quite regularly again.

Chapter 10: A Thing Like Me
Know real coherent message in this chapter. There is a discussion of ELIZA, Weizenbaum's book, "Computer Power and Human Reason", which warned about adverse effects of computer use, and a mention that John McCarthy got quite nasty about it. Every tool that amplifies our power to do something also has a numbing effect says McLuhan. I'm not sure that's quite right, but it does change our relationship to the thing we're working on. Thinking roofing and nailguns.

Epilogue: Human Elements
Back to HAL. The most sympathetic character is the AI, while the astronaut who terminates him is basically a robot.


It annoys me that the adjective "linear" is used for the kind of reading that occurs with books. I think that for a practiced reader such as myself linear reading is for novels. Non-fiction generally requires a non-linear approach, although this is less true of strongly narrative non-fiction like biography or history.

After reading this book, I tend to think that the digital revolution is killing itself. The real inventors are people who grew up before the digital revolution, who learned to focus and think deeply. But their inventions have created a class of people who can't do these very things.

Some of the neuro-physiological experiments in this book seem to contradict one described in Richard Dawkins' "The Greatest Show on Earth". In this experiment a tadpole has two bits of skin swapped between its belly and its back. Subsequently, when it is touched on the patch of belly skin from its back it reacts as if touched on its back and so forth. Not an illustration of plasticity. Dawkins was trying to make a point about embryology and local rules. ( )
  themulhern | Nov 18, 2017 |
Intruiging – a bit technical ( )
  keithgordonvernon | Aug 19, 2017 |
Exceptionally well-researched and thoughtfully written, Carr's examination of the neurology of the internet begins with the clay tablet and the sundial. I was impressed with Carr's open-mindedness, owing partly, no doubt, to this very long view. Though there are certainly moments when he seems he would like to attack the technology, he's mostly very even-handed and academic while still managing not to be too didactic. A very interesting, considered examination that might change the way you approach technology. ( )
  TheBentley | Jul 11, 2017 |
Interesting! The first half of the book gets a bit thick with all the research, but I can see how he used it to build his case for the book. The last three chapters were worth the read though. They went a long way in helping me understand why I feel so distracted sometimes. Lots to think about! ( )
  jchadgray | Jul 8, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 132 (next | show all)
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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And in the midst of this wide quietness

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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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W.W. Norton

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

Editions: 0393072223, 0393339750

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