Monday, November 28, 2011

The shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains

By Nicholas Carr

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

Whether you accept his argument, whether you agree with or question the evidence he uses to support his contentions, or whether you have personal experiences that significantly differ from Carr’s, two things you should know about this book on a current and relevant topic include, first, it is well written and organized, and two, it offers a great deal of material for thought, consideration, and discussion.  It’s the kind of book I would love to have assigned for a book circle or book club simply because I can see that Carr’s ideas would generate a variety of viewpoints, strong advocates as well as healthy critics, and, certainly, lively discussion.

You don’t have to accept Carr’s premise to enjoy his book.  His thesis was effectively stated by Kenneth A. Vatz of Winnetka, Illinois, who writes in his five-star review of the book, “that our increasing addiction to the Internet is not only transforming our minds but physically changing, or rewiring, our brains in such a way as to shorten our attention spans and impair our ability to memorize, think and synthesize.”

This book is important, and it should be read by teachers and students as well as by parents and their offspring.  My position is that it is a well-thought-out, well-written, well-researched book that is likely to be the mere tip of the iceberg with respect to this topic, and we will see a great deal more research and writing about it in the future.  Carr writes, “When it comes to the quality of our thought, our neurons and synapses are entirely indifferent.  The possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains” (p. 35).  I think there is no question at all that the Internet will have a significant influence on the way we both think and behave, and its pernicious influence is likely to become greater and greater as time goes on.  This book, then, becomes the benchmark.

I’m a reader.  One of the delights in this book is the contrast Carr offers between reading a book or magazine (it’s "tactile as well as visual” (p. 90).) and reading a Web document (which “involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning . . . pages” (p. 90).)  His contrast appears on pages 89-98.

For authors, readers of books, creators of e-books, and publishers, Chapter Six, “The Very Image of a Book,” is both an interesting and informative read.  The overall thesis, Carr explains, is: “The high-tech features of devices like the Kindle and Apple’s new iPad may make it more likely that we’ll read e-books, but the way we read them will be very different from the way we read printed editions” (p. 104).  The chapter goes on to explain the numerous “changes in the way books are written and presented” (p. 105).

In Chapter Seven, “The Juggler’s Brain,” Carr goes on to describe and discuss a similar thesis: “. . . the Internet’s import and influence can be judged only when viewed in the fuller context of intellectual history.  As revolutionary as it may be, the Net is best understood as the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mold the human mind” (p. 115). Carr then goes on to answer the crucial question, “What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?” (p. 115)

Just an additional thought.  After Carr’s Chapter Nine, “Search, Memory,” he includes three pages (pp. 198-200) entitled, “a digression: on the writing of this book.”  Now, as a writer, I found these three pages insightful.  I always enjoy it when writers write about the process of writing.  Carr says, “When I began writing The Shallows, toward the end of 2007, I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task.  The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words.  I tended to write in disconnected spurts, the same way I wrote when blogging.  It was clear that big changes were in order” (p. 198).  He says all this as a way of showing what happened when he moved from Boston to the mountains of Colorado where there was no cell phone service, a very slow DSL connection, a canceled Twitter account, a Facebook account put on hiatus, and a shut down blog, RSS reader, skyping, and instant messaging.  What happened then is an anecdotal delight — and worth the read.

With respect to the credibility of the ideas in this book, there are over 25 pages of notes and 4 pages of further readings.  Throughout the book, readers are provided important, relevant, and highly accomplished researchers and experts as the basis for his observations.  His own experiences are offered, but he only uses them to further extend the research and the expert opinions.

With respect to the author’s own credibility, I quote here from his online biography: “Earlier in his career [ before writing his best selling books], Carr was executive editor of the Harvard Business Review and a principal at Mercer Management Consulting.

Carr has been a speaker at MIT, Harvard, Wharton, the Kennedy School of Government, NASA, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas as well as at many industry, corporate, and professional events throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia. He holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College and an M.A., in English and American literature and language, from Harvard University.”

This is a very good book.

This book is available from The shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains

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