Sunday, August 22, 2010

Book Review - "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr has written an incredible book. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains actually started out as an article in Atlantic. Indeed, most if not all of the article is in the book (so definitely read the article if you don't have the attention span to read the book), but then Carr expands on the process of how our thinking has already changed due to technological advances throughout history. He explains his own struggle with deep reading, realizing after years of heavy Internet use that he no longer was able to spend much time with a book or detailed article before being distracted. Often he was following links in an attempt for learn more, but sometimes he lost concentration. The article and then the book try to figure out why he found it so hard to read and could only skim.

Carr asserts, with citations to studies and experiments as proof, that the nature of the Web demands quick reading with the ease of scrolling instead of turning pages and the abundance of links that give us easy access to more related information. It's so easy to be connected--and as social creatures humans have a need to feel connected--with email alerts and RSS feeds and Twitter notifications that we don't want to unplug and unwind. We stimulate our brains to oversaturation in the quest for "more" and don't take the time to read deeply and study fully ideas, arguments, or even fictional stories.

Written alphabets, the printing press, and typewriters have all changed the way humans think. The Internet is no different. It's just another communication tool, and like its predecessors, it has affected how we think and how we get our ideas across. The difference this time is that we seem to have regressed in our ability to synthesize information. We don't seem to have the same ability to internalize knowledge. The medium of the Web makes it too easy to breeze through paragraphs and pick up on keywords without understanding the  connection of those keywords. We're good at getting the gist of something, but we might not be able to expound on a writer's thesis and determine whether that thesis is right or wrong.

Then there are the images and sounds that intrude on our reading. Our brains use different sections to process different kinds of information, and when a person forces theirs to multitask by feeding it images, videos, text, and more all at once, its ability to digest any of it well diminishes.

Carr discusses his need to unplug from the Internet in order to write the book (because his powers of concentration had shrunk so small that he couldn't write coherently for long stretches of time), but he confesses that he has since rewired himself. He doesn't say we should chuck the Internet and computers because they are detrimental to society, but he hasn't completely embraced them as he once did either. He takes a middle ground, showing how the Internet has changed our thinking processes and warning us that we should evaluate our own usage and how our personal patterns may have changed. He leaves it up to the individual to determine whether those changes are good or bad and what each person might do about it.

Anyone who spends time online should read this book. Anyone who has children or who works with students should read this book. Anyone who finds himself unable to read deeply, whether online or in print, should read this book. Even if it takes months to finish it, the time will be well spent. It will make you think and consider your own habits. You might end up disagreeing with Nicholas Carr, but he won't mind. It'll mean you found the time and ability to read deeply and to evaluate his thesis and his evidence and to determine for yourself if he's right. It'll mean you had to think, and that's all he wants.

What has the Internet done to my brain?

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