The Shallows

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Shallows
What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr

In our age of twitter, blogging, TV, Facebook, etc. we have instant access to almost anything we want. Yet we can’t seem to focus on any of those things for very long. In Carr’s nonfiction book, he looks at the reason behind this change and the history of media development over centuries.

The book begins with the effect continuous internet use has on our attention span and ability to focus. Then he quickly dives into the history of language and books themselves. He goes all the way back to the history of clocks, writing, newspaper and the impact each of these new inventions had on society.

It’s funny; I started to loose interest in the book in the first third when the author was recapping the history of communication. I was doing exactly what he was talking about; failing to focus on something and wanting to move quickly to the next thing. Soon it reeled me back in and I was fascinating by the discussion, but it was interesting to realize I wasn’t focusing on the material very well.

I loved reading about other “technology” scares in the past. At one point, when newspapers became popular, people predicted that books were on the way out and people would only read newspapers. It happened again with the invention of radio, TV and finally computers; yet books have somehow managed to hang on and remain a staple in our society.

Carr also mention that some people are predicting we might return to a “reading class” society, where only a tiny minority still reads books. That’s a terrifying thought to me. I feel like we’ve already turned into a society where only a small minority read classics for fun, I hope we can at least maintain that.

One of my favorite things I learned in the book was that Erasmus recommended all readers carry around “commonplace books.” These were small notebooks that you could write quotes from what you were reading in. The commonplace books would eventually become a “chronicle of his intellectual development.” I’ve always done this without knowing it had a name. I keep small moleskin notebooks and fill them with quotes from things I’m reading. Over the years the form of the notebook has occasionally changed, but I’ve always maintained one. I think it’s wonderful that this was a concept originated by Erasmus and that he saw it as a way to keep track of the quality and depth of what a person was reading.

In the end, the conclusion is that the internet is not bad. It has some wonderful benefits and can exercise your mind in wonderful ways, but like anything else in life, moderation is the key. If you spend all of your time in front of a computer screen (which is incredibly easy to do), you will lose some of your cognitive functions and the ability to concentrate on a single thing at a time.

BOTTOM LINE: I think that this is one of those books that would spark fascinating discussions. I’d recommend it for book clubs or for anyone who is interested in the history and development of media.

“It is the very fact that book reading under stimulates the senses that makes the activity so intellectually rewarding. By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem solving functions on the frontal lobe, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking.”

“What we’re experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization. We are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.”

"As we externalize problem solving and other cognitive chores to our computers we reduce our brain's ability to build stable knowledge structures, schemas, that later can be applied in new situations. In other words the brighter the software, the dimmer the user."

"What makes us most human is what is least computable about us, the connections between our mind and our body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy."


Jeanne said...

There are various people around the internet, and I am one, who started a blog as a kind of commonplace book; I used to have that in the title of mine back when I thought it might work as such books did in Erasmus' day, to give the collector talking points. But it seems to me that blogs have become less conversational and more a place for one person to pontificate.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I've used this blog as a commonplace book in many ways. It's a place for me to share my thoughts and favorite quotes from a book and I think I tend to enjoy blogs that have a similar style.

Jenny Girl said...

Very interesting post. Not sure if I would read this book, but keeping quotes could be fun. although, I don't do that because I haven't come across any worth keeping??? :)
Great review.

christina said...

I am really interested in reading this book. I love that you were self aware enough to realize you were doing EXACTLY what the author discussed. Aaaaaand you were honest enough to share that.

Also I always decide to keep a commonplace book but then I forget to write in it!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jenny Girl - I find myself with too many quotes I want to remember!

Christina - It was one of those moments where you kind of smack yourself in the forehead when you realize what you're doing.

Jenners said...

How cool that you were following an ancient custom!! And I agree that moderation in all things is the key to a healthy life.

Jenny said...

Must be cool to read about all the other technology scares. I do like seeing the consistency with which people treat new technologies with great suspicion. :p

I have a commonplace book and I love it to bits! It's really fun to go back and look at what I was reading at all different times in my life. It snaps me right back to what was happening when I wrote each of the things down.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jenners - Moderation can be so hard with the internet though! Once I start blogging or playing on Pinterest it's hard to stop!

Jenny - I do the same thing! I love re-reading quotes that stood out to me at different points in my life.

Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

Someone on my book club was lobbying for this book and she put the Fear of the Lord in us with some of its conclusions!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Alex - This would be a fascinating book club book. I would love to discuss it with people.