Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (book review)

The Shallows:
What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

by Nicholas Carr
Published by W.W. Norton
Hardcover, 276 pages, June 2010
ISBN: 978-0393072228

It takes great courage, as well as insight, to stand up against prevailing practices, to shout or whisper to the fad-following crowd that the way we are living is unhealthy for us.

More than 50 years ago, Aldous Huxley, interviewed by a cigarette-smoking Mike Wallace, warned:

“We must not be caught by surprise by advances in technology.”

Other eloquent warnings about technology's dangerous side effects have come to us from the works of Lewis Mumford, Erich Fromm, Neil Postman, Sven Birkerts, Mark Slouka, Theodore Roszak, and Bill Joy. A famous debate about this issue, "What Are We Doing Online", (from a 1995 edition of Harper's Magazine), thoughtfully explores the Internet's benefits and harms.

The latest voice speaking against the sacred cow of our technologies comes from Nicholas Carr, in his extraordinary book "The Shallows." Carr is not a Luddite; he uses technology capably, and acknowledges his appreciation of the Net. Carr, however, is concerned that there are losses along with the gains. Thanks to the Internet — the most sophisticated and useful tool for communications ever invented — we are losing our ability to concentrate and to think deeply. Carr cites indisputable evidence to show that the passive activity of using the Internet for short, skimming searches and shallow reading, is creating measurable changes in the structure and development of our brains.

Musing on the classic passage by Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose calm reflections were interrupted by the strident noise from a passing locomotive, Carr writes:
"The problem today is that we're losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we're in perpetual locomotion."

Like Neil Postman in Technopoly, Carr shapes his book not to point to solutions, but to illuminate the problems -- and he has done this work expertly. Despite his confessions that his powers of attention have been diminished by the Net, Carr's book is always thoughtful, and often captivating and profound. He cites Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey, where HAL the computer shows more feelings than the human characters. Carr's concerns, that begin with the loss of our powers of attention and concentration, conclude with worries that too much Internet and too little reflection may lead to a loss of our humanness.

We need computers, we need the Internet, we need quick access to the latest information — but we need it in the right amounts. All told, The Shallows is a superb starting point for the kinds of face-to-face discussions that might help us to break our collective addiction to screens, and to renew our interest in the slower, more personal, and more profound realms of our inner lives.

—Michael Pastore, Epublishers Weekly
Author of
50 Benefits of Ebooks:
A Thinking Person's Guide to the Digital Reading Revolution.

Story Links

Get a sample of Carr's book by reading his essay in the Atlantic:
Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Carr's Blog Rough Type ...

What Are We Doing Online?
Ironically, this fascinating and deservedly-famous debate (which first appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1995) is not easily findable online -- the link from Kevin Kelly's website is now broken.

Aldous Huxley interviewed by Mike Wallace in the early 1960s: