Wednesday, May 15, 2013

(Book Review: The Shallows)

The Shallows by Nicholas G. CarrDo the tools we use change us even as we use them?

The author makes a compelling case that they do, and he urges us consider how the Net is changing our brains.

He provides a brief and fascinating overview of major technological changes throughout history- the map, the clock, the printing press- and explains how these inventions have forever changed society and even the way we think. He explains neuro-plasticity and argues that new technologies even change the physical shape of our brains- as we learn new abilities, we lose old ones.

”Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.” 108

The author is not an alarmist or a radical. He is not urging his readers to unplug, move to the mountains, and hide from the evil Net. 


However, he makes a strong case that our online lives are changing the way we think and interact, and some of these changes are not good. He urges us to reflect on these things, and even as we use this technology, to use it wisely. We must guard our ability to read deeply, to connect emotionally, and to think logically about complicated issues. 

A personal note: As I read this I wanted to prove the author wrong, to focus completely on his ideas with all my attention, to prove to him that though I am almost always online, I am still capable of "deep reading." Yet, I found the urge to share what I am reading with those online IMMEDIATELY impossible to resist (hence my frequent goodreads updates and a few facebook quotes.) I also typed notes as I read, as I know that I rarely retain more difficult ideas if I do not get them "down." 


Yes, I am as he says, a word processor.

As I read through chapter 3, I also answered five texts, put in a movie for my children, and handed the kindle to the 2yr old because he was bored with the movie.

And I asked myself, is this just life nowadays? Why should I fight it? 

After reading this book, I have decided that yes, this is modern life, and yes, I should fight it. I will not hide from it, but I am newly motivated to fight it with strict boundaries, and to exercise my brain in more focused ways. I do not want to be one of those thoughtful people who "comfortably into the permanent state of distraction that defines the online life." p.112


Do you relate? Read this book. 

And now, a few of my favorite quotes- with my comments in italics.

Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. 7

And the speed is exhilarating, isn't it?


It wasn’t just that so many of my habits and routines were changing as I became more accustomed to and dependent on the sites and services of the Net. The very way my brain worked seem to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I’d figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it—and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. 16

Hungry for data, for connection, for fast-paced life... even if my real life around me is fast paced already!

Even the earliest silent readers recognized the striking change in their consciousness that took place as they immersed themselves in the pages of a book. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria described how, whenever he read to himself, “as in a dream, I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of my memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.” Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was—and is—the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading. 65


Yes! and this is why an hour of surfing around the internet does not refresh me like an hour of reading a book!  

“The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” 117

They are yummy, but  yes, they are tiny.

Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, w e can transfer all or most of the information thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and force the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas. With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We're able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source. 125

What an analogy. This makes me think.... I often do feel like the one rushing from faucet to faucet...


The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden. We need to work in Google's "world of numbers," but we also need to be able to retreat to Sleepy Hollow. 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. 168

What do you think?
The Net is here to stay, and there are many reasons to celebrate this.  But consider the possible negative effects as stated above- are you noticing similar things in your own life? Is it worth fighting against the tide, or shall we just learn to be content here in the shallows?


Interested?
Read this review, too.
and also, read the book

1 comment:

  1. I've been wanting to read this book for a while. I'm glad you offered the review! I find myself wanting less and less to open my laptop. I have less and less time to do so but it's always on my mind, what I'm missing there, what I want to share there. It's "great idea overload" and my wanting to encourage and connect with others almost becomes a burden!

    Thanks for the quotes, such a good insight "permanent state of distraction" isn't that the truth! Time for contemplation, reflection, slowing down that I did have before I had constant access to internet doesn't exist for me anymore. Makes me sad. (Though that could also be b/c I have 5+ babies!)

    Plus the actual real life books I want to read like this one, are piling up....on my amazon list at least! :)

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