Takeaway: Everything we do changes our brains. The repetitive action of computer and internet work is very effective at changing our brains. This has implications for everything.
The Shallows is not a new book. It has been out for about two years and many people, much smarter than I have had their take at it. My short review, Carr has lots of good points, which tend to be lost amidst his hyperbole and cherry picked stats.
At the center of this argument is that people are reading books less. And he has some statistics from the Bureau of Labor to show this. But as I talked about on this blog the National Endowment for the Arts study shows the largest increase in reading in decades (in all types of reading except poetry). Right off the bat, this severely undercuts his argument. The Library of Congress study came out after the book, so I don’t blame him for not using it. But even if it had come out I think he would have disputed it. Because in that study a novel is counted as reading a novel no matter what format you read it in. But Carr does not believe that.
“An ebook is no more related to a book than an online newspaper is related to a print newspaper.” (By which, he means that they are not hardly related at all in the context of the quote.)
“Electronic text is impermanent…it seems likely that that removing the sense of closure from book writing will in time will alter writer’s attitudes toward their work. Their pressure to achieve perfection will diminish as well as the artistic rigor that it imposed… One only need to glance at the history of correspondence…the cost will be a further severing of the intellectual attachment between the lone reader and the lone writer…”
My biggest complaint is that Carr uses a very broad definition of the net and alternates between examples to fit his need. For instance he talks about the immediacy and interactivity of the net at one point and gives examples of a teen texting a friend. But that interaction is fundamentally different from reading a blog post or watching a YouTube video. Yes the common thread is that all use the means of the internet, but to pretend that they actually give us interaction in a similar way or that they are creating ‘neural pathways’ in a similar way as one another or reinforcing the same neural pathways seems to be stretching reality. In this same example he complains that ‘When we are online we are lost to the world around us.” Which is essentially the same thing that he says holds up as important about reading a book, what he said was lost about reading an ebook or reading online. So he wants us lost in a book, but not lost on a webpage?
There are a lot of good points here. One of them is that they type of work that we do lends itself to short term immediate thinking and crowds out some of the background processing that our brains use for creative thinking. I heard another author make a similar point this way in an interview. The author said, if you want to be a writer you need a job that is physically active and mentally easy. That is why so many authors are laborers or waiters. Office work requires active use of the brain throughout the day and does not allow for background thinking (not to mention doesn’t give us the physical exercise we need to stay healthy.
Another very good point is that reading texts that have hyperlinks and pulled out text and video and images requires our brains to constantly evaluate the importance of that particular item. Do you want to click on the link or not? Even though these thoughts are subconscious they still prevent us from obtaining full concentration on the meaning of the text. But this is more a formatting issues than ‘internet’ issue. Because he complains about this for ebooks, but does not bring it up on the formatting of paper books (no links, but end notes, footnotes and sidebar would have a similar effect.)
Continually, I think that my frustration with this book is that he is trying to make the case too strongly and too broadly. There are advantages of the internet (which he admits) that offset some of the negatives. But there are also ways to minimize the negatives through better design (which he seems to minimize the possibility). For instance in dedicated ebook readers present the text without distraction most of the time. I only use the dictionary when I don’t know what a word means, but otherwise, I never use wikipedia or websearch while reading my kindle. I leave sharing options and wifi off when I am reading, I don’t want to be bothered, I want to read the book. Encouraging single use devices instead of multi-use devices can aid in concentration. If you look at my review of reading on the ipad from 2 years ago, my main complaint was that it wasn’t single use.
Also I know many writers that have started using various distraction apps in their computer. These apps are full screen, no formatting and they disable all sound and sometimes even disable all other programs in the background. They even have options to gray out all of the text that you are not working on, so your immediate line or paragraph is black, but everything else is gray.
Carr makes the case well that we should not expect the internet or computers to make us smarter. I know that there are those that believe that and write about that. But Carr does not really look at the opposite. He shows that the internet is changing our brains (as does everything that we do), but is that really making us dumber? Is it helping us adapt to the world around us? Carr brings up many issues of concern. But on the whole I feel that his treatment of those issues once they are brought is lacking. Strawmen and Cherry-picked data abound. In those areas that I have done some independent research on outside of this book, I find his work very one sided. Which makes me doubt the veracity of the data that I do not have a prior background in.
On the whole I recommend the book if you have an interest about how the history of technology changes (that section was very good) or an intro to brain science (also good, but if anything he underplays this case). But in the end I felt like the book was lacking in balance and restraint. For a better treatment of the general problems with technology I would read John Dyer’s From the Garden. It includes an equally good understanding of the role of technology, but is much more balanced and useful.