Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Shallows

So like I mentioned yesterday, I've just finished reading The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. It's about the effect that the Internet is having on our thought processes, on a fundamental level, and it's a pretty amazing book.

We see the Internet as an incredibly powerful tool for organizing and retrieving information, and we're right - as a multiplier for our own abilities, it's an unprecedented achievement. What some people are realizing, however, is that it is not without its downsides. Ask yourself this: how many books do you read for fun these days, and how many did you read before you discovered the Internet? Carr contends that this is not just because our reading has shifted online; instead, our brains have been rewired by the constant cheap stimulus of the web, so that we find it more difficult to read extended prose than we used to.

Historical precedent

Believe it or not, this isn't the first time that a new technology has fundamentally changed how we think. Carr looks all the way back to the invention of written language, which represented the beginning of the shift from an oral culture to a written one. There's some interesting stuff here that I didn't know about. For example, written languages were originally written using only letters, with no punctuation, or even spacing between words. See, written language was originally just a transcription of what people said out loud, and only intended to be read out loud. It wasn't until hundreds of years later that these things were added to language, to make reading easier.

The revolution brought on by written language reached a fever pitch with Gutenberg's invention in the mid-1600s. All of a sudden, books (previously reserved for the wealthy) were cheap enough that everybody could have them. Simultaneously, the automation of printing meant that the cost of introducing a new book decreased dramatically, so that authors were free to experiment with radical new styles of writing. (Critics of the time decried the new styles, a product of new technology, as a massive dumbing down of literature - sound familiar?)

The introduction of reading to the population as a whole caused a fundamental change in the way we thought. Carr starts the book by just asserting this, but when he really gets into the meat of his argument, he backs it up with a lot of neurological evidence - mostly the dramatic changes that occur in our brains when we learn to read, as seen through an MRI.


So how is the Internet changing things? Carr cites study after study that all point in the same direction - the Internet diminishes our ability to read deeply, by encouraging skimming and by allowing us to skip around to other pages easily. Furthermore, it does so on a fundamental neurological level. This is the core argument of the book, and Carr backs it up well, going all the way down to what we know about the mechanisms of human memory.

There are lots of counterarguments to be made here, of course. Even if the Internet makes it harder for us to absorb a book of information, doesn't it make up for it by giving us easy access to anything we might want to know? Doesn't the fact that looking up information is now instantaneous make it more efficient for us to know a wide variety of subjects shallowly, rather than learning a few subjects more deeply? (Personally, I'd say that it depends - some questions are harder to answer than others using a tool like Google, and it's an effect that's difficult to take into account when deciding what to learn.)

What should we do about this? It's hard to say. Really, it's hard to even say what we could do - people aren't even convinced that this is a problem today, and that would be a necessary prerequisite before we could even talk about steering the tech industry based on the effects that technology would have on us.

The technocrat in me thinks that we should just let technology happen, and deal with the consequences after the fact. Technology can solve technology's problems, and everything will work itself out, right? I used to believe that, anyway, but now I'm not so sure. (Maybe I don't have as much faith in humanity as I used to?)

In any case, though, everybody should read this book! Even if you don't agree with this author's premise, you'll probably find it an interesting read.


Kiriska said...

Pretty sure there isn't much we can do now about the tendency to find and take smaller, shallower pieces of information. Convenience is important to a society going at a hundred miles an hour and reading deeply takes too much time. I think eReaders are helping as far as getting people to pick up novels and "pleasure-reading" books, but is anyone ever going to go to the library to crack open a research book again? Probably not.

Nick Luchsinger said...

Thanks for the review--I had been wondering if I should enqueue this book after Amazon kept recommending it to me. One of Carr's other books, "The Big Switch" has been pretty good so far (though maybe I shouldn't be too positive, since I set it down two months ago and still haven't come back to read the other half). He talks about the shift in how power was generated in the late 19th / early 20th century, from something people engineered on their own, to something people bought (electric generators), to a true utility (the city power plant), and the awesome effect that had on technology when people/inventors/businesses were suddenly freed from thinking about how to make power and could focus on how to use that power to make cool stuff. Then he compares that whole shift to the one happening right now in computing with IaaS and PaaS =D

Nick Luchsinger said...

Also, as far as taking back your attention span from the Internet, these are some nice compromises:


At least I can finish articles and videos this way =P