“The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr

The Shallows written by Nicholas Carr, is a book exploring the effects of what the Internet has upon our lives. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer-prize in 2011. This book is of natural interest on this blog as here it’s written several articles (and probably more is to come) on how the Internet is changing our society and ways to deal with it (for example here and here).

Nicholas Carr strikes me as someone from a literary community. The book is not typically academical, it is not what I would classify as rigorous science. Rather it is a kind of “popular science” intended for a larger audience. Even though it is not rigorous science, I’d say that it is a good read. It highlights important issues and Carr is a talented writer.

I shalln’t say so much about it right now, but let the book speak itself from some selected quotes.

Selected quotes

Problems with Internet from a subjective point of view

I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread , begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
[—]
what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. 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.

The net encourages the superficial reading

when we go online , we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.
[—]
“the digital environment tends to encourage people to explore many topics extensively, but at a more superficial level,”

….which in turn rewires our brains (here referring to empirical research)

The mental functions that are losing the “survival of the busiest” brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought— the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on when we reflect on our experiences or contemplate an outward or inward phenomenon. The winners are those functions that help us speedily locate, categorize, and assess disparate bits of information in a variety of forms, that let us maintain our mental bearings while being bombarded by stimuli.

Backing up with more empirical research

[In a study conducted they] had 232 people wear a small camera that tracked their eye movements as they read pages of text and browsed other content. [The researcher] found that hardly any of the participants read online text in a methodical, line-by-line way, as they’d typically read a page of text in a book. The vast majority skimmed the text quickly, their eyes skipping down the page in a pattern that resembled, roughly, the letter F.

How long time does people stay on a web page? About 20 seconds on average…

most Web pages are viewed for ten seconds or less. Fewer than one in ten page views extend beyond two minutes, and a significant portion of those seem to involve “unattended browser windows… left open in the background of the desktop.” The researchers observed that “even new pages with plentiful information and many links are regularly viewed only for a brief period.”

[One study] found that in most countries people spend, on average, between nineteen and twenty-seven seconds looking at a page before moving on to the next one , including the time required for the page to load into their browser’s window.

Looking forward – There’s no turning back

”The practical benefits of Web use are many, which is one of the main reasons we spend so much time online. “It’s too late,” argues Anderson, “to just retreat to a quieter time.”

The danger of how the computers may take control over our lives

(Referring to a study by Joseph Weizenbaum)

The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers— as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens— is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate, Weizenbaum wrote, is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly “tasks that demand wisdom.”

Waiting for the countercultural movement

We may be wary of what our devices are doing to us, but we’re using them more than ever. And yet, history tells us, it’s only against such powerful cultural currents that countercultural movements take shape.

Some reflections after reading

I do think Carr has written an important book. As the quotes point out, he is warning of serious dangers of the Internet revolution. However, I do not think the book is to be regarded as “neutral”. He wants to point out negative aspects, and not so much positive aspects.

If I think for myself, I sure do recognize myself in many of these things he writes. I easily do get distracted when on the Internet. I sometimes surf around, with no plan, and frequently update pages like the news and stats on my blog, not being able to explain why. But speaking from my experience, I haven’t felt that everything has gone for the worse. This autumn (year 2013) for example I had a course in history of literature, and I was surprised by how studious almost everyone in class was (with about 30 students). A book like Anna Karenina, ranging over 600 pages, most would recall details in the story when talking about it (and many of the students were only about 20 years old, grown up in an Internet generation). Back in 2004 when the Internet culture weren’t so widespread I had another course in history of literature, and then students seemed to take the reading less seriously. And speaking about my behavior on the Internet, sure I do a lot of shallow surfing, but there are also times when I go for deep dives.

I think that when one realizes that ones behavior is really wrong, one is also ready to change it. But it is not so easy to realize it is wrong. There’s many “irrational” factors of human life which cannot be disregarded.

Further reading


The Shallows by Nicholas Carr @ Amazon.com
Nicholas Carr’s blog
Here is a short text by Carr where he defends the use of subjectivity and anecdotalism

Internal links
Internet Revolution, attentionalism and slow-thinking, with Alexander Bard and Pierre Bourdieu
Slow-thinking and the absolute need for time (With Pierre Bourdieu)
Internet Revolution pt.3: How the non-attentionalistic can prevail over the attentionalistic

MBTI:ers, Jungians and Scientists (Here I write some about both the problems and possibilities of subjective validation)

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About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
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