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Posts Tagged: Books

Thoughts on “The Shallows”

by Adrian Patience

I just finished reading “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr. I think it is an important text given the rapid rate of technological advancement in our postmodern world. I will try to not give away too much of the book’s details because I think that everybody should read it for themselves. I don’t want to spoil it for you so I’ll cover the points that I found interesting. The main idea that is suffused throughout the text is that our use of the internet/technology is distracting us from being able to think deeply in a sustained state of concentration. This kind of deep thinking is what has helped mankind reach our current technological level of sophistication. As the book’s narrative progresses, Carr gives us examples from past philosophers and cultural theorists (Friedrich Nietzsche and Marshall McLuhan) about how technology itself–not the technology’s content–effects how we think and develop cognitively. Carr also provides empirical examples of cutting-edge neuroscience research that further supports his claim that technology is distracting us and limiting our intellectual abilities.

We tend to take our digital lives for granted; we use computers and the internet on a quotidian basis all the while thinking that these high-tech devices are enhancing our lives, intelligence, and ability to multitask effectively. As Carr points out…this couldn’t be further from the actual truth. Carr leads us to the conclusion that true understanding can only be achieved by thinking about one concept at a time for a sustained period of time. Books allow the human brain to be able to reach this level of true understanding because a book forces you to concentrate on one concept at a time in a methodical and linear manner.

The web provides an antithetical experience to the act of reading a paper book. It encourages continuous digressions from one subject to another, from one medium to another–text to images to video to links. In other words, our brains are unable to process and transfer all of these disparate snippets of information from our short-term memory (working memory) into our long-term memory. By using the content rich multimedia that web has to offer, we are actually not absorbing information effectively due to cognitive overload. Carr paints a grim picture about the contemporary human intellectual mind, and we are not left reassured that this will improve in the days to come.

While Carr focuses mostly on the negative neurological aspects of internet usage on the brain, he does briefly cover the benefits. Internet usage has made us more adept at being able to rapidly find specific information in a heuristic fashion. This ability to quickly find information has also promoted our related skills of skimming and parsing documents for the most relevant bits of information. However, this information swiftness comes at the cost of not being able to remember and contemplate the information that was acquired with such immediacy. The result is an overall superficial understanding.

As I was reading “The Shallows” I found myself wondering what the intellectual landscape will look like in 5-10 years. Our rapacious appetite for new technology, faster internet connections, and innovative hardware/software is only increasing. What will become of the human mind in the future? Does this technological boom mark the end of the western intellectual/philosopher tradition, or will a new internet-philosophy emerge as we continue further in the digital abyss? Could we possibly see an intellectual elite rise to power in emerging/third world nations as they become more connected to the internet?

None of the above questions are easily answered, and any answer that could be formulated would be speculation. The question that I think is the most salient is the latter regarding an intellectual elite gaining impetus in emerging and third world nations. This is one aspect that Carr omitted in his mainly western centric treatise. Does technology have the same effect on the brain of a person from a non-western culture? Would said non-westerner react the same way to the scientific tests describe in “The Shallows” as their western counterparts? We can infer that they would react in a similar way to the tests given that the human brain’s physiologically is the same, but humans are not the sum their brain’s physiology. The culture in which we are born and raised has a dramatic effect on how we absorb, parse, and process information. I think it would be interesting to see how people from other cultures would react to these tests.

Having lived in a Western culture for my whole life, I have grown-up and developed with the computer technology as it was being released. With that being said…I feel that computer/internet technology is a part of my culture, my mind, and in some ways it defines who I am. I think it would be interesting to find out how people in developing nations view computers, the internet, and technology vis-à-vis their traditional cultures. In 5-10 years could the youth of these cultures start to see computers/internet technology as a part of their culture and how they define themselves? I hope that this would be the case. I also hope that Carr’s depiction of the new technologically savvy, yet “shallow” brain, doesn’t destroy rich history of human intellectual thought that has flourished over the past epochs.

If you want to read “The Shallows” you can probably get it out from your local library. You can buy it from Chapters Indigo books (Canada), or Amazon.com. “The Shallows” is also available to purchase directly form the publisher W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Have you read the book? What are your thoughts? Tweet me.


Posted March 8th, 2011

Categories Book Review, Thoughts  Tags , , ,

iPad vs Books

I’ve been using the iPad for five months now, and I find it to be a very useful device. The video, apps, music, and the browser make it a worthwhile purchase. It’s really nice to have the internet at your fingertips without having to boot up your machine every time that you want to check out something on the net.

I have found that while many websites/blogs have reviewed the features mentioned above, I haven’t found a lot of salient information regarding the iPad and how it compares to paper books. Sure, everybody knows that you can download and read eBooks on the iPad, but its other features tend to eclipse the ebook experience. If, however, the ebook feature on the iPad is reviewed, it’s almost always compared and contrasted with Amazon’s Kindle. I have not seen anybody review the iPad’s efficacy as a reading device vis-a-vis actual paper books. Being an avid reader of paper books and now having had experienced reading on the iPad for five months, I think that it’s time I did a review of how the two compare.

Before I begin I think it would only be fair to say that I am a big fan of standard paper books. With that being said…I hope that I can separate my love of books in order to give a fair assessment of the iPad reading experience.

The iPad has some great features:

• The ability to look up words using the iPad’s built in dictionary.
• The orientation can be changed (landscape or portrait).
• The animated graphic for each page turn mimics page turning in a standard paper book.
• The paper colour can be changed to a yellowish to mimic discoloured paper.
• The typeface can be changed and the font size can be increased or deceased.

The ability to instantly look up unfamiliar words is truly a handy feature. When reading books I normally keep my iPod touch close by to look up words using a dictionary, or I will simply look it up in a book dictionary. This can become irritating as it distracts you away from the subject matter of the book that you are reading. The iPad definitely scores a big win with the built in dictionary.

The orientation and page turning animation graphic are nice touches, but ultimately this makes no difference to me. I find that this is something that is more a novelty that you would show your friends in order to impress them and say: “Hey look how my iPad can mimic paper books…the future is now! Blah blah blah.” The ability to change the colour of the pages to yellow from the bright white is an essential feature. When I first started reading on the iPad I used the white coloured pages (the default setting), but I found that this really strained my eyes after a long reading session (even with the screen brightness turned down really low). With the screen brightness turned really low and the paper colour turned yellow, this can definitely mitigate eye strain, but it isn’t a panacea.

Another feature that effectively mitigates eye strain is the ability to change the font sizes and typeface. This makes reading on the iPad superior to books. It is superior because the only way to enlarge text when reading a paper book is to move the book closer to your face or wear reading glasses.

So far it seems that I would prefer reading on the iPad to books, but this is not the case. I’m not sure if it’s because the culture of paper books is so firmly entrenched in my psyche, but books just seem to be a more natural method for reading. As you turn the pages you get a feeling for the texture of the paper that the iPad can’t even dream of being able to recreate. Another issue that adds to the books experience is that each paper book has a smell that adds to the reading experience. I can’t take credit for this observation. I saw an interview with poet/writer Nikki Giovanni on “This is America” with Dennis Wholey where Wholey asks her opinion on technology/ebooks/ebook readers. She responds by saying that “The ebook won’t work until they can find a way; well we already know how to turn the page now[sic], but we’re going to have to find a way to bring the smell of paper and ink.” This was something that I hadn’t thought about until I heard Giovanni make this statement, but now I do notice the smell of books. I think unconsciously I was noticing the smell of books all along. However, after reading on the iPad–where no smell is emitted–you do start to miss the smell of “paper and ink” as Giovanni claims. I suppose smell is one of the most under-appreciated senses always being relegated to a subordinate position to sight and hearing. Giovanni’s explanation is far more robust than this; I’ll embed the video of the interview at the end of this article.

One thing that can get irritating on the iPad is that after the 9 hour battery dies you have to plug in the device for recharging. This can be irritating because it interrupts the flow of reading during a long session. I know that this seems like an insignificant point. I’m sure many would argue that after 9 hours of reading having to plug the iPad in is not a big issue. However, this can be more irritating than it sounds. Suppose you were reading in a comfortable position on your couch and there is no power outlet near you. You would have to get up from that position and find a spot near an outlet where you can plug in the iPad and continue reading. Now if you can’t achieve the same level of comfort in that new spot, you will most likely just stop reading and move on to doing something else. Your reading session has been interrupted. Books don’t suffer from this deficiency. So long as you have a working light you can keep reading for as long as you want.

So which method of reading is superior? This is a very difficult question to answer. I will say that the iPad definitely has clear advantages (all of which have been mentioned above). I don’t think that the iPad’s advantages necessarily eclipse the advantages of books. Books are low-tech, but they are still effective at disseminating knowledge. I think the reason for ebook popularity is really more of a consequence of novelty rather than efficacy. When we look at both methods objectively the main purpose is to disseminate and read information no matter how high-tech or low-tech the medium is. Both the iPad and paper books serve the purpose of making knowledge accessible, but is one a better method than the other? Really, I don’t think it makes a difference. While it is true that you can buy an ebook and have it downloaded to your device instantly, I don’t think that this necessarily makes the ebook experience more advantageous. Have we really become that impatient as a society that we can’t wait a day or two for a paper book to arrive in the mail? Personally, I can wait for the paper version to show up, but that’s just me. The final verdict: I will say that the iPad and ebooks are here to stay, but they will never fully replace paper books. In terms of which method is better really depends on which method is more suitable for the individual.

I will personally be using both the iPad and paper books for reading.

Let me know what you think in the comments section.

Here is the Dennis Wholey interview with Nikki Giovanni. The full interview is interesting, but if you’re just interested in the part about Giovanni’s opinion on ebooks it appears at 23:57 near the end of the interview.


Posted January 12th, 2011

Categories Review  Tags ,