Four self-evident truths.

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 , , ,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.