The shallows (book review)

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Nicholas G. Carr
W.W. Norton & Company, 2010

After my post of Thinking, fast and slow, I'll now review another book of the brain: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The subtitle of the book, What the internet is doing to our brain, is well chosen as we may see.

The author tells us about his adoption of computers and the internet. Using the internet intensively, Carr noticed: "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." How could this happen?

Citing several studies, Carr explains our brains are flexible. They continuously create new connections and disconnect others. They're work in progress, so to say.

Mankind developed intellectual technologies like maps, clocks, typewriters, books, computers and the internet. These inventions extend and support our mental powers. When Gutenberg introduced the art of printing in the mid 15th century, he enabled people to share ideas and knowledge. Computers perform calculations and the internet helps us to find and classify information.

Websites provide many hyperlinks enabling surfers to seek out additional information. As powerful computers and bandwith became cheaply available, pictures, audio and video were also added to websites. All these rich media create a lot of stimuli competing for attention. The net is therefore by design an interruption system. (!) Readers therefore get distracted, concentration goes down and reading becomes scanning.

Our brain needs to process incoming information thoroughly and deeply to save it in our longterm memory. It needs to be meaningfully and systematically associated with the knowledge already in our memory. This is only possible after deep reading: concentrated reading and understanding what we read.

When surfing, we are confronted with a lot of stimuli. Concentration goes down and we scan in stead of read pages. This way we consume lots of information but we don't process it thoroughly.

Well, there's a lot more in the book. Carr mentions many studies, opinions of philosophers and developments. The crux however is the many distractions of the internet causing less concentration and less understanding. The book is well written and interesting to read as the internet is part of our lives.

For me the The Shallows was an eye opener. I use - both for work and private - computers and the internet intensively. It allows me to gather a bunch of information. But as I think of this book, I recognize a lack of concentration. Reading becomes scanning. Therefore I think I should focus on fewer topics and websites. That'll be a challenge as I'm broadly interested. ;-)

Do you recognize Carr's statement?

Happy reading!