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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book Review: Nicholas Carr's The Shallows
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Last Friday afternoon, as I was leaving my house to en route to the airport with the family for a short vacation, Nicholas Carr's latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, arrived in my mailbox. I grabbed it, jumped in the car, flipped it open during the drive to Dulles Airport (don't worry, the wife was driving), and began devouring it. I say "devour" because once I started reading it, I didn't stop. I was wholeheartedly absorbed in the text from start to finish.

I tell you all this not just because Carr's book is that good, but because according to the thesis he sets forth in The Shallows, fewer and fewer people are likely to be engaged in such contemplative, deep reading activities due to the highly distractive nature of the Internet and digital technologies. "With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use," Carr claims. "At the very least, it's the most powerful that has come along since the book." (p. 116) The Net and multimedia "strains our cognitive abilities, diminishing our learning and weakening our understanding," he says. (p. 129) And we have no one to blame for this mess but ourselves:

We want to be interrupted, because each interruption brings us a valuable piece of information... And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider. (p. 133-4)

Although, ultimately, Carr doesn't quite convinced me that "The Web is a technology of forgetfulness" (p. 193), he has made a powerful case that its effects may not be as salubrious as many of us have assumed.

Drawing upon a wealth of scientific studies, Carr calls into question the widely-held belief that the Net's vast reserves of instantly accessible information have enabled us to "free up" brain space and made room for more mental processing and productivity. "Those who celebrate the 'outsourcing' of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor," he argues. (p. 191) "When a person fails to consolidate a fact, an idea, or an experience in long-term memory, he's not 'freeing-up' space in his brain for other functions," he says. (p. 192) Instead, we are just losing that wisdom and experience, or at least dulling our intellects in the process of farming out that learning process to the Web. He elaborates:

We don't constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence. The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches." (p. 192)

But Do the Costs Really Outweigh the Benefits?

Whatever you think of the thesis Carr sets forth in The Shallows, the book is just so beautifully crafted that it commands your attention. As I pointed out in my review of his 2008 book, The Big Switch, Carr is a massively gifted wordsmith. He is up there in that rarefied air with the likes of George Gilder, Peter Huber, and even the late Ithiel de Sola Pool. These are technology writers who make your revel in their ability to weave a gripping narrative and turn geeky tech talk into sheer poetry. Rich with historical anecdotes and replete with scientific surveys and evidence, The Shallows is a book that demands your respect whether you are comfortable giving it or not.

And many people won't be. After all, Carr is a bit of a skunk at the cyber-garden party. I mean, how dare he suggest that all is not wine and roses with our glorious new world of instantaneous connectivity, abundant information flows, and cheap (often free) media content! Obviously, most of us want to believe that all adds up to a more well-rounded worldview and greater wisdom about the world around us.

Carr is skeptical of those claims and The Shallows is his latest effort to poke a hole in the cyber-utopian claims that sometimes pervade discussions about Internet. But the ultimate question is: Do the costs really outweigh the benefits? Is it the case that these technologies "turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities--those for reason, perception, memory, emotion"? (p. 211) I think that goes a bit too far.

The Great Debate over the Impact of Technology on Culture & Learning Continues

I've referenced Carr's work before in my writings on the great ongoing debate between Internet optimists and pessimists. I've noted that, generally speaking, you can divide a great number of recent Internet policy books into one of those two camps. Although I've penciled Carr into the pessimist category, that's probably a bit unfair since he doesn't exude the rabid, neo-Luddite, hot-headedness of some of the other pessimists out there. At the far extreme on that pessimistic spectrum you find Lee Siegel and Mark Helprin, and to some extent Andrew Keen on his grumpier days. Jaron Lanier can get pretty grumpy, too, but he is a bit more toward the reasonable center, although still tending toward the pessimistic side. And you'd find Carr floating about there on the spectrum as well. If my own position is one of "pragmatic optimism," you could call call his position "pragmatic skepticism": It's not the deep-rooted, antagonistic sort of "against-the-machine" hyper-pessimism of some of those others I just mentioned.

Carr uses the same famous allegory from Plato's Phaedrus that I've used many times over here to explain the origins of this great intellectual debate. (p. 54, 177-8) I won't bore regular readers with yet another retelling of the Theuth-Thamus story, but instead just cite back to my "Are You an Internet Optimist or Pessimist" essay for the complete rundown. Interestingly, however, Carr recasts this as a debate between technological "determinists" vs. "instrumentalists." Determinists, he says, argue that "technological progress, which they see as an autonomous force outside man's control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history." Instrumentalists, by contrast, are "the people who... downplay the power of technology, believing tools to be neutral artifacts, entirely subservient to the conscious wishes of their users. Our instruments are the means we use to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own." (p. 46)

I like that analytical framework, but it fails to capture the moral or philosophical overlay some of those other Net skeptics / pessimists bring to the table. Nonetheless, students of this debate may find Carr's reformulation of this intellectual debate more sensible than my simplistic "optimists vs. pessimists" construction.

Anyway, let's return to the question of whether the Net's benefits justify the costs of the information overload it creates. Carr acknowledges that every technological revolution entails some gains and losses for society and humans, but he is obviously preoccupied with the negatives here. The problem is, there's just no scientifically precise method of stacking gains against losses. Many others, of course, have discussed the gains in greater detail. Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Yochai Benkler, Don Tapscott, and many others on both sides of the political fence have played up the Net's many benefits for society. For me, the crucial question that these scholars have asked is: Were we really better off in the decades prior to the rise of the Net? Did we really read more and engage in the more contemplative deep-reading and thinking that Carr fears we are losing because of the Net?

That's where Carr loses me and where Clay Shirky's insights about "cognitive surplus" become relevant. Shirky has reminded us that most of us were busy watching "Gilligan's Island" and "The Partridge Family" back in the day, not reading War and Peace. Shirky recently noted in Wired that, "Someone born in 1960 has watched something like 50,000 hours of television already. Fifty thousand hours -- more than five and a half solid years." So count me among those who think that--whatever most of us are doing in front our our computers most nights, and no matter how distracting it is--it has to be better than much of the crap we wasted our spare time on in the past!

However, here's an interesting question: Could it be possible that both Shirky and Carr are correct? I think so: We are living in a world where we have access to more and better forms of informational inputs than ever before (as Shirky suggests), and yet precisely because of that we have become a bit more scatter-brained and distracted (as Carr fears). In the end, however, while I can sympathize with many of the concerns Carr raises in The Shallows, I just can't bring myself to believe that we are somehow worse off than we were in the "good ol' days," whenever those were, exactly.

Another Call for Slow Communication

But, even if Carr doesn't quite convince me that the Net is turning our brains to mush, he makes a compelling case for what John Freeman, the author of The Tyranny of E-Mail, has called "slow communication" (i.e., more contemplative reading and learning). I would, however, had liked to have seen Carr offer up some personal suggestions for how we each might better manage cognitive overload, which can be a real problem.

I have talked here about my attempts to strike a more sensible balance between my online and offline lives. After my two kids were born, I became acutely aware of the need to take more "digital sabbaticals" or a weekly "technology Sabbath" (i.e., a day or at least evening entirely away from digital gadgets and the Net). I now try to find specific moments each day to shut the lid on my laptop, toss my mobile phone in the drawer, and turn off all my other digital gizmos and gadgets and just go do something terribly old-fashion or archaic. Alas, the struggle continues. Even when I swear off digital gadgets or connectivity for a few hours, I still find myself sneaking a peak at e-mail traffic piling up on my phone.

In a brief "digression" chapter entitled "On the Writing of This Book," Carr does mention some of the steps he took personally to make sure he could complete The Shallows without being driven to distraction by the Web and digital technologies. But he doesn't dwell on that much, which is a shame. One of the things I liked about Freeman's Tyranny of E-Mail is the way that he closed the book with ten sensible recommendations for getting email communication and clutter under control. A bit of a self-help can go a long way toward alleviating the worst forms of cognitive overload, although it will continue to be a struggle for many of us. Carr should have offered some constructive advice in the book instead of just adopting such a hopelessly defeatist attitude. Many of us would agree with Carr's plea that, "We shouldn't allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we've numbed an essential part of our self." (p. 212) But we also shouldn't lose sight of how -- when properly managed and assimilated into our lives -- those technologies really can do glorious things for us. You need to meet us half way, Nick!


Despite the reservations I've raised here, Nick Carr's The Shallows is my early favorite for the most important info-tech book of the year [here are my 2008 & 2009 choices], although he'll have stiff competition coming later this year from Tim Wu, Evgeny Morozov, Clay Shirky and others.

Back in 2008, I named Carr's previous book, The Big Switch, as runner-up for info-tech book of the year behind Jonathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, but that's because Zittrain's book is probably the most important of past decade. The Shallows, however, transcends The Big Switch in many ways and it will be required reading for many years to come.

I recommend you read it. All of it. Slowly.


Further Reading

posted by Adam Thierer @ 11:35 PM | Books & Book Reviews

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