the shallows: chapter 6


“The question that remains to be answered… is whether that reading class will have the ‘power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capital’ or will be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of an ‘increasingly arcane hobby.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Books have survived numerous technological advances because none of these innovations could replace reading. Now, this favored pastime is being swiftly out-shone by the internet and e-books, and many people see this shift as a positive one. We are provided with more convenient, less expensive, environment-friendly options for reading – what could be better? But people forget that e-books are not just books by another name; “change in a medium’s form is also a change in its content” (Carr). People wish to take advantage of the opportunities that digital media provide and therefore want links and other extras in the content. While I can understand the draw, adding these features surely changes the overall experience of reading a book.

Carr also discusses a recent Japanese trend I had not heard of – cell phone novels. Authors compose on their mobile devices and upload strings of text messages online. The stories became wildly popular – according to Carr’s research, the 3 best-sellers in Japan in 2007 were written in this manner. A Japanese reporter states that readers are deserting physical books “by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally too wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them.”

For one thing, Carr makes an excellent point later on the benefits of the published word: “The finality of the act of publishing has long instilled in the best and most conscientious writers and editors a desire, even anxiety, to perfect the works they produce – to write with an eye toward eternity.” Additionally, pardon the digression, but are we perpetuating our intellectual descent by coddling our minds instead of challenging ourselves? Does pure laziness drive our need to provide convenient, easy-to-consume material? Personally, I feel like some of the best things I’ve experienced in life required dedication and a little elbow grease.

“Their arguments are another important sign of the fundamental shift taking place in society’s attitude toward intellectual achievement… In arguing that books are archaic and dispensable, Federman and Shirky provide the intellectual cover that allows thoughtful people to slip comfortably into the permanent state of distractedness that defines the online life.” (Carr)


5 thoughts on “the shallows: chapter 6

  1. Dave

    This is simultaneously intriguing and frightening. I couldn’t agree more that we are using the [apparent] ideal/value of convenience as a means of being lazy without admitting it. It’s interesting when one considers that convenience is not a universal human value but a cultural value (a friend of mine was a missionary in Italy for two years and he said their culture does not value convenience even remotely as highly as Americans do).

    I love Carr’s comments on the finality and permanence of printed works. Putting a book into print is a long and arduous process (as one of my professors has reminded us repeatedly, since he is in the final stages of publishing a nearly 800 page, sort of life-work) and the completed product is something to behold and cherish. Contrast that to a blog post that can be instantly deleted or edited immediately and unceasingly; in which case will an author care more about quality and care of his/her writing? I think (hope) the answer is obvious.

    We are indeed becoming intellectually lazy. I think of Postman’s reflection on the debates between Lincoln and Douglas; I would be shocked if any modern audience of commonfolk (not, say, university professors) could endure such complex and extensive discourse today. But who needs to think? We have computers to do that for us. Clearly our society is improving in the wake of so much more technology. All of our problems are vanishing at a steady rate, right? (Sorry for the sarcasm; couldn’t help it.)

    Let’s just hope a critical mass of people recognize the crisis in thought that is being, in part, perpetuated by the unimpeded proliferation of technology – before it has even wider and more devastating repercussions in all areas of life.

  2. I agree, it’s interesting that convenience is not a universally revered value; I’m actually reading about differing cultural values for my Global Advertising class (literally the entire book is about this topic; I think it’s fascinating and plan to mention it in an upcoming post!).

    And yes, Carr hit the nail on the head with his comment about books/publishing; I had never thought about it in those terms. Some people would probably say that that’s a negative thing – that the ability to update content immediately is a great communication development. I don’t want to say that bloggers don’t put thought into their writing, but simply having the knowledge in the back of your mind that you can easily edit and change your document naturally changes your thought process when writing it. I know I have posted something without proofing closely, only to repost after editing:)

    And I love Postman’s discussion about the debates; can you imagine an audience sitting through hours of two men talking – no visuals, no videos, no tweets? And don’t worry about sarcasm; I appreciate and encourage it:)

  3. Valerie Jones

    I know you’ve recommended Carr’s book before, but I need to read it asap. I couldn’t agree more with Dave; this is simultaneously intriguing and frightening. I’m a huge proponent of digital media, but I’m also hugely concerned with its effect on society.

    You’re doing a great job with a very weighty and ambitious topic, Abby; I’m impressed. Keep it up!

  4. Thank you! Yes, the capabilities of digital media are so vast; I’ve learned so much from what I’ve read in our texts, and I’m sure that’s just skimming the surface. But that’s also why it’s terrifying!

    This book is really great; I’ve found it to be very factual. Obviously Carr has an agenda (proving that the internet negatively affects our brains) but I think he does a great job of presenting sound and balanced evidence. I have a few chapters to go, but I’m excited! I would also recommend Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (another recommendation from Dave). I know I’ve also mentioned this one, but it’s really great and incredibly relevant despite being a few decades old.

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