the shallows: chapter 7

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“What we’re experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization; we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Chapter 7 of Carr’s book is full of information and research results leading to the same conclusion: internet use encourages “cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning”, even when exposure is minimal. Carr spends ample time presenting plenty of evidence to support his point. Contrary to earlier expectations of technology liberating readers and adding depth through increased connectivity of information, it has actual barred us in a shallow pool of facts that we can barely grasp, let alone synthesize.

It is debated by researchers that we can hold about 2 – 7 elements of information in out working memory at a given time. Carr depicts this function in a terrific way: “Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory… When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip… With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next… When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to sort and process the information – when the water overflows the thimble – we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory” (Carr).

Also, merely having links present creates an unexpected cognitive burden; various experiments cited that even having to stop and evaluate a link’s worth interrupts our thought process and “weakens [our] ability to comprehend and retain what [we] are reading”. Studies comparing readers using hypertexts documents versus control groups using a linear format showed that hypertext readers were much more confused about plot and details. In another study, test subjects with linear content “scored considerably higher on a subsequent comprehension test” and readers’ “comprehension declined as the number of hyperlinks increased”.

By adding links to our copy, we encourage readers to click and gather more information from other sources, segmenting their exposure to our content and decreasing their ability to truly comprehend and process it.

As an interesting aside for web developers, Carr also highlights research from Jacob Nielsen. Using eye-tracking software, Neilsen discovered that users generally “read” information in an “F” shape on the page, and he summed up his findings by saying the F is “for fast. That’s how users read your precious content.” He found that when word count increased, the time spent on a page only slightly increased. “For every hundred additional words, the average viewer will spend just 4.4 more seconds perusing the page. Since even the most accomplished readers can only read about 18 words in 4.4 seconds,” you know people are barely seeing, let alone reading and processing, your content.

But it’s not all bad news. Some of the research shows that the internet can possibly help sharpen aging brains “in a way similar to solving crossword puzzles” (Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, paraphrased by Carr). And not all mixed media is harmful to information processing; it was found that “carefully designed presentations that combined audio and visual explanations or instructions can enhance students’ learning”. But I’d say the the main issue is that most sites and pages are not “carefully” constructed for learning and are, in fact, built to focus on increasing ease of information skimming and gathering.

Though there are some benefits, we are making huge sacrifices for convenient, bite-sized information. By consistently using the internet and digital media, “‘we revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged” (Carr, with quote from Maryanne Wolf).

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the shallows: chapter 5

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“‘A new medium is never an addition to an old one,’ wrote McLuhan in Understanding Media, ‘nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.'” (Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains)

Carr’s chapter 5 is titled “A Medium of the Most General Nature”, and I thought this quote from McLuhan offered an insightful description of how new technology affects current media.The internet is not only altering current intellectual technologies, but it is “subsuming” them. Large quantities of people are going online for virtually all forms of entertainment, and the various media are restructuring their content and delivery to be compatible with the shift.

Another focus of this chapter is the segmented nature of the online experience that “fragments content and disrupts concentration”. Carr quotes blogger and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, who says digital media is an “ecosystem of interruption technologies”. This analysis may seem a little harsh, but I don’t think it’s negatively biased in any way; it’s just an honest assessment of the media. In another section on e-readers, Carr talks about the internet’s ability to embed links to take you to search engines and gather more information on the word or words on which you clicked. While this additional information can sometimes add important context, it can also lead you on a long tangent of clicks (more on that later; I have a specific example from the next chapter I will reference and link here).

Another example of the disruptive nature of digital technologies is presented in the chapter – people attending a play were Twittering about it as it was in progress. While viewers have gained the ability to share their experience immediately, are they missing out on actually experience the event in-person? By “sharing” our experiences online while they are taking place in front of our eyes, are we too focused on telling people about what we are doing instead of actually experiencing it? This is a question I plan on continually addressing; I talked a little bit about this in my post about The Social Network, and my friend Dave provided some insightful and relevant information in a comment on the post.

life online.

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I finally watched “The Social Network” last night. I’ve wanted to see it since it came out in theaters, but I waited patiently for it to go to DVD. I thought the plot seemed intriguing because I started college about a year after the site was created, but I was also intrigued by the production of the film and the overall visual quality. Plus I’m a big fan of Jesse Eisenberg.

First of all, I did find the movie to be fascinating. The evolution of the internet, specifically through social media platforms, is incredible. The rate at which our society propelled itself into virtual communication and online social environments is astounding. Throughout the movie, you periodically see the date at the bottom of the screen, showing just how quickly Facebook came into existence.

The most important message I got from the film can be summarized by this quote from Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” (Quote from imdb.com).

I don’t recall the main characters at any point in the film discussing the ramifications of the network they were creating. I’m sure it was difficult to summarize the beginning of Facebook in its entirety in 2 hours, but I wonder if Mark Zuckerburg and Eduardo Savarin ever considered what this leap would mean for our generation and our future. I suppose the quote above, if it portrays reality, indicates that there was some thought behind the transition.

Don’t get me wrong, I use Facebook frequently, but now I’m talking about the overall online experience. The internet has become a massive resource containing answers to virtually all of our problems. Search engines have played a huge part in this. Just yesterday, I Googled “replacing cup holder subaru forester” (I think my dilemma is pretty obvious) and the top results were discussion board conversations. Not only was it my instinct to search for this answer online, but the most relevant pages were online chats in which various people took part. This solution was incredibly convenient, but are there downsides to using the internet excessively? This was only a small, somewhat insignificant, example, but as a society are we fostering certain social inadequacies by “living” online?

the shallows: chapter 3

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Carr’s chapter titled “Tools of the Mind” mainly discusses the evolution of certain technologies and the role of these advancements in relation to the shaping of civilization. I went a little crazy with my highlighter in this chapter, so please bear with me as I attempt to form a cohesive summary of my observations.

First of all, when Carr details the technological innovations that have changed society, I took special note of his discussion on clocks and timekeeping. In a previous post, I included a quote from Neil Postman on how our perception of time has drastically changed with the advent of the clock. Carr quotes David Landes who describes clocks as “‘an ever-visible, ever-audible companion and monitor.’ By continually reminding its owner of ‘time used, time spent, time wasted, time lost,’ it became both ‘prod and key to personal achievement and productivity.'” Carr goes on to say that the “mechanical clock changed the way we saw ourselves… It changed the way we thought.”

The concept of keeping time is fascinating to me, because until recently I never thought to question it. Can you imagine what it was like to live before time dictated our schedules? There are certainly benefits to having clocks, especially standardization throughout the world, but imagine a day or even a week without knowing the time.

I recently purchased a used car and one of its few dysfunctional components is the clock – it doesn’t work. I had never realized how many times I glance at the clock until the first week I had my new car. But after a few days, I concluded it’s a liberating feeling. I was on my way somewhere and running late. I had the strongest urge to check the time every 30 seconds. I realized that compulsively checking the time would never changed anything about my circumstances; in fact, it makes me even more stressed about being late.

“Every technology is an expression of human will. Through our tools, we seek to expand our power and control over our circumstances – over nature, over time and distance, over one another… Every intellectual technology, to put it another way, embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind should work” (Carr). I had never analyzed why we seek advancements in technology, but obviously it is because we want to refine our abilities and capabilities by being faster, better, smarter and stronger. But Carr points out that inventors and users generally don’t see “the broader implications” of these creations because they are too “concerned with the practical benefits they gain from employing the tool.”

Obviously Carr is setting up his argument for how the internet fits this description, and I think he does a good job of presenting evidence and historical information in this chapter.

the shallows: chapter 2

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I’ve mentioned it previously, but I am working my way through Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”. Though the title may come off as a bit eccentric, thus far it seems like a factual representation of the way digital media is changing our thought processes. I finished chapter 2 titled “Vital Paths” today. Carr reviews the history of theories and research involving how the brain functions, develops and adapts. From ancient philosophers like Aristotle to MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Carr leads us through the evolution of brain research. He presents very compelling research about the brain’s plasticity. For example, if a person becomes blind and learns to read Braille, “the visual cortex will be redeployed for processing information delivered through the sense of touch” (Carr). The same is true of other sensual impairments; remaining senses become heightened because the brain utilizes the unused space for new functions.

Another interesting experiment compared brain scans of 16 London cab drivers with two to forty-two years of experience to a control group. When compared to the control group, “taxi drivers’ posterior hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a key role in storing and manipulating spatial representations of a person’s surroundings, was much larger than normal. Moreover, the longer a cab driver had been on the job, the larger his posterior hippocampus tended to be” (Carr). The research supports the notion that our brains can adapt to best suit our needs. Carr sums it up succinctly: “We become, neurologically, what we think.” The study also showed that the drivers’ anterior hippocampus were smaller than average, suggesting that their brains had to “make room” for the posterior area.

These new mental circuits are strengthened by repetition and become habits. But “once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain, Doidge writes, ‘we long to keep it activated'”(Carr, Norman Doidge is a research psychiatrist cited in the book). Based on the title of the book, Carr is clearly setting up his explanation of how the internet is changing our neural pathways and is pointing out that these new habits aren’t easily altered.