the shallows: chapter 10

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“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.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

The final chapter of The Shallows functions as a summary, but also as a description of how we shape technologies and how they shape us. We create tools as extensions of ourselves, but “every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function… McLuhan wrote that our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of our body they ‘amplify'” (Carr). For example, when the power loom was invented, we could make more cloth than ever before, but weavers sacrificed their “manual dexterity” that came from working the fabric. The point of this line of thought is the dependency that forms between us and our technologies. Carr highlights an interesting study from Dutch clinical psychologist Christof van Nimwegen in which two groups of participants tried to complete a logic puzzle on computers. One group had the aid of software designed to be “as helpful as possible”. The short story is that this group became dependent on the software’s assistance; they “aimlessly clicked around” to solve the puzzle, while the group using bare bones software completed the puzzle “more quickly and with fewer wrong moves” (Carr). Even more impressive is the fact that eight months later, the groups completed the same puzzle as well as a variation, and the group without helpful software completed the puzzle twice as fast. Basically, as we “externalize problem solving… we reduce our brain’s ability to build stable knowledge structures… that can later be applied to knew situations” (Carr).

I think the quote at the beginning of this post is a good summary of Carr’s overarching theme and additionally what I think about the topic. The bottom line is that while the internet has astounding capabilities, it unquestioningly affects our minds’ functions. The point is that we shouldn’t immerse ourselves in such technology blindly, but move forward asking questions about how these advancements are changing us.

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I’m going to take a moment to celebrate finally finishing this book! While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Carr’s thought-provoking text, it was a bit of a challenging read, especially when trying to blog semi-coherent thoughts recounting the information. Thanks for reading my ramblings. Now on to a new book!

the shallows: chapter 9

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“As we are drained of our ‘inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,’ [Richard] Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “pancake people – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.'” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

This chapter was fairly dense as Carr explains numerous brain functions through detailed scientific explanations and experiment citations. I won’t get into specifics, but among other things Carr outlines how memory formation occurs. He also reviews the first methods of documenting thoughts and information to be memorized/recalled – a suggestion from Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus in his 1512 textbook De Copia to students, recommending that they keep a notebook “so that whenever he lights on anything worth noting down, he may write it in the appropriate section” (Carr). Such notebooks were widely popular and came to be know as “commonplace books”. But by the middle of the 20th century, such devices were discouraged and considered to be a hindrance to creativity and imagination.

Carr uses this brief history lesson to segue into a discussion about the internet being used as a replacement for memory, rather than a supplement to it. Carr quotes a few writers on the topic: Clive Thompson, the Wired writer, thinks that “by offloading data onto the silicon, we free our own gray matter for more germanely ‘human’ tasks like brain-storming and daydreaming” while Peter Sunderman, American Scene writer, says that our memories should serve as an index, cataloging the location of information on the internet in order to locate the data we need. Again, I won’t get into the detailed facts that Carr provides, but evidence shows that brain function is actually increased as we memorize – “as we build up our personal store of memories, our minds become sharper. The very act of remembering, explains clinical psychologist Sheila Crowell in The Neurobiology of Learning, appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future” (Carr). Another interesting fact is that our brains cannot ever be full – “the amount of information that can be stored in long-term memory is virtually boundless” (Carr quoting Torkel Klingberg).

But when we repeatedly overload our working memory with competing stimuli, such as what we experience on the web, we are training our brains to “process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention”. Because attention assists in memory formation, our lack of attention encourages a dependency on the web’s store of information based on the cycle it creates – we skim information without truly processing it, so when we need to recall that information, we usually won’t remember it but know where to find it on the web (or can complete a quick search to find it again). “We’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it make us shallower thinkers”.

the shallows: chapter 8

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“The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation… The problem today is that we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Chapter 8 is titled “The Church of Google”, but Carr begins by reviewing the ideas of efficiency and productivity brought about by Fredrick Winslow Taylor. We learned in school about Taylor’s experiments meant to boost efficiency in a steel plant; by breaking down processes into small steps and testing to find the best execution of those steps, Taylor created a system that successfully increased productivity (Carr parallels this to the algorithms used by Google and the like). Taylor saw these methods translating into society, “creating a utopia of perfect efficiency” (Carr).

Though I won’t get into the full description and analysis of Google, one specific initiative that Carr writes about is the company’s effort to “digitize all books ever printed” and make the contents easily searchable (Carr also discusses the copyright infringements willingly incurred to complete this goal, but I won’t get into that, either). Obviously the two main goals of this project are to make information more available to the world and to make that information easily searchable. While the outcomes of such an effort are overwhelmingly positive, Carr argues that we should still consider the side effects. “To make a book discoverable and searchable online is also to dismember it” (Carr). I have experienced this in my own research; when a Google book pops up as a result and I click on it, it takes me directly to that page in the text with my phrase or search term highlighted. While the time and effort it saves any user is incredible, it also encourages the information to be read and used without referencing the full text. “The intellectual technologies it has pioneered promote the speedy, superficial skimming of information and discourage any deep, prolonged engagement with a single argument, idea or narrative” (Carr). Of course, the reader is able to go back and read the chapter or full text from which the phrase originated, but the point is that Google’s methods encourage the opposite (to say nothing of the effects of in-text linking and ads around the page; for a review of Carr’s thoughts on this topic, see my post about chapter 7).

The quote I began with was in response to a passage from Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden – what Carr describes as “a classic study of technology’s influence on American culture”. The point of these two quotes, and a key point of my blogging efforts, is to highlight the need for balance between an efficient life and a reflective one. As Carr phrases it, “the contemplative mind is overwhelmed by the noisy world’s mechanical busyness,” and I think we need to ensure that it doesn’t drown us out completely.

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).

the shallows: chapter 6

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“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)

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.

the shallows: chapter 4

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“The natural state of the human brain… is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much going on around us as possible.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

The fourth chapter of “The Shallows” talks about the evolution of the written word, starting in Mesopotamia. Carr parallels his review of this cultural shift with the subsequent effect it had on our minds. I’ve never given thought to a time before literature, but when I consider the inevitable change that mass reading instigated, I find it pretty awesome. “They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another.” Ever since I read this chapter, I’ve been searching for a comparable situation where we find it difficult to remain focused on an activity requiring significant amounts of attention. The irony is that for the longest time, the act of reading itself was the only example I could think of. Because of the way our technology has evolved, reading seems to find itself back at square one.

Thankfully, Postman has assisted me by touching on our devolved attention spans in Amusing Ourselves to Death. In Chapter 4: The Typographic Mind, Postman begins by discussing 19th century debates and political addresses, specifically those between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Postman recounts one event where the speakers and crowd broke for dinner in the middle of the engagement because the debate was so lengthy (a total of 7 hours). It’s difficult to imagine a time where a debate between two men could hold a full audience’s attention for that long. Postman also notes the length and complexity of the speakers’ sentences.

I believe he also addresses the transition to visual mediums and the way it has affected our attention spans (though I’m not sure off the top of my head where he mentions it). I have found both personally and observationally that many concepts and ideas are best understood through a visual explanation. We are becoming increasingly focused on the visual tools available to us; one simple way to observe this is to walk down the toy aisles in stores. I am no child education specialist, and I’m sure there is value in visual tools for learning, but between these toys and children’s television programming learning is becoming more and more focused on not only visual but amusing material. I encourage anyone interested in the topic to see Chapter 10: Teaching as an Amusing Activity of Postman’s book, along with his other books on modern teaching (I haven’t read these, but plan to in the future; see my relevant lit page for information).