Saturday, 29 October 2011

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Book: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Score: 4.5/5

This book is about the internet as a medium, and its effect on the brain to make concentration and deep thinking difficult.  Below is what I got from the book.

Through research findings, Carr shows that the human brain is ever flexible, constantly changing to adapt to the tools used and experiences received.  As we make and shape our tools, so do our tools shape us.

A modern day book is a tool that collected centuries of innovation.  Before them, writings were done on costly scrolls, requiring great hand-eye coordination and dexterity when reading.  Words were written in the fashion of spoken syllables – with no standard spelling, no standard word orders (grammar), no punctuation, and no spaces in between words. 

Reading and deciphering text in those days was a mentally taxing activity that often required sounding out the words, reading over the text multiple times to entertain possible interpretations and selecting the most possible one, all the while moving the scroll with both hands.

Reading was thus reserved for the rich, who usually hired a slave with dexterity to sound out the syllables on the scroll for a group of social elites who then discuss the meaning of the material.  Reading was public and social.

Things changed after the book.  Books are light weight, portable, have no back lighting (easy on the eyes), high resolution, and are very easy to handle and navigate with page numbers, chapters, and sections.  The introduction of standard grammar, punctuation, and spaces made clear the start and end of a complete thought and deciphering text could be feasible without sounding out the syllables.  Then the printing press came along to automate the craft of book making, dramatically bringing down the cost of book ownership.

All these innovations made reading low cost and user friendly to the the ordinary individuals, and widespread literacy soon followed.  More importantly, reading became a private exercise.  The book is a technology optimized for transmitting complex ideas and focused on creating an environment free of physical and mental distraction.  This is the “rabbit hole effect” where the book disappears during reading and each reader can engage in a tranquil and private conversation with the author while forming ideas and exercise deep, abstract thinking.

The internet, by comparison, has very different characteristics.  It lowered the cost of producing content further and every net user can become a contributor of content of all types – text, sound, and videos.  The web is also driven by monetization models by clicks, and web pages are filled with hyperlinks and advertisements all vying for attention.

The net is also dynamic – one can be constantly notified of emails and web site updates that ceaselessly demand immediate attention.  The internet is fraught with interruption.

Whereas information is abundant, attention is scarce.  We handle the net information deluge by skimming and skipping, chopping our attention and taxing our mind to make decisions constantly on the links to click and where to navigate next.  Many choose to “outsource” memorization to the net, not wanting to remember the information and trusting Google to help us find back what we had found.

All these have consequences.  Not only are we more distracted on the net, but as our brain gets into the habit of distraction, we are more distracted all the time.  Distraction, on top of making one tense and anxious, is the enemy of memorization and the formation, storage, and retrieval of complex thoughts and insights associated with intelligence.  Studies show that for the same material, readers scored higher in comprehension and memorization reading off of the book than from the net.  An experienced net user remembers and “sees” less from reading, making them shallower readers.

Just like the intellectual mind benefits from the lack of distraction, the qualities considered as human, such as empathy and compassion, also requires a calm mind.  Contrary to the computer memory, the human memory and mind (and therefore the self) constantly inform and shape one another.  A mind trained to be distracted and obsessed with speed could risk losing not just intellect, but some humanness as well.

Carr sees the internet as a great technology for betterment and admits to not having all the answers to the effect of the medium.  He encourages new exploration and debates on the subject and urges the readers to be vigil on the effect of the internet on our lives.

I have found Carr’s argument eloquent, compelling, rich with historical context, and I highly recommend this book. 

(Book image from