GILL BOOLES reviews The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr…
REMEMBER The Tomorrow People? Well, it seems the next stage of human evolution is more likely to be ‘The Pancake People’ – spread wide and thin as we connect with a vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.
That’s if you’re still reading, because that hyperlink may have had you behaving like a lab rat pressing a lever, clicking backwards and forwards. At least according to Nicholas Carr, who cites the case for how the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember in The Shallows.
As the former executive of the Harvard Business Review and author of ‘The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google‘, says himself, writing the book contradicts his thesis. He struggled to keep his mind fixed on the task, and resist the distraction the ‘net provided. So he dismantled his online life – suspended his social media accounts, stopped checking his emails and mothballed the blog. He went ‘cold turkey’. Eventually the cravings subsided, replaced by an ability to concentrate.
He recognises this disconnection is a luxury most can’t afford – the web has become central to the way we work and play. The internet can’t be un-invented. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider.
Carr looks at the long-term affect – how the brain may adapt over several generations. What changes can we expect to see in how we and our children write, read and think?
A whole generation has grown up knowing nothing but the internet. Our brains drift, hungry, looking to be fed by it.
I drifted off myself in places. I’m not sure we need so much detail about human brain physiology to learn that our brains are plastic. We can adapt bits we’ve stopped using – as people became dependent on maps the bits in their brain used for navigating around changed, but London cabbies have retained the parts of the hippocampus devoted to spatial representation.
The book features many great examples of innovations – the clock, typewriter, telephone – where there was a similar debate about the good or bad effect. He talks about how books made solitary deep reading possible – we were no longer dependent on scribes or limited by the availability of writing, thanks to the invention of the printing press.
It works well at many levels – historical, psychological and technological.
The latter chapter, ‘A Thing Like Me’, summarises the whole. Did it really take 200 pages to make the point, when I could have just read this chapter? I wanted to skip ahead. Well, yes, that’s the problem. According to Carr, we no longer think in a linear way – the more we use the web, the more we struggle to concentrate. We skip. Sentences need to be short. Like this one.
But the previous chapters sustain the themes, with Carr’s non-judgmental approach to the subject rewarding the effort to read deeply.
And as he says: “Deep reading is a form of deep thinking. The digital environment tends to encourage people to explore many topics extensively, but at a more superficial level.”
Oooh, look, a clip of cats doing funny things…
Title: The Shallows
Author: Nicholas Carr
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Date of publication: July 2011
ISBN number: 978-1848872271
Gill Booles is a freelance copywriter, operating as Words Are Everywhere.