Book Review: The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr

The question of whether new media technologies are mind numbing is an age old one, going back to classical antiquity. Nicholas Carr, in his new book The Shallows, a nuanced and considered study on the ill effects of too much Internet usage, uses the fascinating example of Plato and Socrates.

History of New Media Technologies

In Plato’s well-known dialogue Phaedrus, the philosopher has Socrates discussing the merits of writing with Phaedrus. Socrates relates a story about a meeting between the Egyptian god Theuth, who amongst other things invented the alphabet, and Thamus, a king of Egypt. The technologically savvy Theuth argues that writing will be a boon to society, allowing for the storage of information and hence providing ‘a recipe for memory and wisdom’. Thamus disagrees, and suggests that writing will have a deleterious effect on memory as people lazily rely on what is held in these early data banks. Thamus goes on to say that writing will not create true wisdom, as people will not cultivate their minds. It will rather create a kind of fake wisdom. The dialogue makes clear that Socrates agrees with Thamus.

Plato was not on Socrates’ side in this matter. In The Republic he argues against poetry, which in antiquity represented the oral tradition. Poetry was declaimed in public, rather than written down. Plato felt the advantages of writing superior to a purely oral culture. Writing would encourage the reader to be logical, self-reliant and rigorous.

Even back in fourth century BC Greece there was concern that the new technology of alphabet based writing had the power to change the way the mind worked. Many centuries later, modern machines would have a noticeable effect on thought and literature. In 1882 German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche found his eye sight failing and couldn’t concentrate when trying to write with pen and paper. To resolve this problem he ordered a Danish-made Malling-Hansen Writing Ball typewriter, which would allow him to close his eyes and tap away on the keys. The philosopher found that the forceful banging of the contraption during composition had a discernable effect on his writing, making his prose tighter and more telegraphic. He concluded that, ‘Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.’

The Shallows has an alarming subtitle: what the Internet is doing to our brains. It’s tempting to think from this eye-catching book blurb that Nicholas Carr is keen to scold Internet users and predict the decline and fall of Western civilisation. This is thankfully not the case, and The Shallows surprises with its long historical view and balanced analysis of how media affects the quality of our thinking and reading. For every advance in information technology, there has been a clamour of voices warning of its dangers. When the Gutenberg press revolutionised the accessibility of information, Robert Burton, author of An Anatomy of Melancholy (1628), bemoaned the plethora of books and the mental befuddlement they caused. “One of the great diseases of the age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world”. Sound familiar?

How the Internet Affects the Way We Read and Think

The basic conclusion of The Shallows is that what a new technology gives with the one hand, it takes away with the other. The more ease and convenience the Internet places before us, the more it takes away from our ability to exercise our brains more rigorously. It promotes light, scattered reading. And for all the information we so hurriedly glean, much of it is quickly forgotten. If it is remembered, it’s so fractured that it can’t be integrated into an overriding schema or logic that benefits our understanding of the world, or ourselves.

The Shallows provides many examples of how cognition is diminished by the Internet’s powerful ability to store, collect and sort information for us. In one study, two separate groups of people were set an identical online task. One group used programs that provided helpful prompts, therefore making the task more ‘user friendly’. The second group were not given these same prompts, but had to figure out the task more for themselves. Eight months later the two groups were assembled again to do the same puzzle. Those who had done the more intellectually demanding program, were able to complete the task twice as quickly as the ‘user friendly’ program group. Dutch Researcher Christof van Nimwegen found that the group using the more difficult program were able to plan ahead and plot strategy, while the other group relied more on trial and error to get through their puzzle.

Another study mapped how much information is retained when reading text with hyperlinks. Hyperlinks have been hailed by many educationalists as a new path to improved learning. To test this theory, Canadian scholars gave seventy people an Elizabeth Bowen short story to read, ‘The Demon Lover’. One group read the story straight through, without links. The second group read the story studded with hyperlinks, as you’d find in any online article. The hypertext readers in subsequent interviews on what they had read reported they found the story confusing and ‘very jumpy’. The other group had no such difficulties.

To add further alarm to this mix, one researcher tracked the eye movements of Web users, by attaching a small camera that plotted eye movements as they read pages of text. The eye reads Web pages in the shape of an F. We merely read the first few lines of text, then the eye quickly plummets to the bottom of the page. (Disheartening news for those writing online articles!)

What are the lessons to be drawn from The Shallows? The Internet is surely an awesome and powerful tool that has enhanced our lives incredibly. Who wants to go back to standing in bank queues when all your banking can be done from the comfort of home? What writer or researcher would want to go back to haunting the stacks and dusty corridors of libraries, when so much more can be accessed with the click of a mouse?

An over reliance, or obsession, with the Internet as the be all and end all of wisdom, intelligence and information, however, is a mistake. Just as pre-literate societies produced great oral poetry, and could cultivate a deep intellectual and philosophical consciousness, so can we moderns also find other routes to intellectual stimulation. Reading books without the non-stop interruptions of the Internet is one way. Sitting in a silent natural setting, and ‘reading nature’, is another way (again, studies have found that we think much more clearly in these peaceful environments).

A reading culture that is now moving inexorably to the Internet from the printed page is a culture of ‘F’ shaped reading: superficial, fragmented, shallow and forgetful. What this means for our intellectual and cultural future is anyone’s guess.

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