Book review: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
My generation grew up with the internet. I can’t imagine life before its advent – unless I intentionally disengage from it in a radical move. For my parents’ generation the rise of the internet happened during their late thirties: they were well engaged into their respective careers and there existed a life without it. Born in 1959, Nicholas Carr is a couple of years younger than my parents. As a young journalist he embraced the possibilities of internet with enthusiasm: blogs, search engines and social media offered new ways to find information, produce and share content to a large audience. Until something changed.
Carr is part of an early group of writers who noticed with a growing unease that internet was changing him: he could no longer read books, would easily get distracted, started to develop a set of compulsive behaviors (which you are most likely familiar with). With his book The Shallows, published in 2010, he sets off to understand what was happening to him and whether he should be worried.
Carr goes back in time. Every technology, from the book to the computer, through the typewriter, had their critics. The proliferation of books, Socrates worried, would reduce memory and as a consequence, impair complex thinking. He was wrong and Carr spends a long time describing the way books changed humanity in positive ways, promoting depth, focus in solitude, and nuance. Agreeing with proponents of technological determinism, he argues that such a promotion of behaviors is the unplanned and emerging result of how we interact with a technology. The book wasn’t introduced to create the ‘literary mind’, it just happened. This literary mind, he argues is precious, responsible for many great human achievements since Gutenberg and necessary to the good functioning of our modern societies. His epic summary of Maryanne Wolf’s work made me want to read her books – she is a world expert on the effect of books on cognition.
What sort of behaviors does the internet promote? With its hyperlinks and multimedia nature, it has obvious advantages in terms of management and diffusion of information. At the time Carr was writing this book, techno-utopists were predicting a new ‘digital mind’ connected to the internet which would function as a cognitive prosthesis – just as a book does, albeit a better one. Driven by his personal feeling of loss rather than enhancement, Carr turned to the scientific literature.
Already back in 2009, the evidence was mostly negative. The list is long. Reading online leads to less understanding than in print. Reading changes online, we skim rather than read. Multimedia is mostly a distraction when it comes to learning. It is a media that overloads working memory, and impairs the formation of long term memory as a result. Social media promotes instantaneity. In some contexts, search engines (surprisingly) reduce serendipitous encounters. I was surprised to learn that since the internet, academic citations have become less diverse and more biased towards recent content: having access to more information does not make scientist ‘consume’ it in positive ways.
This book is a cautionary tale. Carr shares his fear of losing his literary mind, and most importantly of what it will be replaced with. He warns the reader to be cautious, to not blindly embrace new technologies – a tendency in Silicon valley circles to view all technological innovation as positive and inevitable. In other words, he asks us to be conservative when it comes to digital technologies.
‘The shallows’ is probably less controversial today than when it was first published. The problems it highlights have become worse, and awareness thereafter has increased. As with many technology books, the shallows feels a bit outdated but its message is more relevant than ever. Personally, it introduced me to many important concepts and figures of the ‘resistance’ to the unquestioned embrace of technology in ever more aspects of our lives. I strongly recommend it.