Over the last three years, I have read a lot of very interesting books and articles in my quest to get my master’s degree. The result is that I have fed my nerdiness. While trying to ease my way back into studying and reading things related to my field so that I can get back on track toward finishing my thesis (and consequently, my degree), I picked up The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.
It’s a book I received for Christmas in 2010, which I started and then put aside with all of my field-related studies when Christopher got hurt and we bought/started renovating our home. I picked it up again over spring break and finished reading it shortly after returning home. I was blown away, and immediately started synthesizing the book’s content.
The premise pertains to how the Internet is completely changing how our brains work, particularly with regard to how we remember things and how we engage with life. Carr deftly describes how our cognitive functioning is interacting with the change in how and where we gather our information:
Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas. With the Net, we face many information fuacets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We’re able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source. (pp. 124-125)
Carr details how this change has happened in his own habits – how he writes, reads, works – and contrasts it with historical perspectives and understandings of the brain (something he does really well in The Big Switch, his first book). Breadth of knowledge may be increasing, but there are signs pointing to a decrease in depth of knowledge (hence, Carr’s title).
The book is a great read, engaging and thoughtful. It was even a Pulitzer finalist. These are reasons I encourage you to pick it up yourself and give it a read. I will, however, share one of the most fascinating sections from my trip through its pages:
It’s not hard to see why books have been slow to make the leap into the digital age. There’s not a whole lot of difference between a computer monitor and a television screen, and the sounds coming from speakers hit your ears in pretty much the same way whether they’re being transmitted through a computer or a radio. But as a device for reading, the book retains some compelling advantages over the computer. You can take a book to the beach without worrying about sand getting in its works. You can take it to bed without being nervous about it falling to the floor should you nod off. You can spill coffee on it. You can put it down on a table, open to the page you’re reading, and when you pick it up a few days later it will still be exactly as you left it. You never have to be concerned about plugging a book into an outlet or having its battery die. (pp. 99-100)
Now, it is certainly no secret that I love books, or even that I love real, printed ones. But a lot of what Carr relates about how the format of the book has changed as it has made its way into interactive platforms is mind-boggling to me. It ceases to be just reading. We lose our ability to simply be lost in whatever it is that we’re reading.
Sure, we all know that it can be easy to lose one’s train of thought while reading a book, but you realize it when you come to recognize you don’t have a clue what is happening on the page and either put it down for a time when you can concentrate or get back on track. With a lot of electronic and interactive book platforms, there are more than our own trains of thought going while we read:
Christine Rosen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, recently wrote about her experience using a Kindle to read the Dickens novel Nicholas Nickleby. Her story underscores Johnson’s fears: “Although mildly disorienting at first, I quickly adjusted to the Kindle’s screen and mastered the scroll and page-turn buttons. Nevertheless, my eyes were restless and jumped around as they do when I try to read for a sustained time on the computer. Distractions abounded. I looked up Dickens on Wikipedia, then jumped straight down the Internet rabbit hole following a link about a Dickens short story, ‘Mugby Junction.’ Twenty minutes later I still hadn’t returned to my reading of Nickleby on the Kindle.”
When we step outside of the traditional book platform, we step into a world filled with rabbit trails. They all lead to information of some sort or another, but is it good information? Is it actually leading to a depth of knowledge, a depth of understanding? Do we actually understand the book better?
These are all good questions, and I think Carr has some good thoughts on how our brains are changing with our constant and overflowing influx of information and stimuli. If you want to read it, I recommend a paper copy. Might even let you borrow mine.