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Book Review: The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr
The question of whether new media technologies are numbing the mind goes back to an age-old, classical antiquity. Nicholas Carr, in his new book ShallowsA concise and considered study on the ill effects of excessive internet use, using interesting examples from Plato and Socrates.
History of New Media Technologies
In Plato’s famous dialogue Phaedrus, the philosopher Socrates discusses the merits of writing with Phaedrus. Socrates recounts the story of a meeting between the Egyptian god Theuth, who among other things invented the alphabet, and King Thamus of Egypt. The technologically savvy Theuth argued that writing would be a boon to society, allowing information to be stored and therefore providing ‘a recipe for memory and knowledge’. Thomas disagrees, and suggests that writing will have a detrimental effect on memory because people lazily rely on what is kept in these primary data banks. Thomas also says that writing will not produce true knowledge, because people will not cultivate their minds. It would rather create a kind of fake knowledge. The dialogue makes it clear that Socrates agrees with Thomas.
Plato did not side with Socrates on this point. inside the republic He argues against poetry, which in ancient times represented oral tradition. Poems were publicly announced rather than written. Plato felt the superiority of writing over a purely oral culture. The writing will encourage the reader to be logical, self-reliant and rigorous.
Even in Greece in the fourth century BC, there was concern that the new technology of alphabetic writing had the potential to change the way the mind worked. Centuries later, modern machines would have a noticeable impact on thought and literature. In 1882 German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche found that his eyesight was failing and he could not concentrate when trying to write with pen and paper. To solve this problem he ordered a Danish-made Malling-Hansen writing ball typewriter, which allowed him to close his eyes and tap the keys. Philosopher found that the forced strokes of the contraption during composition had a marked effect on his writing, making his prose tighter and more telegraphic. He concluded that, ‘Our writing tools participate in the formation of our thoughts.’
Shallows Has an alarming subtitle: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s tempting to think from the blurb in this eye-popping book that Nicholas Carr is interested in berating Internet users and predicting the decline and fall of Western civilization. This is fortunately not the case, and Shallows It surprises with its long historical perspective and balanced analysis of how media influences our thinking and reading standards. For every advance in information technology, voices have been raised warning of its dangers. When the Gutenberg press revolutionized information accessibility, author Robert Burton Anatomy of depression (1628), lamented the excess of books and the mental havoc they caused. “One of the great diseases of the age is the abundance of books which burden the world so much that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter which is daily produced and brought into the world”. Sound familiar?
How the internet affects the way we read and think
Its basic conclusion Shallows What new technology gives with one hand, takes away with the other. As much ease and convenience as the internet puts in front of us, it robs our brain of the ability to exercise more rigorously. It promotes light, scattered reading. And for all the information we collect in such a hurry, most of it is quickly forgotten. If it is remembered, it is so fragmented that it cannot be integrated into an overriding schema or logic that facilitates our understanding of the world or ourselves.
Shallows It provides many examples of how cognition is undermined 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’. A second group was not given this same prompt, but had to figure out more of the task for themselves. Eight months later, the two teams reunited to do the same puzzle. Those who did the more intellectually demanding program were able to complete the task twice as fast as the ‘user friendly’ program group. Dutch researcher Christoph van Nimwegen found that the group using the more difficult program was able to plan ahead and strategize, while the other group relied more on trial and error to solve their puzzle.
Another study mapped how much information is retained when reading text with hyperlinks. Hyperlinks are welcomed by many educators as a new avenue for better learning. To test this theory, Canadian scholars had seventy people read ‘The Demon Lover’, a short story by Elizabeth Bowen. Read stories directly through a group, without links. The second group read the hyperlinked story, just like you would find in any online article. Hypertext readers reported what they had read in subsequent interviews, saying they found the story confusing and ‘too corny’. The other group had no such difficulty.
To add more alarm to the mix, one researcher tracked the eye movements of web users, attaching a small camera that plotted eye movements as they read pages of text. The eye reads web pages in an F shape. We only read the first few lines of text, then the eye quickly moves down the page. (Disappointing news for those writing articles online!)
What lessons will be drawn from Shallows? Internet is definitely a great and powerful tool that has improved our lives incredibly. Who wants to stand in bank queues when all your banking can be done from home? What writer or researcher would want to return to the piles and dusty corridors of a library, when so much more can be accessed at the click of a mouse?
Over-reliance, or obsession, with the Internet kills all knowledge, intelligence and information, however, this is a mistake. Just as pre-literate societies produced great oral poetry and could cultivate deep intellectual and philosophical consciousness, so we moderns can find other avenues of intellectual stimulation. A way to read books without the constant interruption of the Internet. Sitting in a quiet natural environment, and ‘reading nature’ is another way (again, studies have shown that we think much more clearly in these peaceful environments).
A reading culture that is now moving involuntarily from the printed page to the Internet is an ‘F’-shaped reading culture: superficial, fragmented, shallow and forgetful. What this means for our intellectual and cultural future is anyone’s guess.
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Published in 2010 by WW Norton and Company. ISBN: 978-0-393-07222-8
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