Title: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr
Completed: February 6, 2012 (#10)
Recommendation: Recommended without qualification–worth serious consideration of all fans of A Superfluous Man
The mind Gutenberg created–the ability to muster the sustained attention necessary to pursue a linear argument across hundreds of pages until the final quod erat demonstrandum–will soon be extinguished by the Internet and its progeny: hypertext links, social media, and multitasking. Such is Mr. Carr’s thesis, and he musters a wealth of neurological and historical evidence to support his claim. The Shallows is a book with which all serious-minded consumers of the World Wide Web owe it to themselves to grapple.
Mr. Carr begins with the premise that “to read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. It required readers to place themselves at what T. S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, would call ‘the still point of the turning world.’” Note his use of the past tense–to read a book was, to read a book required.
Enter the Internet. Mr. Carr’s fear is not the Internet’s demotic content–The Shallows is not a paleo-conservative gripe about societal mores or the essential triviality of your friend’s Facebook post on the latest YouTube meme. Rather, in the grand tradition of Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” Mr. Carr argues that hyperlinks are to our attention span what Dr. Pavlov’s bell was to canine salivary glands. Hypertext is no mere footnote: “links don’t just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them.”
The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria described how, whenever he read to himself, ‘as in a dream, I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.’
Clay Shirky, a digital-media scholar at New York University, suggested in a 2008 blog post that we shouldn’t waste our time mourning the death of deep reading—it was overrated all along. ‘No one reads War and Peace,’ he wrote, singling out Tolstoy’s epic as the quintessence of high literary achievement. ‘It’s too long, and not so interesting.’ People have ‘increasingly decided that Tolstoy’s sacred work isn’t actually worth the time it takes to read it.’ The same goes for Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and other novels that until recently were considered, in Shirky’s cutting phrase, ‘Very Important in some vague way.’ Indeed, we’ve ‘been emptily praising’ writers like Tolstoy and Proust ‘all these years.’ Our old literary habits ‘were just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.’ Now that the Net has granted us abundant ‘access,’ Shirky concluded, we can at last lay those tired habits aside.
That American academe is dominated by postmodern philistines is no great revelation–Prof. Allan Bloom taught us as much a generation ago in The Closing of the American Mind. What is arresting is Mr. Carr’s claim that the very neural linkages that sustain “deep thinking” and concentration are undergoing an insidious rewiring with each Web page we casually skim and every “twitter” we “tweet” (or “tweet” we “twitter”?).
In one scientific study cited by Mr. Carr, test subjects were fitted with special devices that tracked the movement of their eyes as they surfed through Web pages. The researchers discovered that a typical individual scans a page in a pattern in the shape of the letter “F”–i.e., the reader reads the first full sentence or two, then skips down a few lines, reads half a line, then cursorily scrolls to the bottom of the screen.
A Superfluous Man would encourage the reader at this point to engage in some introspection. If I were to plot the motion of your eyes across this post, would they have traced an “F”? If you are like most Internet users, you have not even registered the contents of this very paragraph.
Mr. Carr writes less convincingly on the pernicious effects of digital book readers, such as Amazon’s Kindle or Apple’s iPad:
When a printed book—whether a recently published scholarly history or a two-hundred-year-old Victorian novel—is transferred to an electronic device connected to the Internet, it turns into something very like a Web site. Its words become wrapped in all the distractions of the networked computer. Its links and other digital enhancements propel the reader hither and yon. It loses what the late John Updike called its ‘edges’ and dissolves into the vast, roiling waters of the Net. The linearity of the printed book is shattered, along with the calm attentiveness it encourages in the reader.
Every book that A Superfluous Man has reviewed–indeed, virtually every book that this reviewer has read since receiving a first-generation Kindle for Christmas in 2007–has been on some form of Kindle software (currently, using the iPad Kindle application). In considering my own reading habits, I am compelled to conclude that not only have I been encouraged to read far more with a Kindle than would otherwise have been the case, I have (dare I say, like Isaac of Syria?) maintained a level of concentration consistent with my pulp and ink days. I have it on Mr. Carr’s authority that this may be rather rare quality now, even among voracious readers. Indeed, one friend of A Superfluous Man reports that he consciously refrains from reading on his iPad for fear of the many distractions that particular Pleasure Island has to offer.
Mr. Carr’s discussion of Google’s legal battle to create a digital Library of Alexandria through its Google Books site is both alluring and disturbing, pitting one’s Faustian desire for all the knowledge of mankind at one’s fingertips against the nostalgia of bygone days in great dusty libraries, trailing one’s fingers across the spines of books one will never read but whose availability and tangibility is nonetheless of great comfort to the thirsty soul.
Of the books reviewed on A Superfluous Man so far this year, the only unqualified recommendation (with the obvious exception of Herodotus) is for everyone who trusts this site to pick up a copy of The Shallows (also available in print, for those Luddites in our audience, and apologies for the two hyperlinks in quick succession).
It is a sobering read, full of sobering thoughts. We readers may all be superfluous men soon:
The practice of deep reading that became popular in the wake of Gutenberg’s invention, in which ‘the quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind,’ will continue to fade, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite. We will, in other words, revert to the historical norm. As a group of Northwestern University professors wrote in a 2005 article in the Annual Review of Sociology, the recent changes in our reading habits suggest that the ‘era of mass [book] reading’ was a brief ‘anomaly’ in our intellectual history: ‘We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.’ The question that remains to be answered, they went on, is whether that reading class will have the ‘power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capital’ or will be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of “an increasingly arcane hobby.’