Reading: Some Notes on The Shallows

I recently finished reading the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and drove my family crazy with quotes while I was reading it. This book is truly about what is happening physically to our brains while we live in a world that is more and more consumed with technology. I’m still not totally sure what to do with all the information that I read, but I thought starting here (typing on technology…ha!) might help.

1) “Technology” isn’t just screens and computers – society as a whole has been changing since the “technology” of even binding books was developed.
Carr starts out his book going through the history of the development of storytelling to scrolls to bookbinding. How even just moving from an oral tradition changed society and how we related to one another. For years, it was only a select few people who had access and ability to read scrolls and even the first books were a challenge. Then comes the printing press and things really begin to change.

If the experience of modern society shows us anything, it is that technolgoies aren’t merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and it’s meaning. (Langdon Winner)

Carr breaks down technologies into four different categories; those that:
a. extend physical strength, dexterity, resilience (plow, needle, jet)
b. extend range/sensitivity of our senses (microscope, amplifier)
c. enables us to reshape nature to better serve us (birth control, GMO food, dams)
d. extend our mental powers (clock, typewriter, abacus)

 

I think the one thing I was reminded up continually is that I cannot just pigeon hole “technology” into one bad definition. These things from this list aren’t all bad and they aren’t all debilitating to our learning and thinking. In many ways, the afford us time to spend focusing on our own development.

 

2) Oddly enough, books were considered “bad” when they first came out.
Carr talks much about Socrates (whom I only read briefly in college and don’t pretend to fully understand) who seriously did not agree with reading books and writing things down. He really felt like moving from an oral tradition was detrimental to our brains. But others argued against that and I think I can agree that there’s no way that will ever be true.

Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling or replenishing of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas and emotions.

 

Books supplement our memory – they don’t replace it. Carr brings up the idea of a Commonplace Book that was very popular before the turn of the century (and industrialization ruined us all). Erasums, Bacon and Rummel all told about how keeping this book that was a centerpiece of thoughts, quotes, poems and other things they were reading and learning about supplemented and encouraged greater depth of learning. I’ve fallen in love with the idea of a commonplace and I’ve got handfuls of notebooks started and scattered around the house filled with quotes and thoughts about the things I’m reading.

A person should digest or internalize what he learns and reflect rather than slavishly reproduce the desirable qualities of the model author. (E. Rummel)

 

I think this quote could go so many different ways when we think about the depth of our own learning and how the US educates right now. None of us are digesting anything.

3) So much noise is leading us to an inability to focus.

The contemplative mind is overwhelmed by the noisy world’s mechanical busyness.

Carr tells the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne who went into the countryside to reflect, walk and take in what was around him. As he sits he hears the clock tower striking, the movement of the mowers using their scythes and then while he is sitting in his reverie all of the sudden he hears the shrill whistle of the train approaching and then the power of the engine roaring by. I wonder what he would think of our world now? The ability to even find a spot where you couldn’t hear the mechanization of the world is virtually impossible. And this constant influx of noise (and information) sets our brains into this true inability to focus.

The more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion and other emotions.

 

4) Information overload (enough said).

Today more information is available to us than ever before, but there is less time to make use of it with any depth of reflection. Tomorrow the situation will be worse still.

 

5) Our ability to think and remember is shrinking.

If there is anything that worries me most and hits closest to home it’s what the internet has done to our memories. I can feel that personally. The more time I spend mindlessly gazing at the net or even just trying to remember something I read online or in actual print (or merely trying to focus on something I’m reading) the less I can remember and internalize. Carr goes into much detail about how our reading life is changing because of the net. We don’t read deeply anymore – all we do is skim, jump on hyperlinks and flit around from one spot to another. We breeze by headlines and then later struggle to have conversations or discussions with people because we can’t even fully understand what we’ve even read. Our ability to truly process through any information has diminished and that frightens me so much. As I watch myself and our culture try to argue and process through big ideas, but we only have surface level information, I worry what is this world going to be like in 50 years?

Every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others. The use of the net has increased our visual-spatial skills, but our new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination and reflection.

When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.

Our memories as they are stored – retrieved – stored are reshaped and rewired in our brains. The brain that stored that memory is not the same brain that retrieves it later. The memory has to be updated to make sense. The memory in computers can be moved from one database to another and it always remains exactly the same.

Biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not.

The normal brain never reaches a point where it is full. The very act of remembering appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future (S. Crowell)

 

When we outsource all of our learning (be that academically or personally) we aren’t doing ourselves or our world any favors. The computer is not helping us in this way become smarter people. Having access to a wealth of information at our fingertips doesn’t make us smarter if we don’t actually ingest any of it. If all we are doing is just skimming over and then moving on, the computer will always be smarter than us.

I had thought the magic of the information ages was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants…we can burden these servants and liberate ourselves (D. Brooks)

 

6) The computer is becoming our brain.

Everything that human beings are doing to make it easier to operate computer networks is…making it easier for computer networks to operate human beings (G. Dyson)

When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.

As we externalize problem solving and other cognitive chores to computers, we reduce our brains ability to build stable knowledge structures that later can be applied to new situations. ‘The brighter the software, the dimmer the user.’

 

One thing about this book that really hit me about half way through was that it was published in 2010. In less than a decade since then, the world of technology has revamped our lives extravagantly. Just looking at all the devices that you can just sit in your house and talk to, and they answer you, freaks me out. I struggle with my wanting to just “google” something or even realizing that as a type a word into the search engine bar it pretty much already knows what I’m going to type.

This month of December I decided to take Instagram off my phone and I’m trying to just leave my phone somewhere and not constantly have it on me; just in case. I’ve realized by doing this how much time I waste looking at things and how much that shrinks my ability to focus. And the “fix” I want to have by just relaxing by mindlessly staring at pointless things. The distraction of constantly wanting to check email drives me mad (which even typing the word email made me check it!). I’ve also thought a lot about the articles I read online and how much I’m just skimming through them – and how that skimming carries over into the actual books I’m trying to read. I can truly tell you that my ability to “read deeply” has completely been altered by my reading habits online. I really don’t know at this point what other changes I hope and want to make personally (and also with our family), but it has greatly encouraged me to severely limit my time online.

…as we grow more accustomed to and dependent on our computers we will be tempted to entrust to them ‘tasks that demand wisdom’ (Weizenbaum)

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