Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Review: The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains

Author:  Nicholas Carr
Format: W. W. Norton & Company (2010), Hardcover, 276 pages
Subject: Memory, intelligence
Source: Public library
Challenge: Support your local library

I can't remember who told me about this one (maybe the author is right, and I'm already suffering brain damage from too much time on the internet) but IMHO, this is one of the most important books to be published this year. I find it difficult to write formal reviews of non-fiction works that deal with scientific topics. I'm always afraid I will misinterpret or worse still, show my ignorance as I divulge in my reporting that I missed some horribly salient point.

Rising from an article the author wrote for The Atlantic (July/August 2008) "Is Google making us stupid?" Cass takes us on a trip through the mental history of thinking, producing ideas, and handing on those thoughts and ideas to others. He discusses oral tradition, early writing starting with cuneiform and hieroglyphics, and marches on to the invention of scrolls, and the Phoenician, Greek and Roman alphabets.

He progresses to examine the importance of the discoveries and use of paper, the printing press and the book, and brings us to the present with a discussion of the role of the computer, the World Wide Web and the "instant-ness" of search engines such as Google. He includes an excellent explanation of the the role of Google in its project to digitize every book ever written, and the impact that will have (both good and bad) on research. All of these 'tools of the mind' had an impact on man's ability to obtain, retain, and pass on information. Each era used those tools within a certain ethic.

Throughout all of this, he documents scientific studies showing how the human brain works with each of these 'tools' and how over the centuries, each new thought medium produced a concomitant change in our brains and how they functioned. He is objective, but does manage quite eloquently to let us know that he is concerned that our current state of constant 'connectedness' is becoming detrimental to certain types of mental activity such as 'deep thinking' and sites several studies and experiments to support his position.

Whether I agree or disagree remains to be seen. For now all I can say is "get this one" (or at least get in line at the library for it--the hold list here is already several long). It is clearly and cogently written, quite easy to read in spite of the technical aspects, disturbing and encouraging at the same time. Every parent, teacher, reader, librarian should become familiar with his theory.

He begins and ends by reminding us of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"That's the essence of Kubrick's dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence."
I'm sure Mr. Carr would be more than happy to see his closing lines proved wrong. I certainly would.


  1. I hope the closing lines are wrong as well, but I can see his point. It's so easy to find numerous points of view online, that I'm not sure we always take the time to develop our own.

    Great review, I don't know why you would hesitate to review a nonfiction work such as this one. You simply nailed it!

  2. I enjoyed his article in the Atlantic so I'm sure this will be a good read for me. Unfortunately I had to agree with what he said in the Atlantic.


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