The Shallows by Nicholas Carr: A Summary

Note: This is a book review of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows that I originally published in September of 2011 on this blog. Republishing after being asked by someone for the link. 

A Review/Summary of The Shallows by Nicholas CarrI’ve just finished reading The Shallows, a book by Nicholas Carr. It’s a reasonably technical book that goes in-depth into the workings of our brains to look at how the Internet is affecting the way we “think, read, and remember”.

Carr starts off by explaining how he’s been having trouble focussing recently. He says that he sits down to read a book but finds himself unable to read a page without looking up from the book, and he finds his mind wandering off on tangents quite often. He also says that he has trouble focussing on other tasks, and can’t remember things as well as he used to be able to. I have the same problems, and Carr even says that he reckons most people who use the Internet these days will be suffering the same things.

From there, he goes on to describe in detail why it is that we’re finding ourselves so distracted nowadays. In essence, his thesis is that new media will change the way that our brain works, and there are many side-effects to this. A side effect of the Internet is that we find it harder to focus.

When things like the typewriter was invented, Carr uses the description of how Nietzsche found his writing style change when he used a typewriter. He started using smaller, more choppy sentences, and this was as a direct result of simply changing the medium he used to write.

When the wristwatch was invented, people found themselves more efficient but also a lot more tired as they were now acting by bodily rhythms that other people had set for them, instead of by their natural body clock.

All these technological changes, Carr argues, have side-effects that mostly affect our deep-brain thinking. Here’s a few examples.

Carr comes to the conclusion that there are generally two types of knowledge: deep domain expertise, and knowing where to find relevant information. While the Internet gives us access to all relevant information, it reduces our deep domain expertise as we no longer need to store as much information in our brains.

The Windows operating system was the birth of true multitasking. Before this, people did one thing at a time on computers. They would word process, or they would email. There was no capacity to do both at the same time. Therefore there were no distractions to what people were working on. But with Windows, people suddenly had distractions, as different applications would run at the same time. People thought this would lead to an increase in productivity, but in many ways productivity has decreased because people are now no longer as focussed on what they are working on.

The part of The Shallows that got me thinking most was the very last chapter. Carr describes how new technologies make us lose part of ourselves. Clocks made us lose our natural rhythm. Maps made us lose our spacial recognition capacities. He gives many more examples. But the Internet, unlike most of these other technologies, is perhaps making us lose our touch with the real world. Our brains jump around constantly as if we are browsing websites. We are constantly pressured to be looking at our phones and computers and replying to messages. The end result is that we live more and more inside the Internet, and when we need to leave it, we can’t work as well as we previously could.

It’s not like we can change the course of technology and reverse these negative effects. But it’s worth thinking about how to mitigate them, and to that end, Carr’s The Shallows is an excellent place to start.

What It Means to be Against Everything: A Brief Review of Mark Greif’s Book

“We have no language but health. Those who criticise dieting as unhealthy operate in the same field as those who criticise overweight as unhealthy. Even those who think we overfixate on the health of our food call it an unhealthy fixation. But choosing another reason for living, as things now stand, seems to be choosing death. Is the trouble that there seems to be no other reason for living that isn’t a joke, or that isn’t dangerous for everyone–like the zealot’s will to die for God or the nation? Or is the problem that any other system than this one involves a death-seeking nihilism about knowledge and modernity, a refusal to admit what scientists, or researchers, or nutritionists, or the newest diet faddists, have turned up? As their researches narrow the boundaries of life. 

Health is our model of all things invisible and unfelt. If, in this day and age, we rejected the need to live longer, what would rich Westerners live for instead?”

Greif’s overarching criticism across many of his essays is that we live as if the point of living was to extend life. In Against Exercise he criticises our use of time simply on self-maintenance and self-prolongation, whereby we give up life to supposedly extend it. The same applies to food: we spend our days thinking and worrying about what to eat, restricting what we eat, so that we may be “healthy”, as if health was the point of life rather than its means. As soon as we became secure in our food supply, we began restricting our diets in a kind of confusion of what to do with our newfound freedom.

Individual phenomena are used in Greif’s work as examples of his overarching critique: that we value the wrong things without realising it. “I had to show”, Greif writes in the introduction to his collection of essays, Against Everything, “how every commonplace thing might be a compromise. The standards universally supposed might not be “universal.” Or they simply might not suit a universe in which my mother and I could happily live.” ‘Foodieism’ and exercise are where he deconstructs most destructively the ends towards which we direct our lives.

Health—through food, and exercise—is precisely the area where we feel, as a society, that we are making progress. The prevailing narrative is that we’ve seen through the destructiveness and dangers of large-scale food capitalism, and are now aware enough to ‘do the right thing’—buying local and organic, for a start. To critique that improvement can seem curmudgeonly, perhaps rash. We improve ourselves, and try to improve the planet, and yet here Greif is to criticise, to tell us we’re mistaken. Would there ever be a world in which he wouldn’t find something to criticise, even his own utopia?

And yet he manages to criticise gracefully. Tactfully, even, so as to avoid knee-jerk anger at his own naysaying. I read Greif as a countervailing voice, someone who knows (and maybe even hopes) he won’t be taken fully seriously, and yet hopes that by arguing “against everything”, we will be able to find a middle way through our problems, avoiding the worst of the dangers. It is hard to believe he wants to be taken seriously—he is arguing, essentially, that we are all mistaken in our thinking about food, the logical conclusion to which is that we simply should not think about it, eating whatever we want whenever we want. But by reminding of the dangers of the path we are on, we can improve that path and avoid its pitfalls.

Greif acknowledges the endlessness, and even the destructiveness, of being “against everything”. But for him it is not a negative attitude towards modern society; it seems more a state of being where one always maintains the belief that things can be improved. “I knew a ‘philosopher’ to be a mind that was unafraid to be against everything”, Grief says; “Against everything, if it was corrupt, dubious, enervating, untrue to us, false to happiness… To wish to be against everything is to want the world to be bigger than all of it, disposed to dissolve rules and compromises in a gallon or a drop, while an ocean of possibility rolls around us.”

So when he is against exercise, and against modern food, and against “the concept of experience”, reality television, YouTube and the hipster, Greif at his core merely wants to show that modern life need not be all-encompassing. The ocean of possibility rolls all around, and ultimately, “No matter what you are supposed to do, you can prove the supposition wrong, just by doing something else.”

Grief’s essays shed light on that opposite, cutting through prevailing narratives, and showing that the very things life seems to demand of us are what we should be most sceptical of.

Robert Louis Stevenson on Escaping the Cult of Busy and the Joys of Doing Nothing

Apology for IdlersI wrote recently of my experience learning how to do nothing. The essay came out of my experiences after being involved in a high-speed crash during a bicycle race, and receiving a concussion. For the next two weeks the doctor’s orders were to have cognitive rest, to literally do nothing—no reading, no phone, no computer, no intense conversations.

What I should have done during that period, however, was have someone read to me Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay An Apology for Idlers.

While writing my own essay, I struggled with how to refer to “doing nothing”. I ended up referring to it as both doing nothing nothing—to be differentiated from doing nothing singular, which is lying on a couch scrolling through Instagram—as well as daydreaming.

Stevenson, on the other hand, is writing about doing nothing singular. And through doing so, he discusses how to escape the cult of busy—which is not so new a phenomenon after all—as well as why we should all take time to be idle. He touches also on the purpose of education and how it can come about as much through idleness as through books and classes, as well as the traps of living your life in pursuit of others peoples’ measures of success.

“Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.”

He is careful to point out that doing nothing is not always preferable to doing something; but his task is to point out its advantages at certain times.

“The greatest difficulty with most subjects is to do them well; therefore, please to remember this is an apology. It is certain that much may be judiciously argued in favour of diligence; only there is something to be said against it, and that is what, on the present occasion, I have to say. To state one argument is not necessarily to be eat to all others, and that a man has written a book of travels in Montenegro, is no reason why he should never have been to Richmond.”

We so often think of reading a book as doing nothing and relaxing, but Stevenson complicates this idea. His version of doing nothing requires escaping altogether the notion of productivity, including consuming knowledge. This is one answer to the conversation I had with a good friend about whether we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it.

“Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life. It seems a pity to sit, like the Lady of Shallot, peering into a mirror, with your back turned on all the bust and glamour of reality. And if a man reads very hard, as the old anecdote reminds us, he will have little time for thought.”

Idleness—those “vivid, instructive hours of truantry”—is the best education we can get. In an echo of the character Will Ladislaw in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which was published just four or so years before his essay), Stevenson hilariously enlists Mr. Worldly Wiseman accosting a young truant to illustrate the point:

“”Hey now, young fellow, what dost thou here?”

“Truly, sir, I take mine ease.”

“Is not this the hour of the class? and should’st thou not be plying thy Book with diligence, to the end thou mayest obtain knowledge?

“Nay, but thus also I follow after Learning, by your leave.”

“Learning, quotha! After what fashion, I pray thee? Is it mathematics?”

“No, to be sure.”

“Is it metaphysics?”

“Nor that.”

“Is it some language?”

“Nay, it is no language.”

“Is it a trade?”

“Nor a trade neither.”

“Why, then, what is’t?”

“Indeed, sir, as a time may soon come for me to go upon Pilgrimage, I am desirous to note what is commonly done by persons in my case, where are the ugliest Sloughs and Thickets on the Road; as also, what manner of Staff is of the best service. Moreover, I lie here, by this water, to learn by root-of-heart a lesson which my master teaches me to call Peace, or Contentment.”

Idleness, in itself, can be a vital education in the “art of living”:

“Many who have ‘plied their book diligently’, and know all about some one branch or another of accepted lore, come out of the study with an ancient and owl-like demeanour, and prove dry, stockist, and dyspeptic in all the better and brighter parts of life. Many make a larger fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last. And meantime there goes the idler, who began life along with them—by your leave, a different picture. He has had time to take care of his health and his spirits; he has been a great deal in the open air, which is the most salutary of all things for both body and mind; and if he has never read the great Book in very recondite places, he has dipped into it and skimmed it over to excellent purpose. Might not the student afford some Hebrew roots, and the business man some of his half-crowns, for a share of the idler’s knowledge of life at large, and Art of Living?”

Stevenson wrote this essay in 1876. He discusses exactly the “cult of busy” that so many, the New York Times included, have taken to be a modern phenomenon, and explains how idleness is a way out of the trap. This is perhaps his most important passage of the essay, dealing really with how people choose to live their lives.

“Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desks or their study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still.

Stevenson warns all students of the dangers of filling your life with so much busyness that you cannot focus on what is really important. He explains how conventional success is determined in society, and why students should be sceptical of that image.

These people “Have been to school and college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man’s soul were not too small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one thought to rub against another, while they wait for the train… This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.”

Stevenson ends with a warning to all who are young on what they might be giving up by pursuing a single measure of success through continual hard work, books and study. In practical terms, this is a comparison of different education systems—those that focus on work twelve or more hours a day, versus those that focus on life and practical skills—as well as a plea for taking time off to discover your own standards of success.

“The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they know, may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches they expect may never come, or may find them indifferent; and they and the world they inhabit are so inconsiderable that the mind freezes at the thought.”

Stevenson’s essay is an important one to read to see through the day-to-day traps and vanities of work and productivity. It is an extreme view, but Stevenson himself admits that; his purpose was not to persuade anyone of complete idleness, but to present the other side of the story that young people are so rarely told. His ideal is a middle way between productivity and idleness—and in that way, we would be able to ensure that our productive time is spent on activities whose ends we actually want to be pursuing.

 

Thanks to my friend Tamara for recommending the collection of Stevenson’s essays.

On Excellent Sheep: What is College for?

ExI read Bill Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep (subtitled The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) at the beginning of the year, over a period of a few days before starting second semester of my junior year at college.  I had bought the book at Politics & Prose in D.C. and, perhaps appropriately, finished it moments before the Amtrak I was on pulled into New Haven—as if, now armed with an extreme scepticism of all I was about to encounter, I was ready for the next semester.

Deresiewicz was formerly a professor at Yale until he left to write, which (rightly or wrongly) comes across as a decision to practice much of what his book preaches. Purportedly focussing by its title on elite, liberal education, the latter part of the subtitle gives away the fact that Excellent Sheep is far more wide-ranging, and comes closer to being no less than a manifesto on humanity today—“Society is a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth” and similar comments are tucked away mid-paragraph throughout. The book deals in turn with four “characters”: Sheep, Self, Schools and Society.

Deresiewicz has a wonderful and all-too-rare skill for capturing and putting into words the inner fears, thoughts and questions that so many people try to dismiss as quickly as possible. By forcing many permutations of these fears onto the page, he speaks to the various ways that each of us formulates these doubts and concerns.

“One of the saddest things for me in all of this is listening to kids in high school, or those who’ve just arrived at college, express their hopes for their undergraduate experience and knowing how likely they are to be disappointed. For despite it all, the romance of college remains: the dream, as Bloom puts it, of having an adventure with yourself. Beneath the cynicism that students feel they are forced to adopt, beneath their pose of placid competence, the longings of youth remain. There is an intense hunger among today’s students… for what college ought to be providing but is not: for a larger sense of purpose and direction; for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions of life; for simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.”

At another point, speaking of what one gives up by pursuing higher education, Deresiewicz draws attention to how college also closes down opportunities as well as opening them. This is a side to education rarely spoken of.

“What then, finally, is it all for? Our glittering system of elite higher education: students kill themselves getting into it, parents kill themselves to pay for it, and always for the opportunities it opens up. But what of all the opportunities it closes down—not for any practical reason, but just because of how it smothers you with expectations? How can I become a teacher, or a minister, or a carpenter? Wouldn’t that be a waste of my fancy education? What would my parents think? What would my friends think? How would I face my classmates at our twentieth reunion, when they’re all rich doctors or important people in New York? And the question that exists behind them all: isn’t it beneath me? So an entire world of possibilities shuts, and you miss your true calling.”

This question of “What is university for?” is a thread throughout the book, one that cannot be answered in a single paragraph—it bears, in this sense, an uncanny resemblance to the question “What is modernity?” that college students may be all too familiar with. The book itself is Deresiewicz’s answer, and he takes a stab at answering the question directly at numerous points, in addition to the paragraph I quoted above.

“Why college? College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is “not the real world.” But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. It offers students “the precious chance”, as Andrew Delbanco has put it, “to think and reflect before life engulfs them.”

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”

“College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake the work of self-discovery… The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making.”

But I find Deresiewicz’s most poignant answer in a separate article, where he discusses college’s purpose directly in terms of the advent of modernity (thereby answering college students’ two most persistent questions in one deft move):

“Modernity is a condition of ever-increasing acceleration, but only, until recently, for adults. For the young, modernity means — or meant — something different. The modern age, in fact, invented the notion of youth as an interval between childhood and adulthood, and it invented it as a time of unique privileges and obligations. From the Romantics, at the dawn of modernity, all the way through the 1970s, youth was understood to have a special role: to step outside the world and question it. To change it, with whatever opposition from adults. (Hence the association of youth and revolution, another modern institution.) As college became common as a stage of life — one that coincides with the beginning of youth — it naturally incorporated that idea. It was the time to think about the world as it existed, and the world that you wanted to make.

But we no longer have youth as it was imagined by modernity. Now we have youth as it was imagined by postmodernity — in other words, by neoliberalism. Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore — not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world.”

Deresiewicz often seems unsure about who to blame for our education system’s failure to live up to the promise of the liberal arts. Much of the book is directed against universities (and by implication their administrators, as in a whole chapter on “The Institutions”), as are his articles (like The Neoliberal Arts, from which the above quotation was taken from). And yet he quotes Ross Douthat, who talks about how Harvard “remains one of the best places on earth to educate oneself”, but how “it will not actively educate you, will not guide or shape or even push back in any significant way.” These are two separate approaches to living up to the liberal arts, Deresiewicz’s being institution-focussed and Douthat’s, individual-focussed.

I wondered whether, even if universities entirely adjusted their missions back to an ideal liberal arts-style education as Deresiewicz seems to want, students would reject this wholesale. An education of the kind that Deresiewicz describes, “a self inflicted wound”, as he quotes Lewis Lapham, must be exactly that. Self-inflicted. There is, besides, no such thing as an inflicted education, since it seems impossible to educate someone against their will. I think the promise of liberal education depends entirely on individual students, so long as universities have the right tools for students to use.

My college experience has been transformative, and the longer I am at college the more I learn how to educate myself. Each semester I learn how to better grab at the opportunities I have, to use books to give meaning to my experiences, to discuss what I read with professors who can tell me what book should then come next.

On the one hand, Excellent Sheep grabbed my shoulders and shook them, as only books that describe deep and unspoken experiences are able to. I saw all-too-clearly the miseducation that Deresiewicz describes, the need for “something more” in education, the waste of minds that happens so frequently. But on the other hand, I realised that what was also grabbing me as I read was how my college education matches, to a surprising extent, the education that Deresiewicz’ idealises and spends much of the book lamenting the death of.

Deresiewicz seems to me trapped by his age and position: he feels he can write most directly to American “adults” (non-students) and the university administrators he worked with for so long, but realises that the people who have most to gain are current and future college students themselves. This is visible in his continual switching between third-person (“Do students ever hear this?”, he laments seemingly to politicians who solely speak of STEM subjects) and second-person (“Once you get there, keep your eye on the ball. You can’t just passively absorb an education.”) And Deresiewicz cannot be blamed for this. On the contrary, it is a great gift to raise these questions so succinctly and so poignantly, no matter who the questions are directed to.

But these questions I had while reading Excellent Sheep left me feeling that colleges are not particularly to blame. Sure, I would like it if there were more of an overt institutional focus on the humanities and on the classical tradition of the liberal arts. My own experiences leading up to college and during it make me inclined to agree with Deresiewicz on all this. But even were that done, it might not do anything for students themselves. What is needed instead, it seems to me, is a new generation of college-aged champions of the liberal arts to inspire other students to grab hold of the education we already have at our fingertips. We need students to start changing the prevailing narrative away from education-as-a-way-to-a-job, and towards education-as-a-way-to-a-meaningful-life. We need to escape all the subtle aspects of the existing narrative, like how university rankings are often done based on average graduate earnings, and have people show in actions even more than words how we can live our time at college focussed on a far greater purpose.

And make no mistake: that greater purpose is life itself, as Deresiewicz shows so well in this book. Yet college seems so often understood solely as the way to a prestigious career. Champions of the liberal arts will be those people who show us how college itself deals with life, with our lives, and who therefore show us how these four years can be grasped and not squandered on just a part of the whole.

Deresiewicz’s immense contribution may be as the person who gave rise to these new champions, these standard-bearers who will make the liberal arts cool again. And that is, essentially, what this is all about: understanding, as students, the true worth of four years to transform our lives.