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.

Pre-Distraction Distraction

But of course, when I’m at home, if ever I’m tempted to read a book, a part of me is braced for the phone to ring or the chime of “you’ve got mail” in the next room. So I interrupt myself even if it doesn’t interrupt me. And if ever I’m tempted to look at the stars, I think, oh no, there are a thousand things I have to do around the house or around the town. Or if I’m involved in a deep conversation, I think, oh, the Lakers game is on T.V. I should do that. And so one way or another, I always cut into my own clarity and concentration when I’m at home. And it reminded me why sometimes people like me have to take conscious measures to step into the stillness and silence and be reminded of how it washes us clean, really.

— Pico Iyer in his On Being conversation with Krista Tippett.

Pico puts perfectly and beautifully, as he always does, a phenomenon I’ve thought about as pre-distraction distraction. 

Pre-distraction distraction means that the activities I’m willing to put my mind to are always small, and are always far down on the list of importance, because we expect the interruption that is to come. And when we expect that interruption, we are never willing to engross ourselves in the Dostoevsky we have always intended to read, or to write that polemic about the state of concentration in the modern world, because we know we will only last five minutes before the distraction comes.

Instead we scroll through Twitter or Instagram, perhaps reply to a few brief emails (ignoring the meaningful ones that require one’s full attention), or we browse through a picture-filled magazine until, inevitably, comes the vibration in the pocket or the chime from the laptop.

Without distraction-free places our minds come to take on the the tasks that we anticipate can be completed before the distraction comes. And who ever learned or accomplished anything great in five minutes?

The Levelling of Ideas Towards the Pretty But Inane

It’s easy to know these days whether we are liked.

I can see how many people click on my link to this article on Twitter, how many people have liked my latest post on Instagram, how many people express support for something I write on Facebook. It feels good to be liked, especially when that liking is so visible.

It’s also easy to know these days whether we are disliked.

A mere five likes on an Instagram photo is as much a signal of disapproval as of approval. Comments on one’s blog or article can be vitriolic in their disagreement, frequently descending into arguments ad hominem. And Twitter can make visible not just to you but to the world the sheer number of people who disagree with what you are saying. It feels bad to be disliked, especially when that disliking is so visible.

Before the Internet we might have received a letter of support for something we wrote in the newspaper, but never heard or seen the number of people who inevitably disagreed. The difficulty in receiving feedback of any kind was certainly a disadvantage, but simultaneously gave freedom to pursue one’s own train of thought without concern for approval.

The visibility of liking and disliking today makes us double down on seeking the former and avoiding the latter. We become trained by the stings of public disapproval to avoid whatever it was that led to that, and we are trained by the dopamine of the “like” to pursue more of the same. There is from there a marked shift away from originality and ingenuity and toward popularity.

I believe there is an eventual tyranny to be found in seeking popularity without originality.

Revel in the jolts in the stomach that come from disagreement. Without them, we are doing nothing new, and are instead merely contributing to the levelling of ideas towards the pretty but inane.