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.

A Future Without Personal History

Note: In 2011 I wrote this article for ReadWrite, a widely-read blog covering the technology industry, on what would happen if we didn’t make an effort to store our communication history. I lamented how older generations could look back through letters, physical records of their lives with one another, and yet we would seemingly be left with nothing. The article inspired an impassioned response from journalist Paul Carr at the blog TechCrunch and a lively online debate. I ultimately ended up founding a company based on the premise I wrote about.

I thought I’d re-share the article as I rediscovered it. I was sixteen at the time—things have certainly changed, and you’ll have to excuse the writing. And, irony of ironies, I now rather enjoy writing letters.

Remember those pieces of paper with handwritten words on them that you used to post to people? “Letters” I think they’re called. To be honest though, I wouldn’t have a clue, as I’ve neither sent nor received one in my 16-year-old life.

I’m sure the majority of readers here have at least sent a personal letter to friends or family in their lifetime. However, the same cannot be said about my generation. I’ve sent tens of thousands of emails, Facebook messages, SMSs, and IMs – but never a single letter.

More than solely being a form of communication, letters are a very effective historical item. Think about letters sent home to families from the soldiers on the battlefields of both world wars. Letters were kept because they have a perceived value – it took time and effort to send a letter, and therefore people viewed them as much more valuable.

My parents still have letters that they received more than 30 years ago, and when they read them now they say that they detail entire relationships and friendships. They have vast amounts of information about their own history stored inside the letters that they sent and received. It goes even further than that. My grandmother still has letters she received from her grandmother. If it weren’t for those letters, all that information about my own family history would have been lost, or confined to memory (which, as my parents are discovering, fails us all eventually).

And yet, I can’t tell anyone what I was discussing with someone a month ago. That’s testament to the digital age that I, and everyone in my generation, is a native member of. I find myself feeling incredibly guilty that my parents and grandparents went to so much effort to ensure that our family history was kept, and here I am frequently losing information about my life.

The frequency and brevity of messages sent today combined with the numerous mediums used means that this personal information now has a much lower perceived value: Your email storage fills up – you delete all your messages. You get a new mobile phone – all of your SMS’s are lost.

Some people are already worrying about what may happen if we continue to throw away our information. For example, the U.S. Library of Congress announced in April last year that it would be archiving every Twitter message ever sent. Sure it’s a phenomenal undertaking, but in no way is it enough. Think about all the different mediums of communication you use.

For example, today alone I have communicated with people via SMS, email, Facebook messages, Facebook chat, Whatsapp Messenger, Skype chat, and Twitter. Out of those, only my public Twitter updates are being stored. There are other efforts like the Library of Congress’ undertaking, but mass archiving won’t help us store our individual histories in a way that we can access.

What happens if, in three years, I want to go back through all my communications with my girlfriend? I may not be using an iPhone in three years, so all of my messages on Whatsapp Messenger will be gone. I definitely won’t be using the same mobile phone, so all of my SMS’s will be gone. My Gmail storage will have filled up, so I won’t have any of our emails any more. I doubt I’ll even still be using Facebook – there’s all of that communication gone.

All of this information that is so important and so relevant to me personally is just disappearing, and I won’t be able to track the relationships and friendships that I have had.

Personally, I am now backing up my computer daily, and copying and pasting communication from all different formats into different documents stored both on hard drive and in the cloud. While it’s a start, it’s an absolutely horrific task, and doesn’t completely work (I’m not going to be transcribing my SMS’s into a document).

The abundance of technology is severely devaluing information. Do we go on ignoring this fact, and losing the details of our lives? Or do we do the hard work, and attempt to effectively store our communications? I know that I’ll be putting in the hard work – at least until the magicians in Silicon Valley come up with a better solution.

The Future of Social Networks

Note: I wrote this article in 2011, looking at how social networks could more accurately mimic real life societies. It ended up being the single most-read and most-commented-on piece on my blog. I was sixteen at the time, so excuse the writing. Interesting to see both how the numbers have changed since 2011 (600 million users! One and a half years!), as well as how Facebook has and has not moved closer to the vision I outlined.

So Facebook has 600 million users. Many people are saying that Facebook will now be here for ever, and the entire planet will eventually be on Facebook. The same people are saying it will grow to be the biggest company in history, and that it’ll make a killing for investors. I disagree. This article explains why I disagree, and discusses what social networks should look like to succeed.

Social networks are still in early days. I don’t think they’ve really matured in any way, because they are still built on false assumptions that were made beginning with the first few mainstream social networks. The system of “friending” is completely broken, and yet many people don’t realize it because they don’t stop to ask why it is that way.

Facebook says that all my friends and contacts are of equal importance to me. They know this isn’t true, but there is no way for me to distinguish between friends I am truly close with or contacts that I met at a conference and felt obliged to accept on Facebook. In real life, we rank our connections in order of how important they are to us and how close we are with them. But on Facebook, this system has gone out the window because that functionality is not built into the social network.

But there is more about Facebook that is broken. Facebook is a “one-size-fits-all” social network. In other words, it thinks that everyone will find use in Facebook as long as they are on it with their friends. They believe that the higher the number of users they have, the more likely it is that people will keep joining. But this view goes against societal laws.

We live in societies in real life because we surround ourselves with people who share similar values, beliefs, and interests. Sure, the fact that I support one political party over another says that I have slightly different values to the person next to me, but fundamentally our values and beliefs are very similar. And living in a society allows me to know that anybody I meet will have fundamentally the same mindset as me. People who share similar religions live in the same societies, because they understand each other. This means that I can meet new people, and be social with a group outside of my existing close friends, with the knowledge that anybody I meet will be essentially similar to me.

Think about the term social network for a moment. When we hear it, we think of online social networks, like Facebook, with a system of “friending” and where we only communicate with our existing contacts. But social network is a broad term. Actually, it kind of describes how we relate to our contacts in real life. We have our own social network in real life, and you know what? It works. It’s called our society, and it’s been around for decades, if not centuries.

My question is: why aren’t online social networks built like physical societies?

Imagine this model as three circles, one inside of the other. The inner circle has your core group of friends and family – you share everything with them. There may only be 25 people in there, but these are the people who you would call to tell them something important that has just happened. They mean a lot to you. You’ll connect with these people by “friending” them – ie. mutual designation.

The next circle, which is quite a few times larger than the inner circle, is made up of your connections. These are the people who you’ve met at conferences, or know from school – you’re not close with them, but you’d talk to them if you saw them on the street. To connect with these people, you just have to specify them as a connection. It’s more like “following” them, only they will see that you have specified them as a connection and they can specify you back.

The third and final circle is made up of outer society. People you don’t know, but who you may meet someday. You cross paths with these people every day, but just haven’t yet taken the time to stop and talk to them. This final circle is huge – many, many times bigger than the previous two – and you have no direct link to them unless you choose to.

What this model allows is for us to differentiate between true “friends”, and mere “connections”. You can have a clear distinction between the two, allowing you to know more clearly who what you are sharing will reach. It gives you the ability to share more with those you really care about, without annoying connections. And, likewise, it allows you to share things with connections that you wouldn’t share with your family. And what about “outer society”? Well, you can interact with them as much or as little as you want.

The beauty of this model is that it allows us to choose how we want to use our social network. If we want to use it like Facebook, we can do that – the choice is entirely up to us.

But there will not be just one social network that looks like this. There will be tens, if not hundreds of them – each with millions of users. The social network that you are a part of will be a representation of who you are as a person. It will signify your values, beliefs, and interests.

When will this shift in model of social networks occur? I believe it will start in a year and a half, and reach the mainstream in about three years from now. That’s time for these new social networks to be built and perfected.

In any case, the battle of the social networks is far from over. Facebook hasn’t won, and there are plenty of genius programmers at colleges around the world. Good luck.

The Liberal Arts and Two Visions of the Future

There are two separate and entirely incompatible strands of thought about liberal education passing through public discourse at present.

The first argues that liberal education is a solution to increasing mechanisation of the work force, an antidote for the feeling of alienation and a loss of meaning, and the way to produce broad-minded, deep-hearted leaders. As Asia invests in the liberal arts, and as a new public narrative along these lines becomes more common in the United States, the liberal arts appear on the one hand to be experiencing a resurgence.

The second narrative argues that the liberal arts, and more specifically the humanities that make up their centrepiece, are worthless in a world where value is created digitally. This view is summarised succinctly by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who writes in one of his polemics that “Little of the material taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future.” Instead, science and technology are the paths to progressing humanity and improving the world.

The inability of these two strands of thought to connect or engage with one another points to the central issue: they each have incompatible visions of the future.

One imagines a world where morals, character, public service and living well are the purpose of education. The other imagines a world where humanity is advanced by technology, and education must focus on preparing the minds necessary for this advancement.

Recognising which vision for the future we hold dear is the start of knowing what education means to us individually. And by acknowledging that those who disagree with us about the value of liberal education do so not out of ignorance but from a different vision of a noble future, perhaps for the first time these narratives may engage with one another.