Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Nicholas Carr's Shallows

A few things crossed my mind, repeatedly, as I read through Nicholas Carr's excellent The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a book which thoroughly and persuasively demonstrates (or so I think, anyway) that an over-reliance upon electronic technologies, and the internet in particular, for our information, entertainment, and research, is doing real harm to our ability to think. In no particular order:

1) I thought about how President Obama has regularly, both before his election and after, criticized the huge presence which electronic and video gaming, networking, and communication plays in the lives of young Americans--and also about how little many of those same young people, including many who generally agree with the president's policies, either get angry or just shake their heads in bemusement, assuming that his message much be a politically calculated effort to look like a "tough parent" for suburban audiences, never considering whether there might be some genuine science--not just anthropological and sociological, but psychological and neurological as well--behind his concerns. Would Carr's book ever reach that audience? I'm hopeful, but doubtful.

2) I thought about my own history use of the internet, of blogs and e-mail and all the rest, and the weird compromises our family has made in regards to digital and wireless technologies. We resisted cell phones for years, but then ultimately broke down; now Melissa and my oldest daughter carry theirs everywhere. We went without a high-speed internet connection for the longest time, then changed our minds, and started struggling with our local provider to get a wireless connection to our laptop. We haven't had cable or broadcast television in our house for years, yet we are all always watching something on Hulu or Youtube or Netflix Instant Play. In short, while I may play the resolute agrarian/communitarian/populist/localist/radical democrat/quasi-Luddite on the blog, the truth is I'm every bit as divided about the progress of technology as Rod Dreher was when he guiltily admitted his geek-out over the iPad.

3) It was my thoughts about Dreher's predicament, I suspect, that got the attention of Nick Carr's publisher, and ended up with me holding a copy of the book in my hands. A lucky break for me, for while I was familiar with--and tended to agree with--the claims Carr made in his famous Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", in truth I might not have ever read the book otherwise, and that would have meant missing out on a marvelous synthesis of neurobiology, textual history, sociology, literary criticism, psychology, and more. The book's arguments are broad, but its overarching thesis is a simple two-pronged one. First, that the internet has an "intellectual ethic," just as every "intellectual technology" does, "a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work" (p. 43). The assumptions at work in and through the internet, as it happens, are ones which revolve around snap judgments, thin generality, shifting attention spans, multitasking, flexibility, and most of all, distractions: the ethic of "the juggler" in other words (p. 112). Second, that in becoming jugglers of information we are actually making it--neurologically, psychologically, structurally--harder and harder for our own brains to do anything otherwise. The "deep reading" made possible by the ethic of the book--the way we could learn to enter into, identify with, creatively work through and embrace or reject a written argument (pp. 71-72)--has a neurological reality to it, and when our brains mold themselves to a different environment of reading, basic cognition, long-term memory, and learning are all dramatically affected, and not in a positive way. On the contrary, we become habituated to viewing all information--literature, science, journalism, scholarship, whatever--as something to be "strip-mined [for] relevant content" (p. 164), and rather than thereby supposedly refining our ability to recognize (in classic marketplace of ideas fashion) good information from bad, in fact our capacity to make learned judgments is physically undermined. Carr quotes neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who bleakly sums up the research: we are "training our brains to pay attention to the crap" (p. 140).

The conclusion towards which Carr's theses point is not that the internet and all the services and toys it makes possible are to be destroyed. Hardly--Carr himself admits "I'm not sure I could live without it" (p. 198). But it does warn us that there is a real reason to slow down and be cautious in our adaption to these tools...which, really, is all that us fuddy-duddy parents (and President Obama too) have been talking all along. Should we reject this advice, the results, Carr thinks, could be very bad. Bad in a human sense, as it may mean the slow loss of the ability of many to "construct within our own minds the...connections that give rise to a singular intelligence" (p. 141), and bad for our culture--all cultures, really--in that it suggests "the replacement of [a] complex inner density with a new kind of self," one bereft of a patiently accumulated heritage of understanding, and replaced by (here Carr quotes the playwright Richard Foreman) "pancake people, spread wide and thin" (p. 194).

4) I also realized that for some people (I'm looking at you, Alan), this all may be old hat, and admittedly Carr sometimes belabors his claims. I'm no student of the technology of reading, but even I--as one for whose college education was much shaped by the looming influence of Martin Heidegger--found myself a little impatient and non-plussed to realize that Carr only gets around to referencing "The Question Concerning Technology" (which is the central challenge to the problematic meaning of our modern relationship with tools) on the very last page of the last chapter of the book (p. 220). But my own philosophical preferences in terms of asking the questions which Carr is asking are mostly irrelevant insofar as the book itself is concerned: someone else might think he spends much too much time on the "plasticity" of the brain, or on the neurobiology of memory; someone else might think that he spends too much time on the invention of the bound volume, and the printing press which made it possible. I can only judge the book as it stands though, and for me, overall, it was revealing, persuasive, and not a little frightening. In regards to that last, Carr does exceptional work, smartly laying the groundwork--both scientific and historical--that helps the reader appreciate the unnerving implications of our rapid, at times manic, movement into the shallow mental world of the internet, and especially the implications of the claims made by those who breezily or should-shruggingly apologize for it. There are several of these, but my favorite--if that's that right word to use--was Clay Shirky, a brilliant salesman for our ever-more interconnected and individualized world, a fellow who has mystified me before. Carr both quotes and deconstructs:

Shirky, a digital-media scholar at New York University, suggested in a 2008 blog post that we shouldn't waste our time mourning the death of deep reading--it was overrated all along. "No one reads War and Peace," he wrote, singling out Tolstoy's epic as the quintessence of high literary achievement. "It's too long, and not so interesting." People have "increasingly decided that Tolstoy's sacred work isn't actually worth the time it takes to read it." The same goes for Proust's In Search of Lost Time and other novels that until recently were considered, in Shirky's cutting phrase, "Very Important in some vague way." Indeed, we've "been emptily praising" writers like Tolstoy and Proust "all these years." Our old literary habits "were just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access." Now that the Net has granted us abundant "access," Shirky concludes, we can at last lay those tired habits aside.

Such proclamations...come off as the latest manifestation of the outré posturing that has always characterized the anti-intellectual wing of academia. But...there may be a more charitable explanation.... Shirky, and others like him, may be early exemplars of the post-literary mind, intellectuals for whom the screen rather than the page has always been the primary conduit of information....If you lack the time, the interest, or the facility to inhabit a literary work...then of course you'd consider Tolstoy's masterpiece to be "too long, and not so interesting." Although it may be tempting to ignore those who suggest the value of the literary mind has always been exaggerated, that would be a mistake. Their arguments are another important sign of the fundamental shift taking place in society's attitude towards intellectual achievement. Their words also make it a lot easier for people to justify that shift--to convince themselves that surfing the Web is a suitable, even superior, substitute for deep reading and other forms of calm and attentive thought. In arguing that books are archaic and dispensable...Shirky provide[s] the intellectual cover that allows thoughtful people to slip comfortably into the permanent state of distractedness that defines the online life.
(pp. 109-110)

5) Finally, it made me think about what I'm doing, and what I could be doing. I'll admit, in addition to sometimes frightening me, the book also sometimes pleased me, because some of what it persuaded me of simply clarified and strengthen my commitment to certain practices which I already prefer. As he presented study after study supporting the argument that most students don't remember what they read off a screen as well as what they read off a printed page, and don't listen as well to a lecture when it is spaced out in the midst of multimedia presentations (pp. 128-129), it made me feel better about being a mostly chalk-on-the-blackboard lecturer, and the fact that I give my students reading assignments from books they can hold and PDF files they can print out. And the fact that--as has been obvious to bloggers for years--web surfers overwhelmingly just don't read what they see online, but merely skim it, on average absorbing perhaps 18% of the verbiage in any given post at most as they hunt for the next hyperlink or interesting nugget of information (pp. 132-133), perversely made me feel good about my exhaustively lengthy blogging habits: no matter whether you write long posts or short, most people just aren't going to read more than the first "two or three lines of text" anyway. (Of course, the shorter and more frequent the posts, the greater the number of (non-)readers will any blog get, and so that's perhaps worth something. Actually, Carr inspired me to do a little blog research, and see how I stacked up in terms of average lengths of post against some of the other blogs on my blogroll. I write longer stuff than most everyone I read regularly--1045 words per post on average--but that's almost the same as Tim Burke--1037 per post--and anything that puts me in Tim's company leaves me happy. Among other individual bloggers: Hugo Schwyzer was 842, Peter Levine 733, Alan Jacobs 397, Jacob Levy 367, and Laura McKenna a speedy 251.)

But of course, the truth is that I'm very much a part of this distracted world as well; I mean, hell, I've just spent four hours online writing this review. Like Carr himself, I've found it becoming difficult to unplug, to focus, and to read deeply. That's probably one of the reasons why, I suppose, I resolved this summer to actually read some books, so as to maintain my own (already weakened from what it once was, I recognize) capacity for attentively engaging with an argument, and thereby exercising and fortifying those parts of my brain which enable me to do so. The Shallows was the first on that long list, and, if nothing else, it was a very good start.

13 comments:

The Modesto Kid said...

I've agonized about this stuff a fair amount out of a general feeling that I spend too much time blogging etc. But the upshot of my agonizings has generally been that Google and its cousins are a good thing, that they increase the depth of my readings by giving me access to source materials and reference points that I would not have had otherwise (eg) -- and the keeping of an online diary was what first really prompted me to try to understand the reading process. So, I should probably read Carr; I think that I'm predisposed to disagree with him.

Camassia said...

I've been thinking about this subject lately also. As I've gotten older, I've definitely noticed my attention span getting shorter, which is kind of the opposite of what I expected to happen. Technology doubtless plays a part in it, but I'm not sure what to do about it. Trying to force myself to read certain books doesn't seem to work, and even if I do, I think my brain is only taking in what it wants to. I read something on a blog recently about The Great Gatsby, and realized that even though I read that book only two and a half years ago, I remember NOTHING about it. Granted this might be because I read most of it while miserably stranded at an airport. But great art is supposed to transcend these things, right?

On the other hand, I can definitely see that my adoption of certain technologies reflects how my mind always worked. From my teens onward I was a big information grazer, flipping through atlases and encyclopedias all the time, so the Internet was always a natural habitat to me. I was also always a big letter writer, so I took instantly to email. But I always sucked at multitasking, and I still suck at it, so I don't really attempt it. I love my iPod, it being a lineal descendant of my '80s Walkman, but I'm somewhat alarmed by file sharing. I took to blogging early, but I don't do Twitter or Facebook. If you'd known me in college, you probably could have predicted that.

Maybe Gatsby just wouldn't have spoken to me at any time of my life. It's hard to say.

Laura/Geekymom said...

Nice review. I've been thinking, too, about my relationship with technology. Since my career, and my husband's career, are both in the tech field, I'm saturated with the stuff and can almost always excuse spending time online as "work." So, I can appreciate the idea that being online too much might be changing how I think and that might not be such a good thing.

On the other hand, when I first starting working online quite a bit, many, many years ago, my first thought was, "Finally, a medium that matches how my brain works." (Like Camassa above) So, I would posit that perhaps there are people out there for whom this medium works really well, and actually enhances their thinking in a different way. No, maybe they don't think "deeply" or maybe they're not inclined to read War and Peace, but not everyone has to think the same way, right?

I also think it's good to challenge the brain in different ways, so that if you're someone like me who loves being online, reading or doing physical activity or making art all create different kinds of experiences for the brain. And that, I think, is good. So it's not such a different argument than we were making about tv years ago. It's not that tv is inherently bad, but that too much of it is.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Modesto, it's interesting to hear someone present a contrary experience to that which Carr documents--that greater access to source materials and commentary has deepened your reading, as opposed to making your reading or research more superficial and scattered. My experience doesn't wholly hold with Carr's frightening model, but it parallels it enough that the book really makes me think twice about my use of Google, and my basic reading habits generally. I really would encourage you to give the book's argument a chance; my summary leaves a good deal out that might catch you recognizing yourself.

Camassia, one of Carr's big neurological themes is that there's an interdependent relationship between the brain and the tools through which it can establish connections and build mastery, so obviously there really is a sense in which the internet is giving us something that part of our brain has long screamed out for. And there's also simply the fact that not all brains are the same: some people can concentrate on and deeply read anything (the "cognitive elite"), some can only do it on a few things, etc. After reading the book, I guess I would argue that most of the human race is probably in that marginal camp: maybe we could have, ideally, focused on and learned from Fitzgerald, or maybe we couldn't it. Carr demonstrates though, I think, that the internet is pushing more and more of us out into those shallow margins than would be there otherwise.

Laura, I couldn't agree more. What you say follows along with what Camassia said, and the solution follows also: like any potentially addictive tool or toy, you should try to limit its use.

The Modesto Kid said...

Oh! I did not link to the post I intended to link to -- this one better demonstrates using Google and Google Books as a tool for deepening my reading. (Also worth noting that absent Google and blogs I would likely never have heard of Monterroso... It was blog comments that got me interested in Bolaño and Bolaño's comments reported on a blog that got me interested in Monterroso.)

I am not in academia, which I expect makes a big difference in this regard -- I don't have ready access to a research library outside of Google, and my reading habits are dictated by my peer group rather than by journals/research -- which peer group is hugely enhanced by its including bloggers and commenters.

Ben Pratt said...

I've noticed my level of engagement with texts come and go, as measured by how much I can recall later. I have found that those books I enjoy the most are the ones that engage me the most deeply (that sounds almost tautological, but I do think it could have been otherwise), and which I therefore recall in detail.

Online I'm a compulsive reader of every word of an article or post. In fact, I was recently surprised to hear that one of my relatives was sharing links on Facebook to articles he had only skimmed. I couldn't do that. I read physics and math textbooks the same way: I have to know how the author gets from one equation to the next.

Aloysius said...

The Internet has brought me Amazon and consequently it has caused me to buy many more books than I ever did before the Internet. Have you noticed how many conservative titles there are in the NYT best seller lists? The Internet has helped sell these titles. Conservatives are the new thinking class in America.

scritic said...

Hi Russell,

Your review is very thoughtful but I wish you'd devoted some more space to summarizing the book.

Like everyone else, I read Carr's "Is Google making us stupid" piece and found that while it has a certain core point, it was wildly over-the-top. (My response is here.)

This may just be the academic in me but I found it strange that Carr made absolutely no distinction between reading for work/edification and reading for pleasure. Or between the way we read fiction as opposed to non-fiction. The implicit assumption in the essay seemed to be that there is only one "good" way of reading i.e. "strolling through large stretches of prose." I would argue that this is true for leisure reading (whether fiction or non-fiction) but this is not true for the reading that discourse producers (like journalists, academics, researchers, writers) do for work. Discourse producers have arguably always skimmed through text, their central problem has always been which text to "deep-read" and they only found that out by skimming a large number of other texts. Certainly the internet will change how these discourse producers work, perhaps they will skim even more than they do today, perhaps they will become better skimmers, or perhaps they will end up producing shorter outputs. I don't know. Furthermore, will this mean that their output will be less scholarly if they have to skim more (because the internet makes so many more texts available)? Again, I don't know but these are interesting questions.

How will the internet change the leisure reading that most lay-people who are not discourse-producers of some kind do? I suspect: not much. Leisure reading will still involve "strolling through long stretches of prose." But I could be wrong, it's an open question.

But Carr doesn't care for this at all (I don't know how it is in the book but I hope he at least makes some efforts in this direction). His only claim seems to be that people won't read "War and Peace" anymore in their leisure time, which, I will argue, few do anyhow. Even Bruce Friedman, whom Carr quotes, says on his blog that he does read a lot of crime novels for leisure but has a hard time picking up "War and Peace" after a hard day's work. I sympathize -- but this seems to me to have very little to do with the reading on the internet.

All Carr cares for, it seems to me, is to gesture vaguely at some cultural malaise that he thinks is around the corner. And it has something to do with people not reading "War and Peace." I actually agree with Clay Shirky (although I wouldn't be as outre about "War and Peace") on this: that Carr is less interested in how reading habits (of both, discourse-producers and lay-people) will change because of the internet, and more interested in mourning the fall of the "high culture" novel from its high cultural pedestal. I am not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it seems to me to have started long ago, when television came on the scene.

Speaking for myself, like Modesto, I've found that the internet has actually introduced me to things I'd never have reached. Yes, the volume of texts that I skim through has increased but then so has the number of things I know. My central problem today is deciding what to read in detail - but I suspect that is a problem that academics who read a lot have always had.

Anyway, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Scritic,

Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. A couple of responses...

I found it strange that Carr made absolutely no distinction between reading for work/edification and reading for pleasure. Or between the way we read fiction as opposed to non-fiction. The implicit assumption in the essay seemed to be that there is only one "good" way of reading i.e. "strolling through large stretches of prose." I would argue that this is true for leisure reading (whether fiction or non-fiction) but this is not true for the reading that discourse producers (like journalists, academics, researchers, writers) do for work.

I don't remember him going into that distinction anywhere in the book either, and it may be an important one. Now much of his argument arises from the neurological data on how the brain makes connections and thereby enables comprehension and memory, and that, arguably, is equally relevant to work reading as well as leisure reading. Speaking for myself and no one else, I'll admit that I find myself missing arguments and conclusions sometimes, even in short written works that I'm surveying for specific data points, stuff that I don't think I would have missed in my college or graduate school days, and I wonder how much of that is "just" age and how much is the fact that my brain has been so trained to jump from one predetermined nugget of information to the next that I've lost some of my even very basic cognitive skills.

That being said, I would be interested in hearing Carr's reaction to your comments, and seeing for myself if there is any difference in the neurological data showing what happens in the brain when one is reading for pleasure verses reading for work. Maybe, if things were broken down that way, we'd find that the argument for the decline in neural connections and basic cognition isn't so obvious.

Carr is less interested in how reading habits (of both, discourse-producers and lay-people) will change because of the internet, and more interested in mourning the fall of the "high culture" novel from its high cultural pedestal.

That may be the case, but please: do read the book for yourself when you can. It's quite possible that, in what I've chosen to focus on, I've made him appear more declinist than the book truly is. I'm not sure; when I started it, I thought it was taking a fairly balanced tone, but by the end (when he finally brings Heidegger into it), he's talking about how the shift to scattered screen reading habits, and away from "deep reading" (however common that ever actually was in reality), is tantamount to bringing the "frenzy of the world" into our souls. Now, conflicted Luddite that I sometimes am, I liked that conclusion--but I can see that, in making it, he's presenting himself as a cultural critic, not someone simply observing a transformation in what our brains are doing to deal with the world of information they encounter.

scritic said...

Now much of his argument arises from the neurological data on how the brain makes connections and thereby enables comprehension and memory, and that, arguably, is equally relevant to work reading as well as leisure reading.

I am admittedly biased as a social/computer scientist interested in the social aspects of computing but I feel that the right abstraction (or level of explanation) to understand how the internet has changed the way we read is not at the neurobiological level but at the level of habits and institutions.

This is, of course, an empirical issue and I really have no original research to back this up but this is my hunch.

(Rant) But it irritates me no end that we live in a culture where we are so infatuated with natural science that an explanation of any phenomenon is immediately sought at the level of biology even when it seems like an explanation at a different, "higher" level would be far more persuasive. Sorry, end of rant!

scritic said...

But thank you for your (as always) thoughtful response, Russell. I do plan to get the book and read it soon.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Scritic,

It irritates me no end that we live in a culture where we are so infatuated with natural science that an explanation of any phenomenon is immediately sought at the level of biology even when it seems like an explanation at a different, "higher" level would be far more persuasive.

I share the same biases; when I saw just how much science was going to be in the book, I wondered if I was going to be in for exactly the sort of determinist-naturalist treatise that I am deeply suspicious of. And it's true that he probably does cross over into that territory on occasion. But for the most part, I did not feel, as I went through the book, as though as being rhetorically trapped into agreeing with him that whatever makes our neurons do X must mean Y; on the contrary, while there was very much a mournful tone to a lot of the book, by and large I really felt like he was mostly just revealing what current science thinks is possibly happening to us as we adapt to this new reading tool, nothing more and nothing less.

But in any case, you'll be able to decide for yourself once you read it. I'm glad you'll give it a whirl once it's officially released.

Josh said...

Thanks for this review, Russell. I just got around to The Shallows and finished it yesterday, went back to Alan Jacobs' blog to recall what he'd said about it, and followed his link to your post. I totally agree -- the book is broad, but absolutely convincing; I'm baffled by readers who say he hasn't made enough of a case.

Anyway, I know it's a more than a year later, but I just wanted to say thanks for the thoughtful words on the book.