Charlie's Blog: PRINT--The Shallows by Nicholas Carr


PRINT--The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I am returning to writing reviews of  the books I read and the movies that I watch. It was a practice on the old blog, and I am bringing it back into the new. Of course, my reviews are not like something you will read in the Times or the New York Review of Books where the reviewer tries to distill the entire product down to an essay. I prefer to deal with the ideas in the book or movie and reflect upon them. People with a greater interest are expected to go read the book or watch the movie. Anyway. . .

The Shallows was nothing new to me. If I could sum up the book in one sentence, it would go like this. The internet is rotting your brain. That is an oversimplification to the extreme, but Carr simply states what we already know. The net is making us into short attention span readers and thinkers. This concern was the same as that of Neil Postman who took an intellectual sledgehammer to television which he said was turning us into a nation of illiterates. Yet, it was the internet that produced a resurgence in literacy as people started reading more and writing letters again with that wonderful invention of email. Postman could not see the future.

The virtue of Carr over Postman is that he remains in the present. He doesn't predict what the internet is going to do but points at what it is doing. I confess that I have the same issues as Carr with a squirmy feeling I get when reading something longer than five minutes. You want a hit of brain candy from the internet instead of the slowly digested mental meal found in some weighty tome. Carr firmly establishes what we know. Unfortunately, like a doctor who accurately diagnoses your terminal disease, he can only tell you what ails you without curing it.

The reality is that all technologies are a mixture of blessing and curse. Beijing used to have the cleanest air in the world for an urban area where people used bicycles as their pimary transportation. Now, it has the worst air quality as prosperous Chinese now turn to cars they can afford now. Likewise, hard physical labor has been replaced by light mental labor such that people now have to go to the gym to pay for a workout that their forebears got for free simply by showing up to work. This is why the standing desk and the treadmill desk have become a thing.

If this strikes you as ridiculous, you are not alone. Carr praises old fashioned books and criticizes new fangled internet. But the problem is not the internet so much as intemperance. Why have a treadmill desk when you can simply go for a walk? Why curse the internet for rotting your brain when you can go somewhere and read a book?

I remember reading Postman's books and deciding to get rid of television. I ended up reading a lot of books, and I got smarter as a result. Then, 9/11 happened, and I realized that I was cut off from the wider world like a hermit. I still read books, but I also watch CNN now. Doing one thing does not automatically negate the other thing. Likewise, I read things from the internet, but I also read the Bible each morning and a chapter or two each evening from a real book. I practice disciplined slow reading, and it has done wonders for the cognitive impairment I experience from television and the internet. It is not all or nothing.

I enjoyed The Shallows but wished Carr had gone further in outlining tips and strategies for combatting the brain rot. As such, it reads like a long complaint about something he has no intention of ever giving up. The reality is that he gave up books, and that is not the internet's fault.