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The Shallows – Nicholas Carr – I’m about to give up after Chapter 3

In Chapter 3, ‘Tools of the mind’, after a potted history of maps (not cartography) and clocks (not horology), we get an equally potty view of the plastic mind and neuroscience. Carr is no neuroscientist – three decades ago he took a first degree in English Literature (Dartmouth College) followed by a Masters in American Literature (Harvard). He should stick to what he knows.

Though ‘The Shallows‘ is meant to be unavailable online I started to read a version someone has uploaded before the book arrived in the post. If I had the energy I would cut and paste the digital version into a two column table, landscape view, and write my notes alongside – like a translation. This is what I do with academic papers when they require and deserve close scrutiny. ‘The Shallows’, like any Airport best seller is only worth a once only skim read – I’m questioning my resolve even to do that.

It is like being asked to eat six plates of jelly (jello) and custard.

As a book it is a remarkably satisfactory artifact. Even in paper back the cover has a wonderful fine grittiness to it – like sand. I even open the book and breathed it in. For this experience 10/10. All publishers, especially those online, need to take trouble with the Art Work too. Of course the plaudits sing out ‘buy me, buy me’ but as reviews go they are about as helpful as one liners on the latest blockbuster.

Carr writes well enough, not quite Bill Bryson, but an easy and intelligent read, an amble through the relevant technologies to the present day.

Carr can be accepted as a cultural and social historian, his mistake is to want to want bash this evidence into shape to support his conception of the Internet and its dangers. It is like saying that ‘rural man’ is different to ‘urban man’, that the motivations, pace and opportunities are different. Whilst this may be true, the sorts of changes to the brain that Carr suggest are not occurring.

Carr’s conception of mind is both out of date and misconstrued.

I wonder if I have the strength to read on, not even to refute what he says chapter by chapter. I risk polluting my mind. The pleasure is the history, the cod science is irritating and unnecessary.  Carr is well read and would be a pleasure at a dinner party, but I don’t suppose he’s much of a listener, nor someone whose views are likely to change no matter how convincing the evidence that his hypotheses are mistaken.

My inability to concentrate on this book has nothing to do with what Carr will claim to be by Internet altered mind.

I have some 8 books on the go, 4 eBooks, the others in print form by the bed. It simply fails to engage me, even on the level of making me angry. I suspect that Carr takes an evangelical view on his perspective and couldn’t be changed – I tried telling something reading the Da Vinci Code that it was all made up but they wouldn’t believe me. We human’s have it in us to take things on blind faith. Clearly this is a trait that has brought us in evolutionary terms a long way, but if you want a scientific perspective on the Internet you won’t get it from Carr. If anything, from 2000 when I started buying books in bulk from Amazon and from 20101 when I started consuming e-Books voraciously, the Internet has increased my hunger for books – for their content. My preference is for e-Books for their versatility.

I used always to read with a pen and notebook by my side.

I now do everything on the one device, adding notes, highlighting, bookmarking, sharing snippets to Twitter and Facebook along the way and blogging chapter by chapter too. I stop to check the meaning of a word, or to read a footnote, even to download and read a reference where it helps my understanding. I buy books that are only available in print – Marshall McLuhan, Christopher Alexander, Gordon Bell, Robert Gagne, Engestrom’s Activity Systems (certain specific editions).

At no stage has Carr done either a research degree, or has he studied engineering or computer science or anything that might touch on the workings of the Internet such as e–learning.

He should have studied criminal law as he is good at is constructing a plausible, one–sided argument. Nothing by Carr, from what I can see, has been published in an academic journal – it would not be accepted. Those who have studied the Web, psychology, and neuroscience, would shred him. p.48 on the mind is the exact same shallow and ill–conceived thinking touted by that other writer of bias and conjecture – Marc Prensky (the digital natives debacle is largely his, though currently he’s denying he started that ball rolling).

The structural changes to our brains are infinitesimally minute and extraordinarily complex – a Mozart who has studied and played the piano, or a mathematician such as Einstein, have the same brain just as they have in human terms the same arms and legs. If their personality profiles are to be understood, one could imagine Mozart being the easily distracted, eclectic, butterfly online, while Einstein one imagines would treat it as a tool and an opportunity to stay even closer to the topics that mattered to him. One, in Kirton’s terms an ‘innovator’ the other an ‘adaptor’.

This is where Carr’s lack of understanding of human psychology is so telling.

‘Although the workings of our gray matter still lie beyond the reach of archaeologists’ tools, we now know not only that it is probable that the use of intellectual technologies shaped and reshaped the circuitry in our heads, but that it had to be so’. p.49

This is twaddle on so many levels it feels no more possible or desirable to refute than the enthusiastic chatter of a child. Carr doesn’t strike me as someone who easily persuaded when he has something wrong.

  • everything touches our minds
  • everyone is different
  • not everyone has access to the Internet
  • even those who do use it for a myriad of different things in a multitude of ways.
  • years of solitary confinement, or years in the trenches on the Western Front affect different people in different ways.

The Internet, as a changing and fluid platform of content, now on smartphones on smart TVs since Carr wrote ‘The Shallows’, where it impacts and changes our lives, the effect on each of us varies.

Human kind is not homogenous.

Carr’s thinking is shallow.

I got this kind of thing written on my undergraduate essays, in particular when I’d skipped lectures and based my research on back copies of the Financial Times (this would have been for a module on Southern Africa). ‘Journalistic’ was the put down.

This is journalism to be serialised in a Sunday Colour Supplement – it would be acceptable if the view were balanced. I have in mind a book to complement ‘The Shallows’ – a snappy title might be ‘The Deep’ or ‘The Corrections’ but both of these have been used.

Any suggestions?

An equally plausible stance would be to take everything Carr says and imply that it means the exact opposite – this would be just as imbalanced as ‘The Shallows’ though. The idea that the Internet is making ‘us’ profoundly smarter, that we are being re-wired into a super-race.

My own view is that the Internet is producing a glossary expansion in learning, increasing the depth and scope of education

‘The internet lies at the core of an advanced scholarly information infrastructure to facilitate distributed, data and information-intensive collaborative research’. (Borgman, 2007, xvii)

REFERENCE

Borgman, C.L. (2007) Scholarship in the digital age: Information, infrastructure, and the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 

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What is the Internet doing to our brains? Not much. Though Nicholas Carr begs to differ.

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The Shallows : What the Internet is doing to our Brains?

Nicholas Carr

Love it or hate it the Internet is here for keeps.

I had might as well say forever, as we would all surely agree that everything we’ve got so far will only become more pervasive during our respective lifetimes.

I had hoped to get an objective view from Carr but ‘The Shallows’ fails to say what
the Internet is doing to our brains.

I would love to time travel and stop my ancestors from what they were doing 35,000 years ago so that I could have shared with them what making stone tools would do to their brains and where it would lead.

What’s different? Not much.

They would have been too busy to listen, or, as we are doing, they would listened but pressed on
regardless.

Carr lacks the credentials, training or inclination to answer the very question he poses.

Journalists and authors, Nicholas Carr is both, want to sell copy so he has to take a stance – he is against.

‘The Shallows’ is an apt title as his research lacks depth. Look a bit closer and many of the authors he cites say as much to counter the arguments as support them, take the Nobel prize winning Eric Kandel who on the one hand identified the ‘plasticity of the brain’, but also showed that through habituation a sort of boredom sets in – hardly the case that Google is taking us over as Carr would gave us believe.

Whatever our attractions and distractions, unless we have behavioural or cognitive issues, the
Internet is no more a trap, no more changing how we think than the book, TV or radio in the past. Despite the Internet we still sleep, make friends, go to school or work, shop, make love, raise kids …

the human world is too complex, too fluid to have been taken over in the way Carr suggests.

What the Interent ‘does to our brains’ is no different to anything else if we engage or apply ourselves for long enough. Carr has a US-centric view too, and a US where everyone of course has Internet access, a smartphone or laptop. He projects this scheme of things onto the rest of the world as if it is the same in North Yorkshire where there is limited broadband access, or to Lake Nakuru, Kenya where there is none.

In his ignorance or arrogance he assumes that everyone is like him and his friends, borderline ADHD, easily bored, addicted to the early adoption of whatever comes along. If half an audience agree with Carr when he suggests that the Internet is taking over their mind and this is a bad thing, the other half will say that it is not – that it is a tool there to do their bidding.

Personally, I come over giddy with excitement when I start a quest to research and read, just as I got each morning when I entered a different library as an undergraduate at Oxford. Then amazed at the knowledge before my eyes that could be called up in a few hours or days. Today equally gobsmacked by tools and resources courtesy of the Open University Online Library that offers up just about anything I can find and want to read in seconds. I’m mot the slave to a platform
or a piece of kit – I move around in both the physical and the virtual sense from different access devices – smartphone, iPad, laptop or desktop as well as through different portals. There isn’t
the sameness to it that Carr implies.

There is variety everywhere you turn. And this is my unique and personal perspective. To avoid
regression to the mean in large scale research on use of and behaviours as a consequence of using the Internet I would invariably be discounted anyway. Far from discounting the few
people Carr speaks to he holds them up as representative of all of us. Proper research could well conclude the opposite to what Carr thinks.

Carr chooses his metaphors to support his perspective – this is natural, but he wants us to think he is speaking in absolute terms, that we all ‘forage in the thickets’. It is a passing phase. Get out of a taxi in a country we have never been to before and we all feel a little lost and overwhelmed. We get over it. Sitting on the fence, as academics do, doesn’t sell books.

They don’t scaremonger. If nothing has changed they say so. ‘What’s the Internet doing to our brains? Not much’ isn’t going to see a title, book or magazine, flying off the shelves. People, in their purchase, like to declare ‘I am for or against’. If Carr had honestly been for he would, like Professor Martin Weller, have published ‘The Shallows’ as open source in a digital form, instead
it is marketed like the latest film staring Sandra Bullock or Nicole Kidman and only made available in analogue form. Carr has a first degree in English literature and a Masters in American literature. He can graze a few articles on neuroscience and webscience but this hardly qualifies him to describe with accuracy how the mind works. Neuroscientists will ponder for decades to come the way we remember. Carr therefore falls back on a potted history, selecting those arguments that support his thesis, rejecting those that do not. He suggests for example that information flows through the eyes and ears to our minds. I’d like to measure that. I’d like
to see that.

Perception isn’t achieved in this way.

No substance flows from one place to another . It is this misconception that must give Carr the impression that his mind is somehow filling up, or getting aggitated by the bombardment of ‘stuff’. The Internet isn’t the problem, rather it is Carr’s own physiological and pscychological response to it. His personal fix, if this is his desire, should be cognitive behavioural therapy. The Net may be
chipping away at Carr’s capacity to concentrate but he and we know that everyone is not like him. Personally, and his is a often a personal, anecdotal story so I can respong from my singular
perspective, I feel as though I was made for the web. The ADHD mind that hungers for everything can in some measure be satisified so long as I give no single interest more than three hours at a time, and I mix up the activities in any 18 hour period when I am not asleep. Carr wants us to believe that the Net is stopping us from being able to concentrate. On the contrary, I find I can now get the exact book or paper I need which I will read cover to cover in eBook or print form. There is less need for compromise. If the book isn’t holding your attention blame the book – find one that better suits you. And finding what does suit you is what the Internet and Google in particular, does do staggeringly well.

Three decades ago my reading pattern was to have six books on the go. I would rotate,
two chapters or two hours on each. Of the six two might be on history, another two on technology, and the fifth and six a novel and a book on design, art or photography. All six might now be in digital for – though the art book is as likely to be large and hardback. And the books may be spinkled with links offered any the author/editor to video or supporting websites. Whether or not I
take up a link is no different to whether or not I stop to read a footnote, or follow up a reference.

The choice is mine, not Google’s. Google enables to my mind, while Carr believes it disables. He is wrong. My handwriting has become illegible. Do I blame Google for the lack of practice, or not having access to a QWERTY keyboard for a few hours yesterday? I coach swimming. I understand adaptation in sport, the phsiological process that links mind to body and action. Your mind and body learn how to do a thing … then you get lazy, or impatient, or come to think of it, resort to scribbling a note with a cheap biro onto the back of an envelope rather than digging out the Sheafer fountain pen and writing, at a desk, rather than propped up on the sitting room sofa
… ‘use it or lose it’ applies to a kid swimming an IM or a Fifty something surfing the Web. If he wants to ‘lose it’ in relation to his behaviours and the Interent all Carr needs to do is something else.

Personally, and I have stated this every year or so in the 13 years I have been blogging, I crave a book – a clear, well–written, single–minded read from end to end, getting into the ‘flow’ of another person’s thinking i.e the Interent has the exact opposite effect on me. But it isn’t just me. Does the ‘Internet’ make us less or more social? Less or more likely to go out and meet up?

Research shows that being sociable online has us wanting to meet face to face. It’s counter intuitive. That’s because the Internet is just a mirror to our natural behaviour. The Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University has a series of labs designed to monitor how we engage with technology, the Internet in particular. To see and measure and understand how we behave with kit and software – we need to listen to the reports they produce and that other institutions such as the IET produce. They will tell us what is really going on because Carr has not. Carr uses research of the past, often the distant past, to inform what is happening today.

The technological distance between Plutarch, Aristotle, Freud and Dewey is too great. Quoting Shakespeare or Arthur C Clarke may provide colour and plausibility, but it doesn’t tell me
what is going on when or as we exploit what can now do, and read, and see and interactive with online. Carr references the ignorant as examples of the informed. I’d describe this as the blind leading the blind. Two fools in a pub can wax lyrical about the ways of the world wide web but the rest of us are none the wiser as a result of listening in. What Carr needs to undertake next, far less sexy that a sensationalist article for the popular rather than the academic press, is research.

To set parameters and to ask a question then set about testing and analysing what is going on. Marshall McLuhan, like Carr fifty years later, knew how to spin an intelligent story. McLuhan then and Carr today read like the transcript of a standup comic for the well read. They both dip into historic greats, but this kind of intellectual name dropping whilst appearing to prop up their arguments starts to crumble when scrutinised closely.

Web 2.0 does this, on the one hand toppling flase prophets such as Marc Prensky and the nonsense of the ‘digital native’. According to Carr ‘we’ must have had minds formed by papyrus scrolls and printed books in the past, just as our minds are so clearly so different courtesy of the Internet.

Who is this ‘we’? It cannot be everyone.

Carr mentions three friends and their experience of the web … as if these people are representative of all human kind. ‘My friend said to me … at a dinner party the other week … a colleague feels that’. Each of these phrases sounds to me as if it could be a transcript from a dinner party. Nothing wrong with conversation if we recognise its context and so long as this isn’t offered as some kind of evidence.

Carr is using this as evidence though. He cites these anecdotes as if they are representative. ‘ ‘The Shallows’ is hear say from one page to the next. He really ought to be writing fiction. No harm in this, at least Aldous Huxley, H G Wells, Arthur C Clarke and even Asimov differentiate between fiction and fact.

Our thought process has never been linear … and book reading certainly didn’t make it so. If anything the way those of us with permanent access to the internet work with information is more in tune with the scattered, fluid, formative nature of thought. Asking ‘What is the Internet doing to our brains?’ could never be answered
by doctoral research.

The question is too broad and ill defined.

‘In using the word processor I had become something of a wordprocessor myself’ p. 13. A statement that can be applied to anyone, at anytime, acquiring an adaptive skill whether at the piano or with flint tools, whether progamming a computer or building a fence. We ‘become’ these things, or rather acquire a additional skills alongside many others. If we use an iPad to take a picture, offer a book, tot up the shopping bill, play music or a TV show, sketch or chat with a friend on the other side of the world what is it that Carr says we have become? We can do all of these things from one device in a shorter space of time – far from defining or confining us I call this liberating.

If Marshall McLuhan talked of the ‘global village’ of the electrical age of mass media, then today these devices put the world at our sides, in our pocket, at our finertips, and courtesy of Google Glass or an Apple device on our noses and wrist. It doesn’t make us one jot the less human, one jot the less a smart, feeble, fallible and mortal creature with all the same pecadillos that Shakespeare so well described 400 years ago. It is p. 14 a ‘high–tech Swiss Army knife’ which may, or may not demand my attention and can be put down, out away or lost, even forgotten about with equal ease.

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