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Book discussion: The Shallows - Chapter 1

For background on this discussion see this previous post.

These comments and discussion questions written by LISNEWS member Bearkat.

Chapter 1
Prefacing with the HAL supercomputer “my mind is going” vignette (2001: A Space Odyssey), Carr refers to his mind changing, especially in regards to reading: “my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, loose the thread, begin looking for something else to do “ (7). Others such as bloggers Scott Karp, Bruce Friedman, and Philp Davis (7-8) also refer to this tendency.

Some questions to help open up discussion:

· Is the lack-of-concentration tendency solely indicative of our connectivity with the Internet and smart phones? How does this relationship compare with other mediums, e.g., magazines, radio, television, etc?

· If you find that you, your friends, or your students experience lack of concentration while reading dense material, how do you/they address it, e.g., filter out background noise, turn the computer or email/messaging off, etc.?

Scott Karp mentions that instead of a reading a book in its entirety, he now prefers to read snippets of text from Blogs, Google Books, etc. and feels that in some ways he is “smarter” – as a hypertext document he is now more aware of connections and relationships (8).

· Karp and others seem to suggest that in-depth reading (mostly books or scholarly articles) and quick selective reading (mostly Internet and blogs) can’t exist alongside. Do you believe this is true?

· Cognitively what are we gaining from a reliance on quick selective reading? What are we loosing from less in-depth reading?


For those people that want to be involved in the discussion please do not be constrained by the discussion points. If you see anything in Chapter 1 that you would like to comment on feel free to do so.

Saw this story on NPR - iPad Storybook Apps And The Kids Who Love Them

This line from the NPR piece fits into our discussion: When we read traditional paper books, whether it's Goodnight Moon, or Mercer Mayer's Little Critters series, she is more apt to lie down and listen.

Maybe I am over reading things but I almost think that is meant in a negative way that the child lays back and listens. When you read that line in the context of the full story what do you think?

Here is the Prologue and Chapter 1

Click on the "full screen" icon to enlarge.

He FEELS he is smarter but when I asked for a concrete example of how he was smarter he could not provide one. Because he make know more snippets of info. but can't grasp concepts as a whole in all their intricacy.

>but when I asked for a concrete example of how he was smarter he could not provide one

I assume you are speaking of the author of the book? You were at a book signing or author reading and had a chance to ask questions?

I believe that the first comment is referring to the "...I think that in many ways (the Internet) has made me smarter" (8) quote from Philip Davis, which I mistakenly attributed to Scott Karp on the Chapter 1 entry, sorry. Davis' original comment can be found on the Scholarly Kitchen blog.

The concept of smarter in regards to book vs. Internet *smarts* seems very subjective at this point in time. A quick review of facts or snippets of text might boost a score a standardized test, especially if the test is taken immediately after the reading, but could such a learning strategy lend itself to a thorough understanding and synthesis of a topic? I'm not sure what type of research studies exist in regards to book vs. Internet *smarts*. Some comparison groups and perhaps longitudinal studies could be very interesting. I personally tend to think that the printed and online word are complimentary instead of opposing.

Frontline has an episode called Digital Nation that addresses many similar issues to what is in this book.

You can watch the entire episode at this link and you can also see segments.

The following comment was mad under the post where we said there was going to be a discussion of the book. So that people don't miss it I am going to post it here also.


I was really excited to see this discussion pop up on Twitter, as I just finished the book this weekend. I would definitely say that I have a mixed opinion of the book. I thought it was interesting and valuable as it made me stop and think about how I interact with the Internet, and my use of it is affecting my ability to concentrate. I definitely find it easier to read from print than from a screen, and I notice that I do skim when reading online. Interestingly enough, this seems to be the way that I, and probably many others, traditionally read hard-print newspapers and magazines. One thing I noticed with the Internet is that it is constantly tempting me to click on something else. However, is this due to the design of the Internet, or is it due to something within me that says, "maybe this link has something more interesting (and hence more gratifying) than what I'm looking at right now"? In other words, is it the nature of the Internet, or is it an anxious, "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" mentality?

I agree with Carr's assessment of multitasking and information overload and the tendency that these have to short-circuit our brains and attention spans. It's funny that "multi-tasking" is considered to be a desirable quality for people to have in today's workforce, and is definitely an example of how we take our cues of desirable behavior from the machines we create. However, multitasking is stressful. The more things a person has to concentrate on at any one time, the less attention is given to any one of those things. Individual tasks are not given the full attention that may be necessary.

One thing in this book that I do have a problem with, and which is the overall tone of the book, is the sense that all of this is a juggernaut that we are powerless to stop, and that will inevitably have permanent detrimental effects on our culture. Two things that the author leaves out of the book are the idea of human agency, and possible solutions.

Machines do not have a sense of agency, at least of this writing, and speculating that they may someday is moot, as we truly cannot know with 100% certainty what the future will bring. However, humans are able to take conscious action, including taking a broad look at a situation in order to plan what needs to be done. We are able to look at the Internet (as Carr has done), assess the situation, see if there is a problem, and take steps to address it if there is a problem. By not even addressing this capability, Carr falls into unconscious the trap of modeling our behavior after machines.

As for possible solutions, in my mind, this is where the roles of education in general, and information literacy in particular, come into play. Education is based on the idea that we are able to guide the development of growing minds in a particular direction. If we want to make sure that young people and others develop critical thinking skills, including the ability to concentrate on problem solving, we need to make sure that it is included in school curricula and other programs. Information literacy is included in this as it is a way of developing users ability to use agency and conscious decision-making, so that they are not "slaves to the machine".

All in all, despite these criticisms, I find the book extremely valuable, for the sole reason that Carr has taken the time to bring this to our attention. I definitely found myself re-examining the way I interact with the Internet and other technology, and I found a lot of the studies and experiments that he cites to be extremely interesting.

> Is the lack-of-concentration tendency solely indicative of our connectivity with the Internet and smart phones? How does this relationship compare with other mediums, e.g., magazines, radio, television, etc?

I think the lack of concentration is indicative of our connectivity to the Internet and smart phones. It seems that as a society we have developed an always on mentality that makes it seem that we must always search for something new. In my own experience, I find that I do jump from link to link and skim while I'm online. Additionally, I also find that I continuously look for the other sources that are mentioned while I am reading books and articles on my Kindle.

In an article in School Library Journal there is a section called "Answers without meaning" which I think is inciteful in regards to our discussion of "The Shallows"


Meanwhile, the ease with which students can “cherry pick” knowledge online divorces ideas from their historical and intellectual context. Why read Romeo and Juliet when you can get the gist of it by scanning a one-paragraph summary on or an “in-depth” analysis on Wikipedia? Freeing one from the laborious effort of exploration or following a line of inquiry, a Google search is a casting out into the sea of data. Like shopping for an item on Amazon, everything except the “answer” can be ignored.

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