The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

LISNEWS member Bearkat contacted me and said that he would be interested in discussing the book "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains"

Both CHOICE and Library Journal Review recommended the book. We will be starting the discussion on the book soon. If you would like to join the discussion here are some ways to obtain the book.

Here is the Worldcat record for the book so you can see what libraries have it.

Some of the ebook versions available.
B&N Nook
Google ebookstore

All four of these ebook versions have readers for PC so you do not need to have a dedicated ereader to use the ebook version.


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.

Have you wondered if memorization matters much now that we can access information online anytime? Carr clearly shows that it does. When we read, information is placed in working memory and requires time before it consolidates in long term memory. The process requires the synthesis of new proteins for anatomical changes in the brain. Complex memories require concerted action across the brain. Any distraction can interrupt this process and the internet is a distraction machine. “When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information — when the water overflows the thimble — we’re unable to retain or to draw connections with the information already stored in long-term memory”. Human memory is gradient, organic, alive. It gains in richness with each remembering. Only in our heads can we form the complex neural connections linking new information to our previous ones, giving them context and meaning. Biological memory is a completely different thing than computer memory. Offloading our memory to the web only spares us the work of learning, thus preventing a growth of intelligence.

From my book review:


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