Book Review: The Shallows

With The Shallows, Nicholas Carr establishes himself as a worthy successor to authors of groundbreaking books dealing with the history of technology, taking his place beside Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization and Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media.

The primary theme of the book is stated in its subtitle: “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Nominated as a finalist for the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction in 2011, “The Shallows” is a thought-provoking meditation on the increased difficulties of concentrated and deep thinking in the age of the internet. Citing numerous studies from the field of neuroscience, the author explains the basics of synaptic connections in the human brain, and delves into an explanation of how memory functions. Much is made of the brain’s ability to quickly rewire itself when new ways of acquiring knowledge are established. As we come to rely on the hyperlinks and shorter snippets of information on the internet, we subsequently lose our ability to focus on issues of greater complexity as our brains become more accustomed to fragmented modes of learning.

Carr puts this into historical perspective with many telling examples. Going back to the time of the classical Greek philosophers, he cites the arguments between Socrates and Plato on the benefits of the written word over the oratory tradition of the spoken word. Socrates worried that as more was written down, it would reduce our capacity for remembering. In contrast, Plato espoused the new ways of thinking that written texts would enable. Fast forwarding twenty four centuries to our own time, there are parallels to be drawn between those who champion books and those who believe that the internet makes us all much smarter, even if we grow to rely on Google to look up every tidbit of information.

A second theme of the book is revealed in a later chapter titled “The Church of Google.” In an inspired observation, the author compares Google’s philosophy to that of Frederick Taylor’s famous time and motion studies of the early twentieth century, as elucidated in his book, “The Principles of Scientific Management.” With a similar technocratic mentality, Google embraces hyper-efficiency and the associated belief that it is being purely objective in its pursuit to provide the perfect search engine. As duly noted, Google does provide a valuable service to consumers of internet, making it far easier for individuals to find pockets of facts in the vast online ecosystem. But at the same time, Google is also beholden to its advertisers, and must ensure that its users don’t dwell too long in any one place. Links are its life blood. As the author observes, “Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.”

Turning to Google’s efforts to digitize the world’s library of books, the author acknowledges that, despite the controversies, it appears inevitable this will become a reality. But even with Google’s seemingly altruistic motives, the danger is that Google will not only control so much intellectual property, but also add its own subtle interpretation as it adds hyperlinks to content and decomposes larger texts into digestible fragments.

Citing a 2007 speech by Google CEO Larry Page, the author points to Google’s extreme view that our brains are nothing more than highly efficient computers. In this speech, Mr. Page stated that “if you look at . . . your DNA, it’s about 600 megabytes . . . so it’s smaller than any modern operating system . . . so your program algorithms aren’t that complicated; [intelligence] is probably more about computation.” With this misguided metaphor that conflates human with machine intelligence, Google is somewhat blind to the realities of what can be accomplished through technology. Thus, though its intent may be well-meaning, the company does suffer from delusions of grandeur.

A fascinating read, The Shallows is overflowing with cogent insights and will likely cause the reader to think about the effects of their own interaction with the internet, and perhaps even contemplate disconnecting from the online world for a couple of days.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr
W. W. Norton & Company, June 2010
276 pages, $26.95

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