Monday, April 20, 2015

BookPastor >> "The Shallows" (Nicholas Carr)

TITLE: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
AUTHOR: Nicholas Carr
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: WW Norton, 2011, (286 pages).

Is the Internet a boon or a bane? Are the hidden consequences of using (or overusing) technology? What if we fail to distinguish the limits of technology? What if we lose our ability to discern what can or cannot be handed down to technology to do? Author Nicholas Carr's concern can be summed up as a key point in the dark prophecy of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, a Space Odyssey:

"As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence." (224)

His concern has been shared by many authors. Marshall McLuhan's famous work, Understanding Media argues that technology effects can alter "patterns of perception steadily and without resistance." Hal the supercomputer takes away control from words into humans. The pathologist, Bruce Friedman confesses that reading long articles on the web or in print has become more difficult because he has grown accustomed to skimming articles. People click more than read. Their brains are being changed from the inside out as they become used to new powers of technology. Scientifically, it is proven that the human brain has plasticity that diminishes the older one gets. Carr begins to introduce the benefits of literacy, affirming like Walter Ong, that "writing heightens consciousness."I find chapter 4 particularly fascinating as Carr describes the "deepening page" of how people's literacy is aided by writing platforms. The Sumerians etched words into tablets of clay. In 2500BC, the Egyptians manufactured papyrus by pressing down wood fibers so that writers can scratch or put words on paper. Wax tablets enable the writing and erasing, thus enabling the reuse of tablets for multiple usage. With the invention of the printing press, force is exerted to transfer ink to paper. People in those days also read slowly and laboriously, just like Ambrose who read silently. Deep reading facilitates deep thinking. Carr comments on reading as follows:

"Readers didn't just become more efficient. They also became more attentive. To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to 'lose oneself' in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what's going on around us as possible." (63)

No wonder our use of digital devices has resulted in a heightened level of inattentiveness among people. With free flowing pages and multiple screens with dazzling features, the problem is whatever limited attentiveness will be divided across so many things. Carr's concern is that after 550 years when the printing press and progress of intellectual advances, we may be seeing a shift toward "cheap, copious, and endlessly entertaining products" to the point of letting others do the thinking on our behalf while our minds' creative department literally switches off.

The Internet has given communications a bi-directional nature compared with traditional mass media, It has transformed libraries, the way we work, and the leisure we engage in. For books, Carr asserts that reading a paper book is easier on the eye, easier for note-taking or highlighting, and able to be used by authors to sign their autographs! Not an electronic book despite its advances. The problem with ebooks is that it is not simply a 1-to-1 transfer of content from paper to electronic. It changes the way we read. People who use ebooks tend to be highly distracted by the knobs, the links within the book, the screens, the page-turn buttons, and so on. Sustained reading becomes more difficult. Such changes in reading style also impacts writing styles. Traditionally, a printed book is a finished work. Now, an e-book can be easily changed, modified, and uploaded. For those of us who cite articles of books, we find it increasingly challenging to quote from ebooks, e-links, and electronic journals.

Carr makes some astute comments about the way we use electronic media and the neurological consequences.

"What we're not doing when we're online also has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don't fire together don't wire together. As the time we spend scanning web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones." (120)

According to a research done by Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, an experiment was conducted to compare the brain activities of an experienced Google group of users with a group of novices. Two tests were given: 1) Internet Search; 2) Reading a Book. For the first test, at the beginning, it was observed that the experienced "Googlers" had broader brain activity on the frontal left part of the brain, with a very active pre-frontal cortex, the personality, discernment, and decision making part of the brain. The other group had very little activity. After six days, both groups had similar results. All of their pre-frontal cortex portion were fired up! As for reading, the findings were consistent with both groups: little activity. The conclusion was, reading paper books stimulate the language, memory, and visual processing part of the brain. Using the Internet engages nearly the whole brain. Just imagine our brains fired up for the majority of the day and evening time before bedtime! Carr calls the Internet "an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention."

On multitasking, it was shown that the brain works doubly hard whenever one switches for one task to another. Each time there was a change in work, the brain had to suffer an increased cognitive load that makes one vulnerable to misinterpretation and overload. Come to think of it, information overload may not be the key problem. It's the concurrent execution of multiple small tasks that is taking a toll on our mental health. On the "Church of Google," Carr calls Google as in the "business of distraction." After all, their goal is to get users in and out of web pages as quickly and as often as possible so that they can generate greater ad-links. The more people consume, the more the company benefits. Their passion for data mining has led them to projects like scanning every book in the world digitally, mapping every country and its roads, and everything that contains information.

Searching the Internet has also affected our memory ability. On memory, the more people study a word, the more the ability to retain this word in memory. Time and attentiveness are two key factors in aiding memory skills. He notes the difference between "biological memory" and "computer memory." The former involves a process of long-term memory creation which allows the brain to hold the memory long enough for processing, for meditation, for long-term pondering over it. For the latter, the focus is on rapid delivery and immediate storage: Short-term memory. The concern is that an Internet generation is rapidly changing us into more "short-term memory" people. "Outsource memory, and culture withers."

This book is a wake-up call for an unsuspecting generation of computer experts but mental dwarfs.
While technology has been praised for all the power and capabilities, Nicholas Carr is among the few voices to remind us that we are reaching the limit between humanity and machinery. We must know the differences. We need to observe healthy limits. We must know what the Internet is doing to our brains. At times, it does seem like Carr is a little too overboard in his criticism of the Internet, Google, social media, and so on. Yet, on reflection, I believe he has an important message for us. It's time to recognize that technology and the digital devices we cherish and treasure may very well have us in our grasps without us suspecting it. I highly recommend this book for your reading. By the way, buy the printed book if you can.


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