Book review: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Shelly Turkel’s Alone Together I wanted a more detailed look into how technology use actually impacts our biological makeup, not just our social interactions. The Shallows by Nicholas Carr provided me this perspective and helped me to understand the nuts and bolts of how reading and socializing on the internet impacts the way our brains function.

Carr places networked computers in the same lineage as the clock, the map, and the printing press. He describes a human history wherein technology alters the physical networking of our brains and changes the ways we interact with the world and with each other. In this sense, the internet is just one more technology in this constant parade of change. I appreciated how Carr highlighted historical criticisms of technology that we would now consider to be very basic – such as the book. The book is commonly seen as objectively “good,” but Carr reflects that around the advent of the book, people had concerns about the negative impacts of books on society, such as a poet who wrote of the “confusion” and “froth” in the “ocean of print” (p. 71). The inclusion of these critical perspectives addressed one of my biggest objections to Turkel’s Alone Together – current technology is not isolated, nor is the backlash to it, and this book compares these patterns not just to developments over the author’s life, but over the collective human experience.

Using a combination of behavioral and neurological studies as his evidence, Carr clearly lays out the case that frequent internet use, particularly reading online, changes the pathways in our brains, causing a shallower understanding of information and a diminished capacity to make meaning. Humans developed deep reading skills when language became written, and now as language becomes hyperlinked, we develop a different type of skill that is visual and spatial. We become better at skimming and quickly making decisions as we practice this more. As Carr puts it: “we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest” (p. 138). Carr’s argument is complex and the evidence rich; to abbreviate it here wouldn’t do it justice – and is part of why I highly recommend this read to anyone interested in teaching and learning with the brain in mind.

I read most of this book on weekends at a cabin by a lake. There was no cell phone service and weak wireless internet. I read this text as a physical book, laying in a hammock, without a real sense of what time it was or how long I had been reading. While typically I am on the side of defending the internet, espousing its benefits, and pushing for its integration in our schools, I couldn’t help but feel connected to Carr’s message as I swung on the hammock. My brain is practiced in deep reading because that’s what I grew up doing, but as we continue to push for internet use in schools, we push them to practice skimming, evaluating, and decision-making. I would love for everyone to have both of these abilities and to balance them based on the context of the task at hand. Carr is in agreement – we shouldn’t revert to a pre-internet era, nor could we. Yet we should be thinking more intentionally about how and when we unplug, and creating time for ourselves and our children to be quiet and meditative.

After finishing the Shallows I’m moving on to reading Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods to think more about that quiet and meditative space in our lives.

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