Sunday, November 3, 2013

dire-book report

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (Norton, 2010)

Which are more exasperating, books extolling our glorious flawless information future, or books decrying it as the end of civilization? This is one of the latter.

Carr's thesis is that what the internet (by which he actually means the web: e-mail, newsgroups, or FTP don't figure much in his narrative) is doing to our brains is rewiring them to make it harder for us to perform "deep reading": thoughtful, slow consideration of complex, lengthy texts. This would mean, of course, that nobody could read his book (which is only either complex or lengthy by web standards), but I did.

The obvious objection is that modern media have already rewired our brains. Carr brings this up, but only in the context of adducing collateral evidence to prove that exterior input can rewire our brains, so if those things can do it, so can the internet.

But his claim is that this particular rewiring is essentially new and unprecedented. Yet except for a few desultory statistics implying that our entire culture consisted of deep, penetrating readers before the internet became ubiquitous - a statement ludicrous to anyone old enough to remember those days; Carr was born in 1959, and maybe he was just a little slow coming to terms with his culture - he has nothing to show that the phenomena he describes don't predate the internet.

For my part, I learned brutal skim-reading in college, where it was the only way to get through the vast amount of reading required in social-studies classes in a reasonable time. In those days, the only computers I dealt with were the ones processing the punched cards we used for class registration.

Carr has a chapter on recent trends supporting his thesis, but I kept thinking that his trends are either not actually new or have some other explanation. For instance, the decline of Newsweek wasn't due to its futile attempt to buck the trend and publish long, thoughtful essays. It's because those essays were written and edited by fatuous clods.

Carr makes one brief passing claim that the rise of television didn't destroy deep reading. Oh, but that's not what people thought at the time. I don't know how right they were, but I don't know if Carr is right either. For proof of how deeply that belief was embedded in popular culture in the television age, please consider the Oompa-Loompas' lament over Mike Teavee in Dahl's book, and that was published in 1964. It's all about how kids don't read any more and how television destroys your power to think. The same lament, just a different era.

Carr's complaint that public libraries are now filled with the clicking of computer keys and are no longer temples of silent reading is, again, a little out of date. Those temples were enforced by the once-ubiquitous stereotype of the shushing librarian, and she was made obsolescent half a century ago. Even before then, she was fighting a futile rearguard action to preserve the 19th century, or more accurately the Middle Ages.

I entirely agree with Carr's concern over Google's land claim over the entire information commons, but that's not about what the internet is doing to our brains, but what it's doing to our social contract. I also entirely agree with his claim that it's foolish to rely entirely on outside storage of facts to supply your thinking. If you don't already have an in-depth knowledge of a subject, no amount of skimming of outside facts will enable you to think coherently about it, and the way to get that knowledge is to learn the facts and process, not just store, them in your own brain. Consultation of outside fact sources is for verification, for a certain amount (but not all) of detail, and above all for increasing your own knowledge. But the web didn't pose that problem, it just intensifies it. Carr quite cleverly distinguishes the kind of brain processing he's trying to preserve here from the kind outsourced by doing your arithmetic on pocket calculators, but, again, he's running after a train already long gone, because there's already a lot of literature on the innumeracy engendered by over-reliance on calculators and how the brain then fails to recognize error-caused absurd conclusions: a pre-web failure of deep thinking caused by a tool that, like the internet, was intended to free us to think deeper.

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