Sunday, October 24, 2010

Last warning — Nicolas Carr's "The Shallows"

How many of us, heavy Web users, haven't noticed something strange that recently has happened to us and to our ability to concentrate, to focus for a longer time, to our power for deep reading? I'm sure not many.

So when I started reading Nicholas Carr'sThe Shallows. What the Internet is Doing to our Brains” I immediately knew that this is one of the most important books I recently read. Not for being just „interesting”, but for forming the very strong, and maybe — the last — serious warning...

„I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spent hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

This is deeply true. I feel it myself. Even when I listen to my audiobooks, I have that feeling very often, too often...

So what has really happened?

Nicolas Carr's book tries to answer this question. And is doing it in a very deep and convincing way. To write the book, the author almost had to cut his strong ties with digital world, move to mountains of Colorado, and drastically limit all distractions coming from the excessive use of the net...

He first recalls the famous Marshall McLuhan book „Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”. It was McLuhan, who first noticed and explained the famous inference: „The medium is the message”. It was he who proved that on a longer time scale „the medium's content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act”. It was McLuhan who discovered that „The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts. Rather they alter patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance”.

McLuhan, who died in 1980, did not witness the birthday of Web in 1989. Yet his insights based on the analysis of media existing in sixties and seventies are actual in the Web era.

What exactly does it mean?

To understand it better, Carr recalls the idea of our brain adaptabillity and plasticity first proposed by William James in XIX century. It was James, who in his „Principles of Psychology” wrote: „ ... the nervous tissue seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity”. This idea was endorsed by Freud in 1895 in an unpublished manuscript where „he argued that the brain, and in particular the contact barriers between neurons, could change in response to a person's experiences”. Such views were later dismissed and criticised and almost forgotten, until late seventies, when, thanks to many researchers, and among them Michael Merzenich, proved the brain plasticity in a series of experiments. The strong support for the brain plasticity theory came from Nobel prize winner, Eric Kandel, whose landmark research of Aplysia (the sea slug) resulted in conclusion that „synapses can undergo large and enduring changes in strength after only a relatively small amount of training”.

Having said so, Carr analyses the history of the „Tools of the Mind”. He explains how cartography has changed our perception of space in the past, how clocks did so to our perception of time, and the Guttenberg invention — to our knowledge and to the oral tradition.

Coming to XX century computers, he calls them „The Medium of the most General nature”. And its true as „Everything from Beethoven's Ninth to a porn flick can be reduced to a string of ones and zeroes”. And here we come to the net and its most important difference from any mass media — it is bidirectional. People are no longer passive receivers of messages — they can send them! And this interactivity makes the net exceptionally attractive... However, the very nature of online information deeply changed our perception of text:

„A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or magazine”

The most important factor changing our brains is related to the nature of hyperlinks:

„Links don't just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them. They encourage us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them. Hyperlinks are designed to grab our attention. Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause”

What is more, this distraction, this silent stimuli we offer to our brains when we are online is almost unnoticeable. We are unaware of it. It does not pain. Paradoxically, we tend to think about the Web, called by Cory Doctorow an „ecosystem of interruption technologies”, about blogs, tweets and FaceBook notes almost only in positive sense. Yet we do not notice the danger:

„The Net's cacophony of stimuli short-cuircuts both conscious and
unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back again.”

Even more profound changes happened in our perception of books. Carr devotes a distinct chapter to books, and their transformation from paper to electronic books. And he notices the dangers here, as well:

„I fear that one of the great joys ofbook reading — the total immersion in another world, or in world of the author's ideas — will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.” (Steven Johnson)

There is also a big change in writing style. Authors stray from typical narration to a sort of presentation, where they even do not expect readers to read the book but to skim through it...
Carr seems to say, that some of these changes are not so bad, but — are we really sure they are not ? Are we able to assess their net result ? Certainly we are not. At least not yet. But I'm worried the results will not be good for our culture ...

The danger of Google

The one of the most frighteing chapters of the book is entitled „The Church of Google”. He first notices the close proximity between the Taylorism and Google faith in software algorithms: „Google doesn't believe that the affairs of citizens are best guided by experts. It believes that those affairs are best guided by software algorithms”. This approach, confronted with Google mission „to organize the world's information” , backed up by Google's almost messianic faith in its cause, and powered by Google conviction that it „is more then a mere business; it is a 'moral force'” — is really dangerous. And we witnessed this 'moral force' in action many times...

One of the case was related to Google Books. In this very case we could see how this 'moral force', working hard with its lawyers could get the practical monopoly over millions of so-called orphan books....

I do not see Carr as specifically biased against Google — he only points the most important aspects of this greatest and the most dangerous monopoly ever created — monopoly over human knowledge ...

Depending on the direction Google will take in the near future, on their approach to potential AI development, we, as civilization can both profit or sustain a big loss ...

„Google is neither God nor Satan, and if there are shadows in the Googleplex they're no more than the delusions of grandeur. What's disturbing about the company's founders is not their boyish desire to create an amazingly cool machine that will be able to outthink its creators, but the pinched conception of the human mind that gives rise to such a desire.”

What's going on with our memory?

The yet another danger comes from the degradation of human memory that is the result of the totalization of the influence of global search engines (and of course of Google as the most improtant player) and milions of devices (like common GPS driving aids) and software programs. Don't take me wrong: Carr DOES NOT say not to use them. He says we just may not abandon memory and memorization, because of their fundamental importance:

„The offloading of memory to external data banks doesn't just threaten the depth and distinctiveness of the self. It threatens the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we all share.
Culture is more than the aggregate of what Google describes as „the world's information.” It's more than what can be reduced to binary code and uploaded onto the Net. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers.”

Are machines as we are?

In the last chapters of this amazing book, Carr describes human reactions to the software initiatives aimed at Natural Languge processing and imitating the primitive AI. In particluar he writes about ELIZA software, created by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966. The striking fact was that reactions to Eliza were as it was almost human! „What shocked him was how quickly and deeply people using the software „become emotionally involved with the computer,” talking to it as if it were an actual person.” Later, when Weizenbaum expressed his views (and his warnings) in the book „Computer Power and Human Reason”, most of leading computer scientists called his views as heresy! One of the strong proponents of AI, John McCarthy wrote a mocking review calling it „an unreasonable book” protomting unscientific „moralization”...

This and other examples (like British Edexel — automated marking of exam essays), illustrate the great danger the humanity faces, if it does not counter the effects of digital and computing technologies by „meditative thinking”.

„The tumultuous advance of technology could, (...) drown out the refined perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that arise only through contemplation and reflection.”

Carr ends his book by the very deep observation, that is also an unintentional tribute to the wisdom of Clarke and Kubrick:

„... people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That's the essence of Kubrick's dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”

So far, this was my longest review I ever wrote. And this was one of the most important books I ever read....


  1. What an insightful book!Very Good review too! I go online for a considerable time too,though I don't feel my reading habits have changed yet. May be I should watch out! I think how the use of calculators reduces ones ability to do sums mentally relate here too.

  2. Yes Amila,

    I already noticed that influence on myself.
    Watch around — we all are in some level of danger.

    However, reading books as you and I do — saves us — I belive from it !!!