Book Review – Nicholas Carr
Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains is a book that exposes the general public to some problems associated with the modern internet. Nicholas Carr is a well known contrarian writer. He has written a number of controversial articles against the way technology has changed modern culture. Carr uses his personal experiences as his source of authority for this book. He spent most of his adult life in the digital world. He started to observe the changes that were happening and felt compelled to write about it. He reaches out to the general public who may be interested in reading his persuasive essay.
Nicholas Carr starts his book with a discussion of his personal experiences. He notices that his brain is not working the same way it used to. He feels as if someone is reprogramming his memory. He doesn’t feel as drawn into books as he used to. He feels his mind drifting and this is his basis for writing his book. He settles on the principle that “the medium is the message”, which will be discussed more later, but this becomes his thesis. He then moves into synthesizing some scientific articles for the everyday reader. He discusses the concepts of neural-plasticity. He discusses Michael Merzenich work on neural mapping of monkey brains. Merzenich find that the monkey’s brains can adapt when pieces are removed, but not change entirely. The brain is more “elastic” than “plastic”. He then discusses the change that occurred in the medium of common communication. When the printing press was developed the general method of communication started to shift away orality to literacy. He argues that the next big advancement was the transistor. This allowed for the amplification of signals. This led to the radio and eventually the computer. After this breakthrough, Carr argues that people have become superficial in their search for knowledge. He equates human brains to jugglers. The brain has to juggle too many things at once and therefore cannot fully process any of them. He feels like this leads to people being influenced by the medium more than the message.
Carr starts his argument by quoting his inspiration Marshal McLuhan “The medium is the message”. This is the point that he attempts to make throughout the book. Carr writes “A medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we act and think” (pg. 3). Carr is trying to make the point that the internet has affected the way we think and act. He effectively uses the analogy of water. In the world before the internet, if someone wanted to learn about a topic they were able to dive deeply into a topic. They went under the surface and swam around in the vastness of the information pertaining to the subject. This could be academic works or novels. Carr argues that the modern world has given people a superficial way to learn. He argues that because information is so easily accessible people are not heavily engaged in a topic. He sees people flit back and forth between different topics. He argues that people are not able to read novels like Pride and Prejudice because they cannot invest themselves in a story. I do not like Carr’s argument. I think he has grown up in a generation that has seen the changes technology has had. The generation I have grown up in has seen technology as a positive benefit to society. These tools even shape the physical structure of the mind. Carr brings up the point that neurons that fire together wire together. If people constantly look for information in a superficial manner and flit between things they will make this a habit. Nicholas Carr argues summarizes his argument in a quote by Richard Foreman, that if the trend of increased superficiality continues we risk “becoming pancake people – spread wide and thin as we connect with the vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button”.