Wednesday, February 15, 2012


As soon as I can find the time, I'm writing a review of this delightfully provocative and challenging book. Until then, here's a sampling from other book reviews, all of which contain a number of complaints that I'll demolish completely in my own upcoming review.

From Jim Holt in The London Review of Books -

... No study has shown that internet use degrades the ability to learn from a book, though that doesn’t stop people feeling that this is so – one medical blogger quoted by Carr laments, ‘I can’t read War and Peace any more.’

The digerati are not impressed by such avowals. ‘No one reads War and Peace,’ responds Clay Shirky, a digital-media scholar at New York University. ‘The reading public has increasingly decided that Tolstoy’s sacred work isn’t actually worth the time it takes to read it.’ (Woody Allen solved that problem by taking a speed-reading course and then reading War and Peace in one sitting. ‘It was about Russia,’ he said afterwards.) The only reason we used to read big long novels before the advent of the internet was because we were living in an information-impoverished environment. Our ‘pleasure cycles’ are now tied to the web, the literary critic Sam Anderson claimed in a 2009 cover story in New York magazine, ‘In Defense of Distraction’. ‘It’s too late,’ he declared, ‘to just retreat to a quieter time.’

This sort of ‘outré posturing’ by intellectuals rankles with Carr since, he thinks, it enables ordinary people ‘to convince themselves that surfing the web is a suitable, even superior, substitute for deep reading and other forms of calm and attentive thought’. But Carr doesn’t do enough to dissuade us from this conclusion. He fails to clinch his case that the computer is making us stupider. Can he convince us that it is making us less happy? Suppose, like good Aristotelians, we equate happiness with human flourishing ...

So which fits better with your ideal of eudaemonia, deep reading or power browsing? Should you set up house in Sleepy Hollow or next to the Information Superhighway? The solution, one might decide, is to opt for a bit of both. But Carr seems to think that it’s impossible to strike a balance ... Perhaps what he needs are better strategies of self-control. Has he considered disconnecting his modem and Fedexing it to himself overnight, as some digital addicts say they have done? After all, as Steven Pinker noted a few months ago in the New York Times, ‘distraction is not a new phenomenon.’ Pinker scorns the notion that digital technologies pose a hazard to our intelligence or wellbeing. Aren’t the sciences doing well in the digital age, he asks? Aren’t philosophy, history and cultural criticism flourishing too? There is a reason the new media have caught on, Pinker observes: ‘Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not.’ Without the internet, how can we possibly keep up with humanity’s ballooning intellectual output?


The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Nicholas Carr
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From Milo Yiannopoulos in The Telegraph -

Here are two more observations from American readers, who have had time to chew over Carr's book. One, the hypothesis that we're no longer capable of immersing ourselves in complex, nuanced narratives and arguments is destroyed by user behaviour in online role-playing games. Two, Carr's fetishisation of "books" ignores the quality of the actual book being read, seeming to assume that the ideas in books are of intrinsically better quality ...

From Jonah Lehrer in The New York Times -

... Carr argues that we are sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet. As Carr first observed in his much discussed 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” the mere existence of the online world has made it much harder (at least for him) to engage with difficult texts and complex ideas. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” Carr writes, with typical eloquence. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

... Carr extends these anecdotal observations by linking them to the plasticity of the brain, which is constantly being shaped by experience. While plasticity is generally seen as a positive feature — it keeps the cortex supple — Carr is interested in its dark side. He argues that our mental malleability has turned us into servants of technology, our circuits reprogrammed by our gadgets.

It is here that he starts to run into problems. There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.” One particularly influential study, published in Nature in 2003, demonstrated that after just 10 days of playing Medal of Honor, a violent first-person shooter game, subjects showed dramatic increases in ­visual attention and memory ...


From Elizabeth Drescher in The Journal of Technology, Theology & Religion -

... Given his rail against shallowness, Carr’s work is probably marred more by the thinness in many of his claims. “There is no Sleepy Hollow on the Internet, no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic,” he insists, ignoring the myriad sites for prayer, contemplation, and meditation that populate the web. Though warnings about excessive multitasking and uncritical skimming are well taken, one is hard-pressed to understand exactly how accessing the Book of Common Prayer though an iPhone app or being interrupted by the monks of Virtual Abbey on Facebook for Compline inherently undermines contemplation ...

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Nicholas Carr
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From Ian Tucker in The Observer -

... Unsurprisingly, Carr comes across as someone who is uncomfortable with change. The internet has too many distracting flashing lights; it's a bit noisy. While he points out that he was an early adopter who spent all his savings on a Macintosh SE, he seems more comfortable with digital devices that help him with analogue tasks (such as word processing) than entirely new digital forms, such as Facebook. One begins to wonder whether Carr is mourning the death of the author, the end of narratives and all that, and using neuroscience to vindicate his grieving.

Read this book: you'll learn lots of interesting stuff, lots of thought-provoking theories about the brain, about Google. And if you finish it, you'll have a satisfying sense of having, at an individual level, disproved its thesis. Or buy it, knife out all the pages, bin a few, shuffle the rest and begin to digest. It may not be what the author intended, but you might learn more, and make some stimulating connections along the way – just like you do on the internet.


From Laura Miller in Salon Magazine -

... What the book doesn’t do, unfortunately, is offer a sufficient rejoinder to Carr’s most puckish critics, people like Clay Shirky, who responded to one Web addict’s complaint that he “can’t read ‘War and Peace’ anymore” by proclaiming Tolstoy’s epic novel to be “too long and not so interesting.” While Shirky was no doubt playing the provocateur, he speaks for a very real anti-authoritarian cultural impulse to dismiss the judgments of experts, of history, even of a majority of other readers when they clash with the (often half-baked) evaluations of the individual. Shirky effectively asserted that, as far as Tolstoy is concerned, the emperor has no clothes — at least not by the standards of today’s multitasking digital natives. And why shouldn’t their opinions be just as valid as anyone else’s?

Carr sensibly replies that anyone who lacks the time or the cognitive “facility” to read a long novel like “War and Peace” will naturally find it too long and not so interesting. But in that case, how would we persuade such a person that it’s worth learning how? For someone like Carr, the value of the intimate, intellectually nourishing practice of “literary reading” (and by extension, literary thinking) may be self-evident. Yet he’s able to quote apparently intelligent and well-educated sources (including a Rhodes scholar who claims to never read books) who simply don’t agree.

While “The Shallows” does present a good case for the richness of organic, biological memory over the crude information storage of digital media, I would have appreciated a more concerted effort to show the advantages of linear thinking over the scattered, skittering, browsing mind-set fostered by the Internet. What will we lose if (when?) this mode of thought passes into obscurity?

Carr and I (and perhaps you) may know that reading “War and Peace” can be a far more profound experience than navigating through a galaxy of up-to-date blog postings, but to someone who can’t or won’t believe this, what else can we point to as a consequence of the withering of such a skill? ...


From Adam Thierer in the Technology Liberation Front -

... Although I’ve penciled Carr into the pessimist category, that’s probably a bit unfair since he doesn’t exude the rabid, neo-Luddite, hot-headedness of some of the other pessimists out there. At the far extreme on that pessimistic spectrum you find Lee Siegel and Mark Helprin, and to some extent Andrew Keen on his grumpier days. Jaron Lanier can get pretty grumpy, too, but he is a bit more toward the reasonable center, although still tending toward the pessimistic side. And you’d find Carr floating about there on the spectrum as well. If my own position is one of “pragmatic optimism,” you could call call his position “pragmatic skepticism”: It’s not the deep-rooted, antagonistic sort of “against-the-machine” hyper-pessimism of some of those others I just mentioned ...

The problem is, there’s just no scientifically precise method of stacking gains against losses. Many others, of course, have discussed the gains in greater detail. Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Yochai Benkler, Don Tapscott, and many others on both sides of the political fence have played up the Net’s many benefits for society. For me, the crucial question that these scholars have asked is: Were we really better off in the decades prior to the rise of the Net? Did we really read more and engage in the more contemplative deep-reading and thinking that Carr fears we are losing because of the Net?

That’s where Carr loses me and where Clay Shirky’s insights about “cognitive surplus” become relevant. Shirky has reminded us that most of us were busy watching “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Partridge Family” back in the day, not reading War and Peace. Shirky recently noted in Wired that, “Someone born in 1960 has watched something like 50,000 hours of television already. Fifty thousand hours — more than five and a half solid years.” So count me among those who think that—whatever most of us are doing in front our our computers most nights, and no matter how distracting it is—it has to be better than much of the crap we wasted our spare time on in the past ...


From David Wolman in Wired Magazine (on Carr's prior book) -

Now comes a technological bogeyman for the 21st century, this one responsible for a supposed sharp uptick in American shallowness and credulity: the Internet and its digital spawn. Witness the wave of books and essays implicating the wired world in a sudden rise in uncritical thinking and attention deficits. In a recent Atlantic Monthly cover story, Nicholas Carr asks: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (A: No, but it makes a handy scapegoat for an inability to cope with information overload.) Lee Siegel's "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob" suggests that the Web makes us both moronic and narcissistic (not that a moron can be expected to know what a narcissist is). Maggie Jackson's "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age" is a tiresome indictment of multitasking. And in "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30)", Mark Bauerlein delivers a grim assessment of the state of young minds, rattling off statistics about faltering education and using such figures to buttress his assertion that the Internet, videogames, and IMs all serve to numb and dumb ...

On the contrary: The explosion of knowledge represented by the Internet and abetted by all sorts of digital technologies makes us more productive and gives us the opportunity to become smarter, not dumber. Think of Wikipedia and its emergent spinoffs, like Wiktionary. Imperfect as they may be, the collective brainpower contained within these kinds of sites — and the hunger for learning and accurate information they represent — is something human history has never known before. (Even Encyclopedia Britannica will soon be accepting user contributions.) Or consider the Public Library of Science: By breaking the publishing industry's choke hold on the circulation of scientific information, this powerful online resource arms scientists and the masses alike with the same data, accelerating new discoveries and breakthroughs. Not exactly the kind of effect one would expect from a technology that's threatening to turn us into philistines.

It's naive to think that the digital age will magically remedy stupidity. We need better schools as well as a renewed commitment to reason and scientific rigor so that people can distinguish knowledge from garbage. The Web is not an obstacle in this project. It's an unparalleled tool for generating, finding, and sharing sound information. What's moronic is to assume that it hurts us more than it helps.


From Scott Rosenberg in WordYard -

... Carr makes a better Net skeptic than most of the competition. There’s none of Andrew Keen’s grandstanding hyperbole, Lee Siegel’s self-serving pugnacity, Mark Helprin’s overheated fustian. I found interesting pointers and references in nearly every chapter (though I wished they’d been linked!). But the deeper you read into Carr, the clearer it becomes that his animus against the Internet is really just a commonplace “things ain’t what they used to be” complaint.

For all its scientific trappings and rhetorical aplomb, The Shallows turns out to be less of a work of digital-age analysis than a requiem for some lost ideal of literacy. The loss, it seems, has already taken place; the book is shot through with a nostalgic ache. It presents old-fashioned reading as a lucky break in human development, unnatural, hard-won, and so fragile that a few years of Web publishing threaten to wipe out three millennia of intellectual progress.

This places Carr’s book squarely in the “going to hell in a handbasket” school of criticism. In this genre, cultural norms and styles revered in the critic’s youth are imperiled by some insidious new force — the Lindy hop or the twist or the lambada; Jews or Catholics or Muslims; nihilism or communism or relativism; radio or television or the Web.

Over time, this perspective forms an infinite regression of dismissal ...


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