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The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

1/04/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Shallows in the USA - or Buy The Shallows in the UK

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pub: Atlantic Books. 256 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84887-226-4.

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I got interested enough in wanting to review the book, ‘The Shallows’, because author Nicholas Carr discusses something I covered in one of my earlier editorials in how we read differently on the Net compared to the printed page and even more so, comes to the same conclusions and also explores how we remember what we learn. Carr goes even further and points out that people are adapting to how they pick up information is changing how the brain works and people being less prone to read books any more. Of course, I could be cynical and wonder whom his audience is based on but I hope the SFCrowsnest readership still have a taste for books, fiction and non-fiction. Just gleaning particular info off the Net would mean you would be less likely to pick up facts that you wouldn’t have known otherwise which is far more worrying because it would mean we’re spawning a generation who aren’t going to know very much beyond the Net for their information source which is very worrying.

This book looks at a lot of things related to the Internet, including how we’ve adapted to its use in a remarkably short time for all ages who use it. Our brains are flexible to change but with the Net, this is the biggest significant change across the world. You might come away thinking the Internet is the enemy but everything in moderation.

Just in case you think this book is all about the Internet, the sub-title ‘How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read And Remember’ after all, chapter three examines the origins of writing as a means to preserve information. You do remember what writing is in this typing world we currently live in, don’t you? What I didn’t realise was how early writing was really totally joined up writing and a punctuation nightmare, mostly because punctuation didn’t exist at the time. It was no wonder that people had to read aloud. Reading did help develop the brain though as more people learnt how to do it, especially when the printing presses could literally spread the word.

Between chapters, Carr goes off into side-track digressions. One in particular points out the use and early invention of the diode which allowed signal boost and is now the prime ingredient in computer technology. He also points out how he also had to detox himself from his own Net connections to enable him to have the time to write the book. A point to remember for any of you budding authors out there. I must lead a charmed life that I can step in and off the Net without a compulsion to be in on everything that is there. Then again, I tend to work out from what I need than what is offered. I’d be an advertiser’s nightmare but then I imagine all non-conformists are.

Chapter six examines the role of the e-book format and I hope Carr is on a retainer for publicising the Kindle, although saying that he does explain a lot about its function and immediate access to the Internet. A very valid point is given in that readers have a bigger problem remembering from a digital screen than a paper page. Whether this is just because the technology is too new and people haven’t adjusted, he doesn’t say. One of the reasons why I’m dubious about portable ebook readers is they are still expensive toys and no matter how many books you have installed that way, they’re all lost if you lose it. All right, you might have saved back-ups on-line but keep losing your Kindle would become an insurance nightmare assuming you claim on it. Think of all those mobile phones that got lost each year. I’d also wonder how they can be used in a book signing although Carr doesn’t think that the paper book has lost its attraction yet.

His examination of how newspapers and magazines attempt to emulate their website format and failing has some very strong points. I think people adjust their heads to the formats they need to read in. I mean, in many respects the newspaper and Internet share a need to scan out information but magazines are regarded as being a bit more substantial and you want a decent read not a snippet for your money. I love Carr’s point about how computer users find it easier to multi-task although I suspect that also comes from the fact that sustained concentration is reserved for the narrow focus hyperactive and the occasional distraction is a lot healthier when change is needed, providing you remember to go back to what you were doing after a brief respite. Maybe employers need to ensure that employees are have multiple jobs to do on their computers and switch between them when they need to change their pace for a break. After all, it’s already known that at school after forty minutes, concentration wanes, so why should it be any different for adults?

Further into the book, Carr points out from scientific information that the use of the Net does change what parts of your brain change and gamers actually become more attentive to detail. It does make me wonder why employers can’t find a use for skills away from where they are developed and make use of them. Interestingly, it only takes a few hours of Net use to develop normal Net skills which goes to show how flexible the brain is in learning something new. I suspect it would need a whole different book as to why some people resist change though.

Another piece of useful evidence is that you remember articles on the Net more if they don’t have too many links. For the material on SFCrowsnest that I’ve been involved with, this was mostly instinctual but nice to know that I’ve been doing the right thing all these years,

Did you also know that when you scan Net pages your eyes to it in an ‘F’ for fast pattern? If you want to know how fast you scan a page, buy the book, but you’d be amazed on the number and probably explains why a lot of what you read doesn’t get beyond your short term memory. You’re not spending enough time paying attention to the words! I expect book reading to increase after you finish this review.

The chapter on the effect of Goggle on the Internet is rather illuminating in not only giving its history but how it seeks to dominate access to knowledge even if it ran into problems wanting to digitise all books and forgetting something like copyright. If you want to know more about the search engine most of us use regularly then this chapter gives a lot of insight. In an odd way, Carr also points out that if you can come up with a better way of doing anything on the Net then you can end up being a world-beater with a lot of advertising revenue even it if might not be forever. Mind you, if you end up rich, that would probably be seen as a minor inconvenience.

In the final chapter, Carr discusses the pros and cons of making software too easy to use so you don’t have to think about what you are doing as not being good for your head against whereas on the Net, companies want things simple so more people will use it. I can see both viewpoints but having couch dimwits on the Net making reckless decisions will affect us all. Carr also explains the Net doesn’t really have anything passive for the brain to relax between intense activity although I might argue the case that not for a floral JPG to look at but why porn websites is seen as the biggest imposition of time for people at work. Quite how sex can be seen as the opposite of work is beyond the remit of this book or review.

The more I read this book the more important I felt it was becoming. You can tell by my reaction to what I’ve been learning in the review above that I’m finding this book an incredible learning curve to how the brain reacts to the Internet and even the problem of lack of creativity caused by link distraction. I should point out that I’m only hitting on some of the material above and you’ll probably find it worth your time to learn and understand how in some ways your brain is improving from Net use as well as some of the more detrimental effects so that if nothing else understanding why means you could get better use of your computer time. You will also note that I don’t always agree with Carr but these books are needed to get you thinking and if you’re arguing or seeing something deeper than your brain is still working. I think my brain is working. How about yours? Whether this book will expose your fears or prove you’re right, this book should be on your reading list if you want to understand your Internet habit.

GF Willmetts

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