Tag Archives: Internet

The Shallows: A Review

The full name of the book is “The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember”.

For a very long time I had this opinion that the next generation is always intellectually superior to the previous generation. As I observed children around me with greater attentiveness, I began to get this feeling that these kids are not as smart as we used to be. More aware, yes, perhaps. Smarter the way they talk and respond, maybe. More worldly wise, I don’t know. But they are certainly not more intelligent and wise. Of course exceptions are always there and it’s just a few that make the big difference, but nonetheless, the overall intelligence has reduced rather than increasing.

For the past few decades people have been blaming this on the idiot box. But do you know that when writing was being invented (or developed) there were people who opposed this technology? For instance, Socrates believed that when people learn to write, they use their brain less because they can inscribe the information on something solid rather than using their brain to memorize it. Even in his wildest dreams he couldn’t have thought of the Internet in particular and technology in general.

Technology has been a mainstay of my professional life. I earn my livelihood from the Internet. It matters to me a lot how people respond to technology and how technology evolves. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that the more we become dependent upon technology the less we use our own abilities. I started noticing this a decade ago when I used to interact in various writing forums. People didn’t want to read long texts. A slight appearance of “difficult” words put them off the writing. They wanted everything simplified. Simple sentences, easier words, straightforward expressions and uncomplicated thinking were more in demand rather than complex thoughts and literary expressions. This was mainly because they were getting used to reading text on the computer or laptop screens.

Anyway, when I came across “The Shallows” I immediately found myself agreeing to most of what the writer, Nicholas Carr, has written. Throughout the book he warns the readers how more and more thinking and intellectual analyzing is being outsourced to machines. Rather than gaining knowledge we preserve it so that we can retrieve it whenever there is need. Carr calls the technology-dominated generation the “shallows” because he believes that they are incapable of deep thinking.

Many technologists and scientists, as Nicholas Carr has cited, believe that this is much more efficient way of managing information rather than putting everything into the unreliable neurons beeping inside your brain. Just imagine, millions and millions of terabytes of data can be accessed within microseconds. Suppose the sand on a beach is the information and there is a particular grain of sand you need to find. With computers you can easily do that. This, undoubtedly, is great advantage.

Throughout the book, although he laments the lack of deep thinking amidst the contemporary generation, he doesn’t blame the technology, he blames the way we use it. Therefore he can easily distinguish between technology that stunts our intellectual growth and technology that enhances it.

Books and printing press were great technologies. They brought knowledge and wisdom to people who did not have access to them prior to the printed word. Getting copies of preserved knowledge used to be very tedious and expensive exercise because people either prepared copies manually or they memorized long texts of knowledge and information. As the book and printing technologies progressed, it became less expensive to have a book. Eventually there came a time when even people who are not rich could have small libraries at their homes. The printing press, primarily invented by Gutenberg, literally changed the world. Rather than stunting our intellectual growth, it democratized it.

At a personal level I believe the Internet also does the same thing. It democratizes dissemination of information and empowers people. Whether it is blogging, social networking and video sharing, we can all become publishers in minutes. You don’t have to invest much. There is no longer a monopoly of a few on the thought process. For example, conventional journalists, politicians and authors are constantly lamenting the spread of social networking and blogging because they enable everybody to express opinions, and that too, instantly.

Various studies, according to the book, have revealed that we’re constantly being distracted without even realizing, especially when we are working in a hypertext environment. As you go through zillions of pages you come across links to various other pages. Most people end up clicking those links and never come back to the original text. But even if you don’t click the links, unconsciously your brain is being distracted. It is absorbing all the information being thrown at you in the form of pop-ups, banner ads, sidebar navigation links, hyperlinks in the middle of the text, images popping up here and there, videos embedded into the text and social sharing buttons. This exhausts our brain immeasurably. Consequently, we cannot focus for a long time. All we’re doing is, jumping from one place to another without actually reading and assimilating the information. When was the last time you read a complete web page consisting 1000 words?

On the printed page, on the other hand, people can easily read long texts without feeling bogged down.

A small problem in the book is that the author goes into lots of technicalities trying to explain how memory is stored in the brain and which areas store long-term and short-term memory and how memory is hardwired. He also explains, in copious scientific terms, how the plasticity of the brain enables you to quickly adapt according to new stimulations, habits and environments. While reading these portions sometimes you forget why you are reading the book.

Other than this small problem, this is an excellent book if you want to understand how the Internet is impacting our thinking. I am reading multiple books on the same topic because I believe that our children are going to grow in a web of technologies. There are many schools in the West who have already started eliminating books and insisting that students carry laptops and Tablet PCs to the school. This is good. The problem arises when there is too much dependence on such technologies.

Take for instance the mobile phone. It is a boon. You are always connected. I’m really thrilled when I see a hawker or a vegetable vendor on the road wielding a mobile phone. It is enchanting to see the laborer working at a construction site talking to someone on his mobile phone and you can make out that he or she is talking to some loved one.

But then mobile phone is also turning us into individual islands. When people are travelling in trains and buses they hardly communicate with fellow passengers. They’re all busy with their mobile phones. Even people walking on the road are deeply engrossed and they hardly throw a glance at other people.

Similarly, it matters to us how many Facebook or Twitter friends we have but it doesn’t bother us much if people in our own neighborhoods don’t know us.

These are not esoteric, leisurely issues. They pose real, existential social problems because eventually we are living in a real-world and not in the cyber world. When tragedy strikes, we will physically and mentally have to coordinate with people around us and not with people on Facebook and Twitter.

So as our children grow in a technology-driven world, we will have to teach them that they are in control, not technology. Thinking cannot be replaced by computers. It’s we who define our behavior, and not technology. Technology has its place, but so does the real-life that has evolved over thousands of years. We need to teach our children how to sit for a couple of hours, without doing anything, just thinking about things, and there is nothing wrong in it. We need to tell them that quietude and inactivity are as natural as constant interaction and sensory stimulations.

Is the Internet really making us stupid?

These days I’m reading this really interesting book titled “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains”.

Although I haven’t read much yet, the basic premise of the book is that the Internet has totally altered the way we consume and assimilate textual information. Very rapidly we are growing impatient and distracted and this shows the way we quickly browse through multiple pages without reading complete texts. There is too much information available, says the writer (Nicholas Carr was nominated for Pulitzer in 2011 for this book if I’m not mistaken), and this information is too easily available. Until just a couple of decades ago, if you wanted some data or some research information, you needed to sift through a ton of paper and books and you would normally spend weeks, even months reading reference material.

Now, you can just go to Google.com and look for the information you need. In fact, the writer has come across many people who have altogether stopped reading complete books. For instance, there is some university grantee who simply picks up relevant text from Google books and he hasn’t read a single complete book in the past five years.

Surprisingly, mine has been a slightly different case. Sure, I could have been more productive without all the distractions manifesting on Twitter and Facebook. Sometimes, an unplanned thread begins and before I realise, two hours are gone. Sometimes a complete day goes by because distractions definitely take their toll. But on the other hand, I have little to complain because my business depends on the Internet, although not specifically on Twitter and Facebook.

Technology has helped me read more. I have never had a problem with reading long texts whether they are blog posts, detailed technical articles or political analysis. Reading it on computer and laptop used to be a problem so these days I make plenty of use of GetPocket. This is a bookmarking service and you can get a small add-on for your browser. Whenever I come across an article that I would like to read but cannot do so right now, I simply click the +Pocket button on my browser and the text-only version of the article is added to my GetPocket account that later on I can access on my tablet and read at leisure. This has tremendously augmented my reading.

Talking about my tablet. I have a Samsung Galaxy tab that now I have been using for more than a year to read books. Many people don’t recommend this, especially in the times of some excellent digital book readers like Kindle and Nook, I find my tablet more useful. Unless I’m hard pressed for work on a project, unless there is some other pressing need in the family, I normally spend around two hours everyday reading a book. The number of books I have read on my tablet in one year, I can safely say, has surpassed the number of books I must have read in the past 20 years.

Reading conventional paperbacks and hardcovers was always a problem for me. Since I can only use one hand, it was always difficult to keep the book open in front of me, especially when the fan was running overhead. Also, I couldn’t read a book while lying in bed. This I can do now. I no longer need to take care of the fluttering pages.

I also have this tendency to immediately look for the meaning of words that I don’t understand. Previously I used to keep a dictionary with me. These days, I use an Android version of dictionary.com and whenever I come across a word I don’t understand, I can easily look it up.

The greatest advantage of using digital books, at least for me, is that they are just a click away. I can easily purchase new books from my tablet itself. Previously I always had to depend on others when I needed a new book.

With Internet I feel smarter rather than stupid, to be frank. I believe people who are distracted would be distracted, Internet or no Internet. I often say, sometimes vainly, when some of my friends were whiling away their time downloading porn from the Internet or lurking in the chat forums, I was looking for online business opportunities. If it wasn’t the Internet, something else would have distracted them.

But the distraction let loose by the Internet and all the social networking websites cannot be underestimated, especially when esteemed writers like Zadie Smith have to use Internet blocking applications to keep them focused. So yes, there is a problem and sometimes this problem seems formidable, but since it is a part and parcel of our everyday life, we will have to learn to live with it. There are many people on Twitter and Facebook who are really stupid, but then I see equally stupid and dumber people on various TV debates. So stupidity and dumbness is not exclusive to the Internet. I will share more thoughts on this later on.

The new Twitter censorship policy might not be as bad as it looks

There is lots of buzz on the Internet regarding the recent announcement by Twitter that it would be blocking certain tweets in certain countries, although the same tweets will be available in the countries outside of the jurisdiction of those countries wanting to block that particular content.

In the beginning, as soon as I came across this news my first reaction was, “Whattha…” but then I did some reading on the issue and found myself agreeing to many commentators who, although cautiously, understand Twitter’s point of view and deem the development not as bad as it sounds.

The thing is, we don’t live in a Utopian world where freedom of expression and speech is available unshackled. It is not. While tapping on your keyboard, writing for your blog or for Twitter (or Facebook, or for that matter any publishing platform on the Internet) you may take your right to express yourself for granted, but your freedom ends where another’s discomfort begins, and this discomfort can be anything – political, social, ideological or religious.

In the current scenario the governments can block Twitter completely and this doesn’t work good for anybody. Countries like China can block Twitter for just a single tweet. There are many media companies that remove the content from their servers and it is available nowhere in the world. This is the worst case scenario.

Although it is a cyber platform, it works and operates in the real world. Also, it is not a non-profit entity. Somewhere down the line Twitter needs to earn money and it will be earning money via its presence in various countries, and when it plans to have presence in various countries it needs to comply with local jurisdictions whether one likes it or not.

While trying to comply with the local laws Twitter has very carefully drafted its censorship policy and has made censoring content a bit difficult. Particular tweets, while blocked in a country whose government wants them blocked, will be available to the rest of the world and you will also be notified when those tweets are blocked. At Twitter help Center they say:

Many countries, including the United States, have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.

We have found that transparency is vital to freedom of expression. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content we will promptly notify affected users, unless we are legally prohibited from doing so, and clearly indicate to viewers when content has been withheld. We have also expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to include the publication of requests to withhold content in addition to the DMCA notifications that we already transmit.

I think this is a clever thing to do. The governments will have to follow procedures in order to block particular tweets. The same governments will not have an excuse to block entire Twitter at the drop of a hat. Twitter can always say, look, we’re complying with your local laws so you cannot block us.

The good thing is the transparency factor and also a clever way of keeping the content visible in the regions where the local laws are not applicable. Transparency in the sense that the content that is blocked will be marked as blocked content and as mentioned in the above quoted text from Twitter, all the requests to withhold content by particular governments will be listed at the Chilling Effects website.

Since all the Internet companies have to operate in the real world, they have to follow the real jurisdictions. Perhaps one day we will have utopia and the cyber world will be totally different from the real world, but right now everything boils down to the real world, where we all have to operate. Twitter is trying to comply with local laws as well as allowing free flow of information wherever it is possible. So far, it sounds fair.