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.