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“The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

You would think that reading this book with all its expositions would make for a lifestyle change, or at least slow down internet surfers, you would be wrong.  I don’t figure the author set out to do any of that other than to lay bare the facts; a mission he accomplished convincingly. Affected as I am by this book, I still wake up in the morning scouring for tidbits of what happened in the interval that I was dead to the world. I’m constantly flitting between twitter and Instagram and blogs and the many apps on my phone trying to keep up with what’s trending.  But in all of these, I’m now acutely aware of the overpowering influence that has taken hold of me. This fact, as exculpatory as it may sound is not, the knowledge of it offers a path for amendment. Like learning a new language or dieting or exercising, the speech zones and the body system and the calf muscles can no longer be unaware, they all have been drafted into that campaign of self–improvement. A relapse isn’t a dead end  as there is a clear conscious path to recovery. Win or lose, these charted courses have been sensitized to their own abilities.  While sci-fi pictures like AI, I, Robot, tend to portray an apocalyptic order of a machine age, The Shallow seeks to remind us of the obtrusive, meandering influence of the internet on our brain, which does as much as a gully for the patterns of our thoughts rivaling the deft power of our will mostly to guide us to safety and well-being. What we choose may not be as simple as foregoing one for the other but in asking ourselves truthfully of what has been eroded in the way we process information.

“We become, neurologically, what we think.”

“Our brains, the historical and scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. The technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways.”

“In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”

“Culture is sustained in our synapses…It’s more than what can be reduced to binary code and uploaded onto the Net. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers.”

“Even though the World Wide Web has made hypertext commonplace, indeed ubiquitous, research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.”

“The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.”

“Everything that human beings are doing to make it easier to operate computer networks is at the same time, but for different reasons making it easier for computer networks to operate human beings.”

I wasn’t so enthused about reading the The Shallows at first. The sub-title threw me off. I didn’t think the internet was doing anything to my brain, so what could the writer be yammering about. I mean, if something was happening to my brain, wouldn’t I know? It has to be Carr’s brain that is doing skoin-skoin. My own head correct!

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Frankly, I picked up this book as a cynic hoping to do a cynic’s work. I sought to tear down its high-faluting theories, because I thought I knew. To my surprise there were no theories there; just historical bits built block by block to espouse the facts . Many of these facts I know and can see.Suffice to say, my highly-held opinion fell flat and lost its premise.

This is not to say that everything in the book is absolute but I know I will not be loud in the defense of the integrity of my ‘ internet-surfing’ brain if that argument comes up in the future. For example, I can attest to how short my memory is these days. It never was like this in the past. While age itself diminishes capacity, I can’t shake the feeling that my lack of attentiveness- something akin to ADD (which should be the forte of aging) is likely fallout of my internet-addled brain. And there’s that noisome pestilence that has gripped a population of social media users; barreling their way through arguments with little or no substance, that lends credence to many of the things Carr talked about.

Frankly, this book has thought me so much about open-mindedness, and it isn’t even a book on that subject.  There’s a whole story behind how this book made the list (I won’t go into it now). For we men of study, we like to think that we know and that what we do not know we can extrapolate from what we do know. Half of the time we are wrong, as not all knowledge are deductive. There is this saying that when men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken and to state one argument, is not necessarily to be deaf to all others, and that a man has written a book of travels in Montenegro, is no reason why he should never have been to Richmond.

True. true. true. This is all very true.

With the advent of a new technology, the old order often has to give way eventually. But with the digital readers in all of its flat scrolling variants, the place of the book is still very relevant. How long this would be, remains to be seen. The story of e-book vs. real book might one day be animated for all the gizmo-lovers and the traditional book lovers to battle it out, and this battle would be fought in the arena of the brain. If Nicholas Carr’s words prove true, then we may want to keep our shelves and those beautiful book nooks when designing our twenty-first century edifices.

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Nicholas Carr in The Shallows dug into the genesis of literacy,  the history of books, writing, alphabets and the impact of technology on the way we read and our cognitive capacity. He propped up the brain – that center of human consciousness-  and put it on the spot, mapping neuronal circuits in the traditional  and the internet age, observing the re-ordering of pre-synaptic patterns by habits and the closed loop by which these actions are reinforced in a rut of internet addictions with a myriad of consequences, many of which are all apparent in our world (lives) today.  This is not a proposition of a return to the pre-technology era. Carr acknowledges the good the internet has brought to us, but like a fastidious researchers he lays it all on the table, flipping the subject up and down, left and right for all sides to be caught in the gleam of reality.

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The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr is an education, a well-rounded one. You may or may not agree with it but you can’t ignore the facts. Take a dig into this marshmallow of science, history, psychology, sociology, neurology, technology and let the juice work its magic on you. What’s more, you don’t have to be a geek (or a foodie) to enjoy it.

 

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