The Shallows by Nicholas Carr:  How the internet is changing the way think. A summary of chapter 1

This is my summary of chapter one of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr.

Carr has an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, is remapping the neural circuitry in his brain. He feels as if he’s not thinking the way he used to think.

He says that he used to find it easy to immerse himself in a book, but that’s rarely the case anymore… his concentration drifts after a page or two and he starts looking for something else to do. Deep reading used to be easy, now it’s a struggle.

He believes this is because he spends a lot of time online, surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the net.

He notes that ‘the Net has become my all-purpose medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind’ (hardly surprising giving the sheer amount of ‘functions’ that are now facilitated online!)

He notes that there are positives to the internet – having so much information to hand is very convenient and means we can think and work more efficiently. He also recognises that skim-reading short snippets of lots of articles probably makes us more creative, as this encourages us to make a greater diversity of linkages between different information sets.

However, the positives come at a price. McLuhan noted that media shape process of thought as well as supplying us with material to think about, and Carr thinks that the net is chipping away at his ability to concentrate and contemplate… Once he was like a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now he zips along the surface like a guy on a Jet-Ski.

He is not the only one who believes that the internet is changing the way he thinks: friends have made similar observations as have various bloggers. For example, Bruce Friedman who blogs about the use of computers points out that he skim-reads even short blog posts and his thinking has taken on a ‘staccato’ quality.

Phillip Davis (among many others) points to the advantages of ‘skimming’ lots of articles – believing it makes us more efficient and creative than the older linear ways of reading and thinking. Others believe the net has made books superfluous.

A research study by nGenera which interviewed six thousand members of what it called ‘Generation net’ found that young people don’t even read a page from left to right or top to bottom, they skip around, scanning it for areas of interest. It truly appears that the net is changing the way we absorb information.

Even though there are different degrees of net usage, what is clear is that for society as a whole, the net has become the communication and information medium of choice… we have embraced its uniquely rapid-fire mode of collecting and dispensing information. This transformation is profound, and so are its likely impacts.

We seem to have arrived at an important juncture in our cultural history – we are trading away our old linear thought process, calm focused and undistracted. These are being replaced by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster the better.

Ever since Guttenberg’s printing press, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science and society. It’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind!

Carr was born in 1959 and noes that for Baby Boomers and Generation Xrs, life began in the analogue age and gradually transitioned to the digital age from the 1980s onward.

He was an English major at Dartmouth college and outlines how in the late 1970s he spent most of his time working towards his degree in the library, rather than in the cutting edge (at the time) computer center.

He says that he didn’t feel the anxiety of information overload symptomatic of today’s online age despite the tens of thousands of books in the library. ‘Take your time, the books used to say to him, we’re not going anywhere’.

He now takes us through his own personal history of his ever-increasing engagement with computers… From his first purchase of a mac Plus in 1986; getting caught up in the ‘upgrade cycle’ in the mid-1990s; getting online for the first time by installing Netscape in 1995; and then broadband, Napster, Google, YouTube, and the rest…

When the net went Web 2.0 in 2005, he became a social networker, and a content generator, benefiting from the new ease of access to information and reduced barriers to publication afforded by new modes of connectivity.

However, by 2007 he realised that his brain was ‘hungry’… it was demanding to be fed in the way the next fed it…. in 2-minute chunks.

The internet was changing him into a high-speed data processing machine… being connected had made him want to be connected constantly… he wanted to check emails even when he was offline.

Ultimately Carr notes that… ‘The computer…. Was more than just a simple tool that did what you told it to do. It was a machine that, in subtle but unmistakable ways, exerted influence over you…. The more I used it, the more it altered the way I worked.’

For my summary of chapter two please click here. To purchase the book (it’s a cracking read!) please click below!

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