The Shallows by Nicholas Carr:  How the internet is changing the way think. A summary of chapter 5

This is my summary of chapter five of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr. For my summary of chapter 4, please click here.

The computer has become a universal information and communication machine because so many different sorts of information – words, numbers, sounds, images and moving images, can all be translated into digital code. All of these sources of information can be ‘computed into a series of 1s and 0s.

And today the internet is a computing machine of immense power, which differs from traditional media because it is bidirectional. We can connect with businesses and each other through the internet, something not possible with traditional forms of audio and visual media.

As the internet has expanded, so our time online has grown…

time online

Correspondingly, our reading of books has been in decline – the number of minutes 25-34 year olds spent reading print media per week fell 29% between 2004 to 2008, to just 49 minutes per week. (It’s kind of depressing that it’s ‘minutes’ rather than ‘hours’!)

Until the net arrived, the history of the media was one of fragmentation: different media progressed down different paths. With the arrival of the internet, that changed: the boundaries dissolved. The internet, founded on 1s and 0s, is a medium of the most general nature.

The Internet: A Technology of Distraction

In this section Carr makes a concise and convincing argument that the way information is presented to us on the internet makes for a more distracted media experience. This is because of interactivity, hyperlinking, searchability and the multimedia ‘nature’ of the net.


You’ve probably never thought about it, but reading text online is a very different experience of reading text on a physical page… simply because on the net we can click and scroll around a page. The fact that we can actively click and scroll has changed the cognitive process of reading – we are now less likely to concentrate on a page in a linear fashion, we are more likely to scroll down to the bottom or click away all together.


Links don’t just point towards related sources of information, they propel us towards them, they encourage us to dip in and out of text. They are designed to grab our attention and take us away from what it is we are presently reading!


As with hyperlinks, the ease of searching online also encourages us to flit away from the present object of our attention. It follows that our attachment to any one text becomes more tenuous – we are less likely to finish one particular text and more likely to dip in and out of fragments of multiple texts.


This is probably the most obviously distracting feature of the internet. Carr wrote The Shallows in 2008, and talked about the flickering adverts on most web pages which were competing  for our attention back then. Fast forward to 2018 and most news paper web sites have so much advertising on them that reading the actual content has become unbearable.

The Decline of other forms of Media 

As the internet has expanded, so other forms of media have contracted. The most drastic example of this is the decline of print newspapers.

A Vicious Cycle?

With the increased adoption of the internet, media companies have changed the form of their content to meet the changing expectations of their audiences:

  • Web based media companies are now chopping up their content, adapting it to their audience new expectations and shortened attention spans.
  • The design of online publications have changed: pages have become ‘busier’ and articles have become shorter.
  • T.V. shows have become more net like… with information tickers at the bottom of news feeds for example.
  • The way we experience real world performances has also changed – with our portable devices now ever-present to engage through social media.
  • Even Libraries have changed.

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





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