The Shallows – Review

What is all the hours you spend online doing to the structure of your brain?

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The Shallows - Review - Book Cover

Finally, here I am posting the review of the book I finished reading a couple of weeks ago, now that I’ve finally got some breather space.

The Internet, in just a couple of decades has become THE most powerful tool for nearly everything, be it ordering stuff online, or starting a political revolution or even completing a degree online (apart from the obvious like staying in touch, looking up information, satisfying unmet personal needs).

And, parallel to the development of the Internet, people from the other side of the spectrum, the Neuroscientists and Brain Specialists made an astonishing discovery about our brains. They found, through their extensive experiments and research that Human brain structure was not fixed, but was incredibly “plastic”, and they called it, Neuroplasticity. They concluded that society’s conventional way of seeing brains of people as something of fixed was completely wrong. Brains can change and they change quickly. How they change and what their structure turns into though depends completely on how you use it.

Now, one can think of the internet as a giant brain in itself with its massive memory capacity ands trillions of interconnections, transferring petabytes of data every second.

So, what happens when The Internet meets our extremely plasticky Brain?

A lot, according to Nicholas Carr, a well known tech writer. In his book, aptly named, “The Shallows”, he talks about how *excessive* internet use (which is becoming a necessity in today’s always on world) is impacting our extremely plastic brain.

The book starts off with the super famous penultimate scene in the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The conversation between HAL 9000 and Dave. Then, the author starts off on a personal note by describing his own experiences with the Internet and how his habits have been impacted by his internet use. The author also cites some recent experiments which show how hyperlinks on a webpage distract the readers from reading the actual content.

The author makes some fine arguments in the book, such as how the Internet, because of it’s rapid fire delivery nature, encourages shallow thinking and skimming, instead of the more calmer deep reading. The author describes his own experience of how he was once an avid fan of deep reading and how now his incessant use of the internet has eroded his attention span. To quote him:

Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

The book is a fascinating read. It starts off by referencing Martin McLuhan, a 20th  century media whiz (theorist), who predicted a lot of things about media, including the internet, way back in 1960s. The author argues how, given enough time, the medium itself becomes the message, impacting nearly every aspect of our thinking.

The book then delves deeper into the history of the mind and its tools, starting with the first idea of writing, as an extension of the brain, the Gutenberg revolution and through the period of renaissance and awakening. Includes the insights of great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Socrates all the way to Marshall McLuhan.

The author argues how the book encourages us to read deeply and how the internet is shredding the very fabric of our depth by constantly bombarding us with one distraction after another. The author argues that the  world’s finest thinkers, revolutionaries and artists across history were people who had the capacity to think deeply through a problem, often locking their minds onto a single problem and going into a mode of depth where solutions are abound.

 

According to the author, the excessive use of the internet is also harming our ability to remember things for long. Our memory works in 2 modes, short and long term memory. For content to get transferred from short to long term memory (by the process called “Memory consolidation“), the brain needs some downtime. A time away from distractions of all sorts, the state of reflecting on something, which unfortunately our hyperconnected Internet world doesn’t provide.

In the last few pages, he writes about the current technological trend, on companies like Google and Amazon (specifically the Kindle eBook reader.) et cetera.

And, by the end of the book, it is clear how the author tries to bring about a sharp contrast between reading a book (often deeply) and using the Internet (often shallowly).

Overall, it is a pretty good read and is highly insightful. A highly recommended read for people who are curious about what goes on in the inside of their heads as they follow one hyperlink after another.

Feature image source: http://dallasmorningviewsblog.dallasnews.com/files/import/116529-SHALLOWS.JPG

Next up is the review of Deep Work, by Cal Newport.

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