10 July 2011

Reading The Shallows

Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows  - How the internet is changing how we think, read and remember invites us to consider way we use technology and how that usage may be changing our brains. For anyone interested in education it is well worth the read. I'd like to offer a prĂ©cis of a few of his most relevant points about reading, memory and thinking. 

  • Carr argues, quite persuasively, that online reading is significantly different to the experience of books. "The shift from paper to screen doesn't just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it." (P. 90) This book discusses a study that net research is leading to a new kind of reading known as "power browsing" where individuals just scan for 'quick wins' rather than reading whole articles (p. 137). His conclusion is that the internet is affecting the widespread practice of deep reading and the literary tradition given to us through the invention of the printing press. Carr refers to some academic studies that suggest that reading may become a an "arcane hobby" practised by the "reading class". (P. 108) As an English teacher and lifelong reader, this thought is very disturbing. 
  • This text discusses how the information available on the internet may be causing cognitive overload, thus affecting our memory.  Carr writes that "information overload has become a permanent affliction" (p. 170) and when the amount of information flowing into our mind is excessive, we're unable to retain the information or to make connections with our already existing knowledge (p. 125). As he sees the net as a medium of disruption and distraction, he argues that our ability to process that information is affected. "When our brain is overtaxed, we find 'distractions more distracting'." (P. 125) He concludes with the statement that the "web is a technology of forgetfulness" (p. 193).
  • In terms of thinking, The Shallows advances and defends the argument that time for concentration and contemplation is necessary for deep thinking to occur. "There needs to be time for efficient data collection and inefficient contemplation" (p. 168). In the earlier section on reading and writing, he discusses how the great thinkers, Darwin, Descartes, Einstein, Keynes, etc, presented their thoughts in in prose, and those who read the texts, learned to grasp complex arguments. Essentially Carr tells us that reading books is inextricably linked to the development of the human brain. If we stop reading complex texts, then those parts of our brain devoted to complex thoughts may not work as they once did. 
Ultimately, what does Carr ask of his readers? Not that we abandon modernity (or post-modernity) but that we recognise the possibility that the internet could change the way the think, read and remember. And if it can, we need to ensure we don't lose the practices which gave us the brains we have today. 

More thinking about thinking to come...