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This, children, is something that we used to call “a book”

July 9, 2011

The Grandson(Fred Savage): A book?
Grandpa(Peter Falk): That’s right. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today I’m gonna read it to you.
The Grandson: Has it got any sports in it?
Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…
The Grandson: Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try to stay awake.
Grandpa: Oh, well, thank you very much, very nice of you. Your vote of confidence is overwhelming.

The Princess Bride (Movie) 1987  (Director: Rob Reiner)

So.  I have been reading “The Shallows : What the Internet is doing to our brains” {by Nicholas Carr} .  For anybody who has not read it, this is a book well worth reading.   I am not done with it yet, but can safely say that it will be one of my favorites of its genre, if only for putting to words something that has been nagging my gut for a while already.

This book seemed to me to be a natural next step following  “Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace” and “Free Culture : The Nature and Future of Creativity” (both by Lawrence Lessig) .. and “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google” (also by Carr).  Even though these authors cover different aspects of internet and culture, there are parallels and intersections that fascinate me in most literature, regardless of how close or far apart they are in realm or scope.

The generations that follow mine have become enamored with the “World Wide Computer”.  Social networking sites.  Blogs.  Twitter.  Web pages.  Online multi-player games.  Wiki for homework… Email.  Forums.   …we find freaks who are just like us; distance (which in the physical world assists in marginalizing outcasts) is negligible between any two points on the internet (The Giant Zero).  The internet society is omnipresent, and its allure undeniable– one could get lost in a place like this: many people do.

Before this starts sounding like some sort of old man rant (“When I was your age, we didn’t have no namby pamby Facebook.  We had BBSes, Commodore 64s, and BASIC… and we liked it that way!“)… my generation has become enamored also…. and much of my parents’ generation — and even some of their parents as well.  It has developed as an all-purpose tool and toy:  it has fascinated people from all walks of life.

The point that Nicholas Carr makes {so far, still reading ;), almost done :)} throughout the book (The Shallows, which, incidentally, is developed and laid out in a similar style to The Big Switch) is that as humanity shapes and forges tools, those tools shape and forge humanity.  And not (only) in an abstract way.  The actual wiring of the brain is altered through repetition.  Tools (such as the typewriter, the word processor, the word processing computer applications, the weblog tools, etc..) affect the actual way that the thoughts are forged and presented.  In so doing, they manipulate the author, just as the author manipulates them.

He traces the history of this dual influencer<->influencee relationship that we have with tools back as far as the changes that the phonetic alphabet brought to thought, and the changes that “spaces” between words brought as well.   The section regarding the transformation that the written word brought to the concepts of thought and imagination was one of those moments for me where I understood it instantly, and it made perfect sense, despite the fact that I had never thought of it quite that way before.  What was actually created with the tools of the written language differed substantially from the works of oral tradition that preceded it.  The technology of books encouraged linear thought; reading involved a deeper set of thought processes than the traditions which preceded it.

Not intending to summarize each and every part of the book, I will say, it lays out a history of these changes, one that it seems modern neuroscience is beginning to understand:  an evolution, where time and again, the tinkerer finds that the new invention tinkers with his or her mind.   And it is no case more true than with the Internet (the World Wide Web, Web 2.0/3.0, etc…)  And in fact, the book makes a compelling argument that the Web has the potential to make the mind-altering neurological changes at rapid speed (many of the stimuli required to form such changes in the brain happen multiple times a second when using a computer to browse the World Wide Database.)

It is the second argument of the book, though, that concerned me enough to start writing this post before finishing the reading of the book.  (Or perhaps, it is some of these re-wired neurons, driving me to write this post online,  rather than have the patience to wait for the finishing of the reading of the book…)   Even if (while) you accept the premise that the tools we use for expressing thought can actually alter the content (and not just the delivery) of the thought, you still might not find cause for alarm.   It has been happening with disruptive technologies for all of history.   Here is where Nicholas Carr brings in what may indeed be a cause for alarm.  Studies done show that the the internet stimulates several senses, at a much greater and unrelenting pace than previous technologies,  and does not allow for the relaxed mind that can engage in deeper thought.  It is the argument that the Age of the Web (as opposed to the Age of Books) encourages superficial learning, and perhaps over time, more superficial thought.  Some accept this as certain, and state that it is OK.  Perhaps the small period of the democratization of deep thought (brought about by the ubiquitous availability of books) was an aberration from a natural state where elite thinkers thought deep thoughts, and the rest of society labored.  And if that is so, the internet (web) can entertain the masses superficially, and allow a dedicated set of thinkers to worry about deeper meaning.  I hope not.

The question I ask (and I invite others to read this book and participate in this conversation):  Is it true?  And if so, is this step of wading in “The Shallows” part of a larger process relating to the internet that has yet to take hold?  Is the current state of the internet, and the tools, akin to the alphabet and scriptura continua stage that preceded the Age of Books?  Or does this technology inevitably rewire our brain in a way destined to short circuit our brain’s function, ultimately, from deeper cognition?  Do we wade in the shallows of thought, waiting for the tide of knowledge to come crashing back in with a new opportunity to delve deeper, or do we fumble about in the low tides for the foreseeable future?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Carol Williams permalink
    July 9, 2011 1:55 pm

    Makes me want to read The Shallows. I’m thinking that everything we experience impacts and changes us (why not technology), some in small ways, some experiences in profound ways, including physically. We are always evolving (for better or worse), if we are alive and “living”…..

  2. July 10, 2011 5:01 pm

    After writing this blog post, I continued with the art of making Harry Potter (specifically, in this case “The Chamber of Secrets”) suspenseful today for a 10 year old who already has seen the movies 🙂 I think that is somehow related as well …



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