REVIEW: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

So I'm reading The Shallows, of all things, on the Kindle -- one of the very devices that Carr disses in his book.

No cover, since my digi-copy doesn't have one.

In my teens, I often wondered what it was that made older people shun technology so much. It was one of those unexplained changes of mind that seemed to come with age, such as bleeding-heart liberals suddenly turning conservative, or previously stylish ladies sodomizing the rules of fashion after they hit age 40.

Despite fears that this was just an older person's sour-grapes essay about technology, I bought the book.

I wanted to read it because it seemed to validate many of the painfully obvious changes that were happening to my internet-saturated generation. And after noticing the obscene amount of time we spend online doing really stupid things, I decided that Carr's theory was on the money. Here's the main point of the book...

Being online for too long can really dumb people down.

I'm one of those people, but I am at least aware (and cautious!) of the ill effects taking place.

Here are the ways in which The Shallows says that heavy Internet usage changes you:

1. Shortened attention span -- you are constantly looking for new stimuli WHILE you do work, be it via YouTube videos or through TED talks. Most of us are guilty of this.

2. Distraction overload: most of us, when online, check our emails at a frequency rate of 20-30 times per hour. Why do we do this? Email, unlike snail mail (twice daily), updates itself every few minutes, giving you the incentive (and obligation) to keep checking.

3. Mixed bag-ification of info: Your brain loses its ability to filter irrelevant crap from vitally important information.

You've probably noticed this in your own or other peoples' correspondence and emails: you'll stop yourself midway through sending a link and wonder:

"Why do I feel the urge to share this shit?"

or read an email from your friend and seethe:
"ARGH! What on earth is he/she trying to say? What's the message here?"

I witnessed this recently with two youngish guys speaking in front of an audience. They actually showed up in front of the podium without preparing speeches at all, unthinkable unless you're an improv pro, which they're not.

Of course, being spontaneous, their speech was somewhat more heart-felt, and they had some very important thoughts to share, but it was interspersed with crap like "Oh yeah, I just lost my train of thought, hahaha"

To a stuffy type like me, it seems disrespectful to waste an audience's attention on half-formed, rough-draft words, but anyway this is the Facebook generation where nothing is filtered out. Everything goes has to go live immediately, every morsel of info is thrown out to the public in its rawest, purest state.

But this also means that people -- smart people -- don't know how to separate an urgent, important piece of info from useless shit that is better left unread. In a nightmare future, a doctor or surgeon will be replying to Facebook messages even as he performs a life-saving operation.


4. Inhibited reading ability. You read stuff, but then forget the details of what was written. A consequence of reading on a screen stuffed with hyperlinks with limitless information.

5. Death of great writing. Really good writing takes two things we don't have today: time and uninterrupted focus. It's fine if it's a bit rough, just pump it out there. Speed is key. Again, due to the mixed bag-ification of info, there is a lot more crappy info you have to wade through in order to get to the real gems. Nobody's fault but our own -- we want speed, we got speed. Quality suffered as a result.

It's a beautiful read, but Nicholas Carr is just as guilty as the internet-brainwashed folks he mocks in the book as he goes batshit-crazy with links and quotes and references all over the place in the latter half of the book. He should read Jack Hart's A Writer's Coach (best editing book in the universe), which advises writers to use quotes sparingly, like a spice: it should ONLY be used when the information being conveyed is a) vital and b) cannot be put in any other way by the writer's own words.

A typical Nicholas Carr sentence would read something like, reads as, "Plato defines attention as an intense focus of the mind," or, "Canada, according to geographer Herbert Fleming, is an icy spread of land above the United States."

Really? Did we need famous authority figures to tell us that?

If done well, The Shallows could come across as a well-researched book, but as it is, Carr's constant use of super-famous figures for quotes makes it seem like a book by an anxious and unconfident writer. Which, I mean, is ridiculous....he writes for The Atlantic for Chrissakes. Why can't he trust his own voice instead of using Plato all the time as a crutch?

It's a seminal seminal book, don't get me wrong. But if I were him, I'd have a few words with my editor about cutting back on irrelevant (and ultimately ironic) quotes, which are scattered like hyperlinks throughout the page. Starts off well, but the last few chapters are sheer anarchy for quotes.

Four stars.

★★★★☆