Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Book Review: The Shallows

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr was recommended in a meeting I was in. I'm glad I took the advice and got it. In the book, Carr examines the ways in which the Internet, for better or for worse, is impacting human evolution. His basic thesis is that the Internet is a tool that is fundamentally reshaping human reality and our brains in the process. This is not the first time a tool has done this. The clock and the map are two tools that situated human beings within time and space in a revolutionary manner. Our brain chemistry has adapted to the omnipresence of clocks and maps to such a degree that we cannot even imagine how humans existed without them. Many of us, in a similar manner, cannot remember life before the web.

Most interesting to me was Carr's discussion of digital books and the phenomenon of reading online. Many have thought that digital books will make reading far more common and accessible. Likewise, many have argued that melding the online world with education will increase our knowledge because we will have greater access to more information. In reality, more information does not mean more knowledge, let alone more wisdom.

Studies are beginning to show that multimedia educational experiences actually decrease learning opportunities because more of our brains are devoted to decision-making functions rather than absorbing and appropriating information. When my brain has to make myriad subconscious decisions about whether or not I am going to click on an embedded hyperlink or watch a video, it does not have full resources to grasp what I am actually reading.

Further, we read differently when we read online than when we read a hard copy book. Online reading is scattered and distracted, much like we read magazines or newspapers ... glancing and scanning headlines. Books are obviously different, expecting us to read in a linear fashion. When I read on a screen my brain is not used to following a linear path, making reading much more difficult. The counterintuitive truth is that electronic formats for learning in reality decrease recall and comprehension.


Other interesting observations in The Shallows include:

The expectation that we can outsource our memory to the cloud may actually reduce brain capacity rather than increase it.

A mere hour-long walk in nature before a test dramatically increases memory and recall.

For as long as they have existed, human beings tend to become one with the tools they use. This is true of a guitar, a hammer, and the Internet.

Google is both freaking amazing and freaking scary.


I come away from Carr's book with a few new commitments:

I have got to find more and better ways to unplug. I am way too addicted to all things digital and need to sabbath from them.

I am going to change the way I blog. Rather than embedding hyperlinks in text, I am going to list them at the end of a blog post. This way, my readers' brains can focus on what they are reading and making decisions about following links at the end.

I have serious doubts about the effect of the movement of our educational system toward e-content. I think this is something we are going to live to regret (think: Idiocracy).

The irony that I read this book on my iPad is not lost on me.


The Shallows
Nicholas Carr's Blog
Idiocracy on IMDB



jonathan perrodin said...

I like the links at the end idea. Makes for cleaner copy too. I need to set regular periods of non-internet time, maybe even especially when doing work on the computer. a topic that we need to keep talking & thinking about.
What kind of takes away should do you have as a pastor leading a church, what's the impact on the church, spiritual development, worship?

I was kind of troubled the other night when people admitted it was easier to do their daily office when it was an email. That seems to kind of defeat the purpose of it, your not really unplugging. I've tried to do the daily office from the online BCP but it just wasn't the same, lacking something. Anyway maybe I'm just a Luddite.

Robb Ryerse said...

Interesting question. The biggest thought I had when I was reading the book was about how our brains can be shaped and influenced so easily. There is sermonic material there for the importance of Scripture reading, worship, etc ... that they can and do shape our minds.

As far as how these observations should shape church life, I'm not terribly sure. As a bottom line, I'm impressed by how wrong conventional wisdom can be. Just because we all assume that something is best or good for us, doesn't mean it is. The church needs to be a haven for questioning the conventional wisdom.

I don't mind people reading the Daily Office via email. Is it ideal? Probably not. Is it a first step? Hopefully.