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The Shallows

The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr is a convincing and well-written cautionary tale about the effects of the internet (and other digital media) on both society and individuals. As the subtitle (or supertitle...if you look at the cover of the book you'll see what I mean) suggests, the book argues that  the internet not only changes how we access information, it actually rewires our brains.

This is a  rather incredible claim, but Carr presents some impressive evidence. He cites numerous neurobiological studies that show how the information we consume and the manner in which we consume it physically changes our brains. A particularly interesting case was a study of London taxi drivers, whose hippocampuses were enlarged by the navigational data they were constantly absorbing.

In addition to the neurological information, Carr also provides stories about the introduction of new information technology throughout history and the effects it had on society. There are obvious examples, such as papyrus and the printing press, but he points out that the introduction of maps and clocks changed the way people thought and lived. There are some amusing anecdotes, such as the story of Nietzsche acquiring his first typewriter. Carr also includes a capsule biography of Lee De Forest, inventor of the audion, a primitive vacuum tube that made telephony and radio possible.

Just as maps, clocks, and typewriters changed the way we process information, so do computers and the internet. Reading is different. People skim more, and will read more for "a feeling of belonging" than for any individual enlightenment. As an avid reader of books (a phrase which a few years ago I would have found redundant) I found this prognosis fairly depressing, but it also made me a more committed bibliophile than I already am. Reading is not just a hobby for me after reading The Shallows.It is part of a quest to preserve the tradition of deep solitary reading.

Carr does a good job of weaving together data and arguments into a coherent whole. He also devotes a brief chapter to those who would say he does such a good job that it undermines his arguments against digital media. He points out that he severely cut back his internet use while writing the book. He also confesses he resumed his old ways shortly after he turned in his final draft.

The Shallows is worth reading for those who want to understand the enormous effect digital media is having on our intellectual and social life. Even if it weren't so well argued, it would be worth reading just for the time away from the internet.