Sunday, June 12, 2011

About The Shallows

I have just finished Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. I am usually not one to give in to technology scepticism, having built my life and career around the advent of Internet. However, Nicholas Carr, whose previous efforts Does IT Matter? and The Big Switch made nuanced but well-argued points about the usage of IT at work, brings it home with Internet's effect on our thinking, reading and writing habits. After having read it, I must admit, I shall not stick the techno-sceptic label on this book the way I shall do it on other similar efforts (For example, I found Andrew Keen's The Cult of The Amateur a pointless effort to complain about the erosion of power from the perspective of Oxbridge trained editors); this book instead is quite a balanced effort to ask the question whether Internet is truly a 'mind-expanding' technology, or this may be contributing to dumb us down.

It is indeed common to have such arguments thrown at us with the advent of every new technology and Nicholas Carr makes an effort to acknowledge this. His primary argument rests of neuro-plasticity, human brain's tendency to rewire itself when we start using a tool frequently. And, this is not about developing a new habit, but this essentially comes at the expense of an old habit, and in what is the book's most eloquent sections, he makes the point about the history and the cultural effects of the book itself. Indeed, he refers back to Socratic defence of the Oral tradition, where Socrates warns against Writing, saying that this would be a tool 'not of memory, but of reminder'. The same argument holds against the Internet today, with its infinite repository of data along with its capacity of immeasurable distraction.

The book also draws on the theory of Cognitive Load, developed by John Seweller and others, which dwells on the understanding of human memory in two parts, a small working memory and an almost infinite capacity long term memory. The argument here is that using internet puts working memory in stress, because at every step, one needs to make choices and decisions, and therefore create a bottleneck and limit our capacity to reflect and cultivate a thought.

I must admit that I could connect with this book as I reckon I suffer from a bit of a Attention Deficiency Disorder, and sometimes struggle to read a book these days. This is surprising, because I love reading. But it is common these days that as I start reading, all sorts of ideas start buzzing in my head. More interestingly, and this is where I tend to agree to the thesis put forward by the book in question, sometimes my reading gets waylaid by the references made in the text I am reading. So, often, as I see a reference of another work in the body of text, I shall stop and jump to the reference section and see what's being referred to. And, quite commonly, this will lead to another exploration, often on Amazon or on an Electronic Database or Google if I am near a computer or have my phone nearby, and - way leads to another way - will soon stop reading the main text altogether. I have recognized this as one of habits I wish to change, and Nicholas Carr's book almost explains why I may be suffering from such a problem (though I don't want to be deterministic).

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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