A self-improvement book

“The Net grants us instant access to a library of information unprecedented in its size and scope, and it makes it easy for us to sort through that library—to find, if not exactly what we were looking for, at least something sufficient for our immediate purposes. What the Net diminishes is Johnson’s primary kind of knowledge: the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.” 

-Nicholas Carr, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to read: 11

I have to say this category stumped me for a while, since I don’t tend to read books even remotely related to ‘self help’. I often read articles that might fall into this category (The Jesuit Post is a personal favorite), but books to me often feel indulgent, like letting yourself eat as many ice cream sandwiches as you damn well please (I have no personal knowledge of what such an evening might look like.. promise). Self improvement almost feels too serious for my precious book reading time. I’m finding lately that when I do venture into this genre it’s been well worth my time and dare I say it, incredibly enjoyable.

The thesis of The Shallows could be summarized in a phrase borrowed from Marshall McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” Essentially, the way we consume information fundamentally shapes that information. We can agree a series of Twitter posts is not the same as a printed poem written decades ago (congratulations, Einstein), but the distinction feels more difficult for content that we consume through multiple mediums. The newspaper article I read on a printed paper is no different than that same article read on a screen, right? Throughout the book Carr hammers away at a single message: no, they’re not, and that changes how we consume them. And not only does it change how we consume that individual message, but repeated patterns of experience (like the way we gather and consume information on the internet) then come to change the way we think.

I have to admit, before this book I was of the mindset that as long as I used the internet for mostly intellectual pursuits, the internet would not in turn be affecting my cognitive process and thus could be solely ‘good’. I’m an academic, so a large part of my training and livelihood is based in my capacity to think critically. By the end of the first chapter I felt incredibly naïve in my original assessment about the internet. The strength in Carr’s argument is that he does not assert that the internet/technology is inherently bad. The distribution of information on the internet has an untold number of benefits, and it would be silly to argue against them. Instead, the main premise is that what the mediums we use will always involve a fundamental tradeoff. In the case of the internet, we’ve amassed the ability to take in information at an incredible clip, quickly browsing a large number of websites and efficiently finding relevant pieces of information within a larger block of text. What we lose is the ability to dive into a text and the attention span to do so, and there’s a reasonable argument to at least re-access if many of us have fallen too deep into that kind of thinking, and ask what it has done to our personal lives and our culture.

A fascinating examination of this in the book was the example of academic citation. One might imagine that the increased availability of academic articles on the internet would widen the base of scholarship that a paper might cite as a foundation for the presented research. Counterintuitively, as more and more work is digitized and sometimes available exclusively online, we as academics are actually citing fewer papers overall and from a more limited scope. We’re so efficient at finding relevant information that we are often skipping over and failing to make connections ourselves with our field as a larger whole. In college I actually remember going to the library and skimming through hard copy journals to find the work I was interested in for a particular project or paper. Without control + F, I actually had to skim through several titles before I found what I needed. This allowed me to at least briefly be aware of what else was being currently discussed and studied in the literature, and in some ways I wonder if I was better connected to my field then than I am now.

My takeaway from The Shallows was that I came to accept the main premise of the book: the way we consume content requires that we make tradeoffs for the skills we want to strengthen and those we are okay with being weaker. By understanding what those tradeoffs are, we can in turn use that information to make strategic decisions about the mediums we choose for the messages that are important to us. For me, I’m trying to limit web time a little bit more, but I’m also viewing my reading challenge this year in a new light– if the ability to get lost in a book for a few hours is a skill I’d like to retain and strengthen, then reading the printed word (especially sans hyperlinks) regularly is important to me to balance out the time I do spend on the web. Not only do I value this skill out of a love of reading and respect for the traditional literary mind, but the last few pages of the book that touched on how empathy and other emotional skills require thoughtful, slow thinking struck a nerve with me. Quick, automatic judgements don’t just affect how I take in abstract things like scientific concepts, but also data in social situations. Going beyond a potentially flawed impression requires thoroughly examining information instead of a quick assessment and advancement to the next new incoming stimulus, which is precisely the way we surf the web.

This book got me thinking about things in a new way than I had before (I could not shut up about Carr’s ideas to many people while reading it), and for that alone The Shallows might even warrant a re-read. Another reason to re-read it is probably a case in point about how the medium affects the message: this book was only available as an audio book from the library and so that’s how I consumed it, and there are times I found myself distracted and mindlessly online while listening to a chapter about distraction. I’m curious what I’ll take in when I’m reading in print form (my preferred method anyway, I’m not a huge audio book fan) and what I might understand better in that medium. If you’ve ever joked about getting a degree from University of Google (guilty), The Shallows is fascinating, scary, but most importantly thought provoking read that I definitely recommend.

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