Monday, June 14, 2010

Nicholas Carr: "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains" -- it's not all bad!

Author: Nicholas Carr

Title: "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains"

Publication: 2010, W.W. Norton, ISBN 978-0-393-07222-8, 276 pages, 10 Chapters, Prologue, Epilogue, hardcover; Amazon link.

The title of the book suggests a certain negativity, that the easy “fix” of constant information from the Web is making us narcissistic, unable to maintain emotional connections to others, and unable even to concentrate enough to win a five-hour chess game, no less read a Tolstoy (or Ayn Rand) novel. (On the cover, the first part of the title is written last: interesting!)

But in fact, as he shows in the later chapters, the non-linear approach to gather information does make us more flexible and smarter in some ways, able to connect new memories to old ones, “connect the dots”, see around corners. We become different, more independent in some ways, and more connected in others. Just look at the debates over how Facebook works and its effect on “privacy.”

The author traces the history of communication and writing back to ancient times, when tablets and paper were expensive. In time, the relationship between writer and reader became a matter of controversy: after all, the writer reaches people he does not know or become committed to in anyway (so does the painter or music composer), and that possibility has been understood since Da Vinci’s time.

New technologies would change the “balance of power” in communication: newspapers today seem to be hurting because of the Web, but journalism itself must change, as it becomes more of a citizenry pursuit. In earlier times, the phonograph record was a thought a threat to the book, but it wasn’t. Maybe the web is not either, as books (on iPads), and even movies and DVD’s incorporate social networking.

He traces how web publishers have experimented with the format of web pages, originally making them like book chapters (as I did when I put “Do Ask Do Tell” on the web in 1998), before breaking them up into sellable morsels.

He talks about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s memory experiments in the woods (enough for a n 11th grade English essay), and then bridges to a discussion of the hippocampus and how it integrates our short term and long term memories. It may be that our understanding of how the information flow with the Web affects our brain may help us deal with memory loss and Alzheimer’s in the future.

ABC GMA followup on multi-tasking and our brains, June 30, 2010

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