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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Book review: "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains"


By Terri Schlichenmeyer
"The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" by Nicholas Carr
c.2010, W.W. Norton & Company $26.95 / $33.50 Canada 256 pages

You've tried three times to finish reading that report today, and you just can't do it. You never finish more than a few paragraphs before the words start swimming in front of your eyes.

It's not a boring report; in fact, you normally find these things very interesting. So what gives? You don't have any problem reading your newspaper, a magazine, or an article online...

And maybe that's from where your newly-developed trouble springs. The internet, says author Nicholas Carr, has stealthily changed the way your brain operates, and in his new book "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" he explains what that means for our future.

This morning, when you booted up your computer to check email, chances are that wasn't all you did. Admit it: you checked last night's score, your horoscope, the headlines, and stock prices. You bank online, research, shop, renew, upgrade, and network. And you've been doing it for years.

The internet, says Carr, is a tool and, like most tools, it changes the way society works. If you don't believe it, imagine what life was like before Gutenberg revolutionized printing or Ford improved manufacturing. Imagine what it was like just a hundred years ago without TV, cell phones, fast travel, and yes, the internet.

Science has proven that when humans use tools, our brains adapt to the tool itself. If you repeatedly pick up a gadget, for instance, your brain eventually sees it as an extension of your hand, and re-wires to accept the item automatically. In much the same way, your brain has adapted to the 'net.

But because the internet is "bidirectional" – meaning that we can send and receive information – its effect on the brain is a little more insidious. Carr says that the internet actually promotes shorter attention spans. Links to unrelated topics, brief articles, immediacy of information, and the multitudinous things one hooked-up computer can do have all wired our brains to move, scan, and deviate, lightning-quick. That's changed the way we read, comprehend, and work - and not, he says, for the better.

The problem with our new, shortened attention span is that "deep thinking" is difficult-to-impossible. Memory suffers, too, both long-term and short-term. Work on a computer for awhile, and writing long-hand feels weird. And staying targeted, on- or offline, becomes an increasing challenge.

I found it extremely ironic that I had a hard time reading this book, but not for the reasons you'd think. "The Shallows", as it turns out, felt unfocused to me.

Author Nicholas Carr ominously reveals many frightening things that we, as a culture, need to heed. He does an amazing job in cautioning readers about the maybe-too-late, shocking dangers of a society run online. In between the good points, though, esoteric literature, highbrow language, and belabored (and often obscure) historical information made it hard to maintain interest.

So which wags the dog here, online or off-subject? That's up for interpretation, but I believe this: either way, for most business-minded readers, "The Shallows" is way too deep.

-- Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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