Thursday, August 13, 2020

Book- The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

“I am unable to read books these days. I can’t concentrate beyond a page,” complained my friend.

“Do not stop reading. One page at a time.” I suggested.

“What’s stopping her from focussing on? What’s changing her habits?” I reflected.

“Using the internet has rewired your brain and turned you into a flibbertigibbet,” shouts Nicholas Carr. Is it so?

Way before the Internet era, Marshall McLuhan highlighted the influence media exerts over us.

“Medium is the message. In the long run a medium’s content matters less than a medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it- and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and society.”

This book is about how does a medium(internet) effect the way we think, read & remember.

The book is not a decry to go back to the pre-internet era but, shifts our perspectives and give us food for thought and help us to reflect on our acts over the medium.  

Before the author discusses how internet affect our lives, he discussed the ‘neural plasticity’ and few stories on how internet has changed our reading habits.

Internet makes you feel smarter. Because of the ease of access to the information, we prefer the tit bits of information rather than the whole piece.

Duke University professor Katherine Hayles confessed, “I can’t get my literature students to read whole books anymore.” e can understand seriousness of the issue where literature students prefer skimming and scanning on the internet to reading the whole books.

Thinking and Writing.


Plato wrote ‘Phaedrus.’ The tale in which, Socrates and Phaedrus take a walk having a dialogue. They discuss the ‘writing.’

“Should the Egyptians learn to write, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of  external marks.”

People ridiculed writing and were critical of it. It is interesting to study the oral tradition before we discuss the literacy and its culture.

Oral Culture:

Before we were into writing, communication was through oral traditions. The knowledge was transmitted through speech, lore, verse, ballads, chants. Oral culture got emotional and intuitive depths that we can no longer appreciate.

·         It was more of sensuous involvement.

·         In this culture, thinking is governed by capacity of human memory.

·         Knowledge is what we recall and what we recall is limited to what we can hold in our mind.

·         Then came the writing.

·         Writing on stones, bits of cloth, earthen pottery, scrolls, wax tablets.



Before books, were the wax tablets lashed together with the strip of leather or cloth. The concept of flipping the pages or break in the writing was not present in scrolls and other forms.

Even after the technology of books progressed, the oral world influenced the way the pages were written.

There was no word separation. “Words ran together without any break across every line on every page, in what’s now referred to as scripture continua.”  The lack of word separation reflects the style of speech. It was written as it was spoken.

·         No spaces. No pauses. How do people comprehend. What’s their reading speed?

·         In the past, the absence of word order conventions, placed an “extra cognitive burden.”

·         Living in the rich oral culture, most Greeks and romans were more than happy to have their books read to them by slaves.

·         It was not just a book. It was used more as audio book!

·         With the collapse of Roman empire, the written language got a break from oral tradition. As time progressed, ‘the reading was becoming less an act of performance and more a means of personal instruction and improvement.”

By the end of 12th century, we were done with the style of Scripture Continua. There was word separation and there was change in the pace of reading. During this period, there was a transition from loud reading to silent reading. “Writing, for the first time, was aimed as much at the eye as the ear.”

“The placing of spaces between words alleviated the cognitive strain involved in deciphering text, making it possible for people to read quickly, silent and with greater comprehension. Such fluency had to be learning. It required complex changes in the circuitry of the brain, as contemporary studies of young readers reveal.”


“Readers become more attentive. To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to lose oneself in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brain of most of our relative in the animal kingdom is one of distractedness.”

 “To read a book, was to practice an unnatural process of thought one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single static object.  It required readers to place themselves at what T.S. Eliot, in Four Quartets would call, “the still point of the turning world.”

We were learning to be attentive.  We were teaching ourselves to focus and concentrate.

“The ability to focus on a single task, relatively uninterrupted is a strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development.”

Before the advent of the books, we were attentive but, with the books, as we read deeply, we thought deeply. There was a shift in consciousness as people immersed themselves in the pages of a book.


What’s next?

There are various factors that played in the advancement of books. Papyrus. Paper & printing!

So many books- so much confusion!

All around us an ocean of print

And most of it covered in froth.

There’s a bit romanitcism of reading as well.   Here’s the poem written by Wallace Stevens, “The House of Quiet and the World was Calm

The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

                                                                             -Wallace Stevens


How does reading affect the reader’s brains?

Liker painters and composers, writers were able “to alter perception” in a way “that enriched rather than stunting sensuous response to external stimuli, expanded rather than contracted sympathetic response to varieties of human experience.

While, we celebrate the reading rage and reading culture, in late 17th century, inventor lee dee forest invented the audion, the device “for amplifying feeble electric currents.”  It became the foundation of the electronics and used to amplify electric signals, audio transmissions, revolutionise the telephone and radio usage.”

Thinking of the future application of electronics, Dee forest believed, “electron physiologists would be able to monitor or analyse thought or brain waves. He concluded, “a professor may be able to implant knowledge into the reluctant brains of his 22nd century pupils. What terrifying political possibilities may be lurking there!”


The world of Internet

Charles Babbage. Alan Turing. Analytical Engines. And much more. The computer story goes beyond Babbage. Ada Lovelace, daughter of poet Lordy Byron had an important role to play in the field of making the computer.

From computer, we cruised through World Wide Web. We are on our way to virtual reality, artificial intelligence anything but reality!

At the beginning, the web was progressed by imitation of Gutenberg’s press. In fact, the very term we came to use to describe what we look at online- pages- emphasized with printed documents.

With the words on the net, there was a rapid adoption of e-mail, preparing the grave for the personal letters!

Soon after the text, came photographs and audio, subsuming the telephone technology, radio. Then came the videos online, subsumed the technology of cinema and television. 

“The NET differs from most of the mass media it replaces in an obvious and very important way: it’s bidirectional.  We can send messages through the network as well as receive them. That made the system useful.”

There’s a lot of text on the NET. We read more than ever. Anywhere and everywhere there’s text but still, it’s not the same.

“A new medium is never an addition to an old one. It oppresses the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.”

Books and the types

There is a lot of advancement and changes in the way books are read. We have digital books, kindle, vooks(videos in the digital books)

Books with a lot of hyper texts. People celebrate the hyper texts and cross referencing but, there’s dark side of it. There is a lot of distraction and cognitive burden for constant distraction while we read.  Reading a paper back or a book in kindle, is it all the same?

“A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or a magazine. Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It's tactile as well as visual. "All reading," writes Anne Mangen, a Nor wegian literary studies professor, is "multi-sensory." There's a crucial link" between the sensory-motor experience of the materiality of a written work and the cognitive processing of the text content." The shift from paper to screen doesn't just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.”

The internet is no more just words but a lot of audio and visual content. And everything is in abundance. So much in abundance that “whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an ecosystem of interruption of technologies.”

Interactivity, hyperlinking, searchability, multimedia- all these qualities of the Net bring attractive benefits.

“Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause.”

“When access to information is easy, we tend to favour the short, the sweet, and the bitty.”

Changes in reading style has also brought changes in writing styles as authors and their publishers adapt to readers’ new habits and expectations.

The effect of Net on brain is more interesting than the history of books, reading, and a lot more. We get to learn about ‘neural plasticity’ ‘Working memory’ ‘long term memory’ and few concepts on how mind works.

The Juggling

With the Net, we celebrate multi-tasking and we interrupt ourselves in every task we do.

Our heavy use of net has neurological consequences.

How mentally taxing is it to be on internet?

“Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that’s the intellectual environment of the internet.”

“The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer the information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas.”

We are disrupting the transfer of those information by being distracted at big time.

“The division of attention demanded by multimedia further strains our cognitive abilities, diminishing our learning and weakening our understanding. When it comes to supplying the mind with the stuff of thought, more can be less.”

How does these interruptions affect our memory?

As we keep shifting our attention from different landscapes of multimedia, psychological research proved that, “frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.”

Why multi-tasking is not so cool as it looks?

Navigating the Web requires a particularly intensive form of mental multitasking.

Flooding our working memory with information, the juggling imposes what brain scientists call,” switching costs” on our cognition. Every time we shift our attention, our brain must reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources.

“Brain takes time to changes goals, remember the rules needed for the new task, and block out cognitive interference from the previous, still – vivid acidity.”

Of course, with the internet, we have a lot of advantages. It makes our life simpler.

With the case of London cab drivers it is explained how our brain changes, becomes good at few activities and mediocre at the other activities. “Our internet usage is impacting on our creative thinking, reflective thinking,” says the author.

Nielson, a consultant on the design of web pages, wrote in 1997 after his study of online reading. “How do users read on the web?” he asked then. His succinct answer: “They don’t.”

“We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to bling our inner watchdog to the possibility that we have numbed an essential part of our self.”

What can be done?

Be attentive.

The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory.

“For a memory to persist, the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed This is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory.”

The shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read, and remember reminds us to reflect on our humaneness. Interesting read. If one is interested in psychology and neuroscience, give it a read! Highly recommended.

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