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Book Review: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Introduction

I recently read The Shallows and found it greatly enlightening. I plan on doing a series of posts on the topic of this book. My first post will be a basic synopsis.

Synopsis

Nicholas Carr’s argument in “The Shallows” is beautiful in its simplicity.

  1. The human brain exhibits a property called neuroplasticity that endures through all stages of life. Therefore the mind’s physical structures are always mutable
  2. What we do, which tools we use to express thought, and how we think fosters or inhibits focus in our minds and alters the quality of the thoughts themselves.1 This is not merely a style of thinking change, but an actual change in the neural structures, per 1.
  3. This patterning occurs, largely, without our knowing it.2 While “distracted” the re-wiring occurs. Chief distractors are:
    1. content
      1. “Content is King” ethos seen in design community at large
      2. Content is chiefly lurid, gossipy, or pornographic.
      3. Repeated draws to primally-stimulating content distracts from the new patterning occurring
    2. social reenforcement:
      1. “What you’re not on BookFace?”
      2. “Can you sign on to IM so I can ‘ping’ you the servername?”
    3. other cues that satisfy reptilian brain pleasure / warning centers (legacy routines designed for predator evasion)
      1. “ding” sound
      2. flashing lights
  4. With the mind having been changed, this mens nova, it now “esteems” content that works well with the newly formatted apparatus and has a harder time working with content that doesn’t. A quine-like statement emerges: The distracted mind favors that which works well within the framework of a distracted mind. Optimization for distraction occurs at the expense of focus and concentration
  5. The mens nova is ill-optimized for depth, consideration, argumentation of length or scientific research, per previous point. This is precisely the mind to which the Internet distractors and design optimize as ideal
  6. Popular culture maintains a Whig history style praise of this new mind. It avers myths that current research calls to question:
    1. “The mens nova is optimized for multi-tasking.” When we multi-task we are lying to ourselves. We are drowning and not admitting it to ourselves. We are reading 19-26 words and believing we have read an entire article
    2. “The mens nova will find richness in content that will give students more depth / (Postmodern tenet) will allow students to see around the Anglo-Western-male hegemony:” The purported benefits of the “multi-tasked mind” or the “media-enhanced schoolroom” have not surfaced
  7. Market forces encourage the continued production of distracted mind applications and mind-distracting endeavors.
    1. Making interfaces that don’t pander to the mens nova will be deemed “un-intuitive” or “poorly designed”
    2. Other media are suborning themselves into the Net format:
      1. books via Google Book
      2. FoxNews and the “crawl bar”
    3. All facts are coming to be taken as atoms, not as components of opera.
  8. We must choose to be aware of these changes and not pretend that homo cassium3 is inherently superior to homo sapiens
  9. In a world of homo cassium what will his weaknesses be? Has the dazzling light of “progress” actually been a regress?

My next post will be a reaction to the book and a response to the distilled argument presented here.

Footnotes

  1. I love this notion of our tools being part of what forms how we see and that our tools cannot be other than the way such that they are usable to us. I think there’s an interesting symmetry between the anthropic principle and neuroplasticity
  2. Re-patterning is not bad per se. While a young we were seduced by “story time” and “book reports” into patterning our brain to be book-friendly, or not
  3. Man of the nets. There’s a fun ambiguity implying that he might be trapped by said nets not just be of the Nets.

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