Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”

Last year, I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and gave a small lecture on it (using Prezi, which is the bomb), and structured it using my own sub-headings in order to better organize what I thought were the most interesting parts of the book. This way of organizing the points in no way reflects a chapter-by-chapter structure, so while this isn’t the chronological summary you may be looking for, it hits on some points I found useful in Carr’s study.

Neuroplasticity

Genes ‘specify’ many of the connections among neurons […] our experiences regulate the strength, or long-term effectiveness of the connections, allowing […] the ongoing reshaping of the mind and the expression of new patterns of behavior” (28).

The brain, at one point, was regarded as an unchanging mechanism, that is, once circuits are connected to other circuits, the “wiring” is complete and there is no changing it. Carr does not completely go against that, but rather, he illustrates that no matter how much the brain will adjust itself and change according to our experiences, our genes will always want to develop familiar patterns within the brain. Carr argues that through adaptation, our brains impose determinism on our behavior through the formation of habits.

“Neuroplasticity […] enables the nervous system to escape the restrictions of its own genome and thus adapt to environmental pressures, physiological changes, and experiences” (31).

As a response to the last quote, while our nervous system always wants to regulate itself, the brain’s plasticity is what allows us to change the pattern of behavior with every new thing learned. With reference to the Internet’s addictiveness, I think that Carr is using this to formulate his argument that our brain’s capacity to adapt is what makes us become accustomed to the new form of reading that the Internet enables.

Clocks

“The person clock became […] ever visible, ever-audible companion and monitor” reminding its user of “time used, time spent, time wasted, time lost.” Once everyone had a personal clock, it became both “prod and key to personal achievement and productivity” (43). 

This is significant, since as soon as people had a time-keeping device on their person, they became very concerned with how they were spending their time. The clock forced the idea that time could be broken up into a series of units, and our minds began to measure abstract sections of the day that were beyond those apparent to the senses.

“Technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning” (47).

McLuhan has quite a bit to say about technology and whether we are in control of it, or whether it controls and shapes us. I don’t think it’s a question of whether we are in control of our technology, since it obviously changes the way that we look at our own productivity. As things suddenly become easier, we are prompted to look for an even more efficient way of doing things, so we invent some other technology, and so forth.

Written Text and scriptura continua

“Reading was becoming less an act of performance and more a means of personal instruction and improvement” (62).

The culture of Plato and Aristotle was a culture of speech – stories and philosophies were shared in symposiums, and even once the oral culture was invaded by the written culture, people still used scribes. At first, there were no spaces between words, so it was not common for people to write their own thoughts down – they would speak their ideas aloud so that they could be recorded. Reading came into play once spaces were introduced, and people could have an easier time actually transcribing their thoughts and reading silently. The idea of reading to oneself was considered “devilry” and strange to those who witnessed it, but once this happened, text was no longer used only as a means to read thoughts aloud. It was something private, and in that sense, more about personal fulfillment and less about who else was hearing it.

“As the brain becomes more adept at decoding text, turning what had been a demanding problem-solving exercise into a process that is essentially automatic, it can dedicate more resources to the interpretation of meaning” (63).

“Decoding text” refers to the task of figuring out what the text says, when words don’t have spaces in between them. So, does this mean that once spaces were introduced, the brain no longer had to work so hard in order to decipher text? Carr doesn’t specify what these other “resources” are in the brain, so I am not sure what parts of the brain are alleviated, or if that even matters in terms of how much the brain can handle.

Phaedrus

“The written word is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder” (54).

This section of the chapter is a recap of Phaedrus, which Carr basically retells in order to point out the argument between Theuth and Thamus that is against the written word. He does not really have a new argument here, but is going along with the idea that writing will not help memory. I think that since he says it will serve as a reminder, it actually is a helpful tool for memory.

A reminder is essentially like a trigger, as Quintilian explains in the reading: “They distinguish what they have written, or treasured in their mind, by some symbol by which they may be reminded of it, a symbol which may either have reference to the subject in general, as navigation or warfare, or to some particular word, for if they forget, they may, by a hint from a single word, find their recollection revived” (Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory).

Quintilian challenges Plato’s conception of writing and says that writing can be used as a way of impressing memory onto itself. He disagrees with Plato’s criticism of writing as being a deterrent to building memory, as “mnemonic loci” = localities that assist memory. I am not sure what kind of memory triggers can exist while surfing the Internet, or where Carr is going with his inclusion of this section of Phaedrus, but I think that it has a lot to do with there being so much written text distracting the brain online that we cannot remember what we read, and even reminders may not help. We know that writing will be the pharmakon of memory, and in this sense, pharmakon is of course ambiguous because it is the cure as well as the poison. It is not one or the other – it is both, because the pharmakon is artificial, and because it comes from outside rather than from within.

Deep Reading

“Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible” (63).

Any hint of a change is what makes us shift our attention, so I suppose Carr is arguing that with Internet pop-ups and advertisements, we are constantly drawn away from what we were originally looking at when we first visited whatever page. Carr connects this reflex with a primitive tendency to react and change our point of focus as a survival technique, which is interesting. I am more interested in how peripheral vision works in this sense, how it redirects our attention to something in the corner of our eye, but Carr doesn’t go into that.

New Mediums

“A new medium is never an addition to an old one […] nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them” (89).

“When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image. It not only dissolves the medium’s physical form; it injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks” (90).

This is McLuhan’s idea, which Carr is using to introduce his take on why print publications are going online. He says that because we are no longer able to read long texts in one sitting, we need hyperlinks in order to keep us moving, and perhaps to keep us from losing interest?

(Hyper)Links

“All reading is multi-sensory […] 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” (90).

“They encourage us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them. Hyperlinks are designed to grab our attention” (90).

Links do more than just point us to relevant works that expand our scope of information. Carr thinks that they force us to move quickly and to click on them, as that seems to be the only way to “connect the dots” and to get all of the relevant contextual information online. Something he does not go into is that links actually promote procrastination and skimming. Links are there to make us feel as if we are taking in loads of information, as we are going from page to page and covering a lot of electronic ground, but the information has simply been broken up to encourage this illusion.

I think that Carr’s reference to immersion is important, but he does not see the distinction between concentration and immersion. There is a difference between reading something and absorbing it, taking it in, and becoming a part of it through immersion. Someone can very well be immersed in a series of hyperlinks or even a hypertext narrative, which requires clicking through a multitude of links rapidly. It is strange that with all of his talk of hyperlinks, Carr never mentions hypertexts and the fact that they are intentionally designed with links in order to immerse the reader. The hypertext narratives that I have studied promote a sort of agency and control over the text, and it is up to reader to decide how to take in the information and in what order.

“A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text that have a strong relevance to whatever we’re searching for while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole” (91).

This is a bit of generalization I think, since often snippets and quotes that stick out of a text are precisely what make readers gravitate towards the entire piece. I know that I often find that myself.

“[Unbundling] provides people with more choices and frees them from unwanted purchases” (94).

Carr says that unbundling allows people the choice to streamline through unwanted bits and only get to the information that they want. This is significant because it goes back to the discussion about productivity and time. Carr struggles with whether or not breaking up information into smaller chunks is actually useful, since what we end up with are just smaller bits, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. I’m interested in how we define “usefulness” in terms of what information we gather when we go online.

Social Media

“Books will literally have discussions inside of them, both live chats and asynchronus exchanges through comments and social annotation” (106).

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but this idea makes me hate what book culture has become. Carr believes that reading will become a social pastime, just as everything else online seems to be. There is a very large correlation, for me, between social media and productivity/competition. When I bring up competition I am referring to applications and websites to constantly want to force users to post and compare their results with their friends.

Kevin Kelly even suggested that we’ll be holding communal cut-and-paste parties online” (106).

This is a significant quote because it points out that a crucial development is underway, as it takes the shift that the original book promoted, that is, private reading and private writing, and changes it to a communal activity that promotes authorship over the text. Mayer-Schonberger talks remix culture, or the ability to modify and add to a text without the involvement of the original creator and the input or context of the original work. This is a completely different form of reading in the postructuralist sense, as Derrida talks about in Plato’s Pharmacy.

Derrida, like Roland Barthes, deduces that reading is a kind of writing or rewriting, where the reader does not simply process the words on the page, but actively constructs–through a number of associations with other words, other texts, and other events and experiences–a text of their own. Remix culture and “communal cut-and-paste parties” is probably not what either of them had in mind, though.

“Electronic text is impermanent. In the digital marketplace, publication becomes an ongoing process rather than a discrete event, and revision can go on indefinitely […] The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish” (107).

This idea is important because writing could be repurposed so that it is no longer a craft, but a means to garner the biggest audience and to receive the most attention with how timely the news is. I find that on Twitter feeds and blogs, journalists are less concerned with how things are written and just want to get their name stamped on whatever the post is as quickly as possible. I guess speed and timeliness really is everything these days.

Carr quotes media scholar Clay Shirky who says that the “anomaly” of literary habit mentioned earlier was “Our old literary habits were just a side effect of living in an environment of impoverished access. Now that the Net has granted us abundant access […] we can lay those tired habits aside” (111).

I have some issues with this statement because Clay Shirky is talking from a standpoint that seems to have completely forgotten how far printed text and libraries have taken us in terms of information accessibility. It is as if he is disregarding the past entirely, especially since he talks about books as being “very important in some vague way” (111). While its true that culture has shifted in terms of what the mainstream considers important, I think that this demonstrates a somewhat narrow way of thinking.

Mental Circuits and Attention

“When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning” (116).

This is an important concept, as Carr is convinced that the brain’s plasticity fits perfectly well within this mode of learning. He says that if one were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits, they would end up designing something that works a lot like the Internet.

“The Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions” (116) 

I think that this part is returning back to the concept of the survival instinct and reflexes. I am not sure why, however, Carr mentions “interactivity” in this quote, as he does not really address it. If people are interacting with content on the Internet, that goes along with immersion and with that, attention span and concentration.

“The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it […] a cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively” (120).

I disagree with this, since Carr believes that we are so distracted and our minds are moving at such a quick pace, that we cannot possibly be thinking deeply. I think that he essentially ignores that there are ways to thinking deeply and creatively that are different from how one reads a linear book and gets lost in its pages. Furthermore, Carr argues that this dumbs down our brains, turning them into simple signal-processing units – which is something that I feel he contradicts later on.

Cognitive Science

“Web surfing, because it engages so many brain functions, may help keep older people’s minds sharp. Searching and browsing seem to ‘exercise’ the brain in a way similar to solving crossword puzzles” (122).

Carr contradicts his earlier statement about the brain being dumbed down by the Internet. It seems that throughout this entire book, he is saying both that the Internet, because it throws a lot of stimuli our way, trains the brain to navigate through it quickly, while at the same time saying that there is no creativity and deep reading going on. The brain can be engaged, because even he says that there is clearly extensive activity going on when people use the Internet. However, Carr argues that this is why deep reading and concentration are so difficult. Evaluating links and making choices online requires mental coordination and decision making, which distracts the brain from interpreting text. But why can’t the brain do both?

“In a very real way, the Web returns us to the time of scriptura continua, when reading was a cognitively strenuous act” (122).

This is crucial, as Carr is saying that reading becomes difficult for us again, but for different reasons. When words and sentences were displayed with no breaks or spaces, it was difficult for the brain to “decode” the information because of the visual challenge.

Memory

“Working memory forms, in a very real sense, the contents of our consciousness at any given moment” (123).

Here, Carr finally explains how working memory functions and what purpose it serves. Working memory is one type of short-term memory that allows information to be transferred into the long-term. In order for us to call to mind something that we previously learned, our brains must transfer that knowledge from long-term back into working memory.

“The Net is making us smarter, in other words, only if we define intelligence by the Net’s own standards. If we take a broader and more traditional view of intelligence – if we think about the depth of our thought rather than just its speed – we come to a different and considerably darker conclusion” (141).

What is this broader and more traditional view of intelligence? It seems to be Carr’s nostalgic interpretation of what intelligence means, in terms of how long someone can concentrate on one thing, most likely a book, without breaking the linear thought. I am not sure why Carr ignores the new kind of intelligence that has come about due to multitasking and making connections between various ideas, and problem solving while reading and absorbing information.

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it”- Samuel Johnson (143).

This is an interesting quote to include, as it goes back to the idea of an index for the information that one stores inside their head. The index seems like it could be related to the trigger, which allows one to recall information in the long-term memory by activating that reminder.

Google

“Once his system was applied to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his many followers, it would bring about the restructuring not only of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency” (150).

The idea of clocks and efficiency again, and Carr’s definition of “productivity.” Google’s entire business model is predicated on the goal of getting users in and out as quickly and as efficiently as possible. The more links we click, the more information Google gets about us as it rapidly generates more and more links that cater to our interests.

“Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction” (157).

This is a bold statement, and very significant in terms of Carr’s argument. The thing is, “distraction” and “efficiency” don’t exactly go hand in hand. Google says it aims to be efficient, but it is far more concerned with speed and popularity as opposed to quality. In 2009, Google re-imagined its search engine to show the most recent information at the top of every search, meaning that users are not necessarily get good information, just the newest. Of course, this could be fine, if the type of information you are looking for needs to be timely – but it is not always the best.

“[Google is] continually reinforcing a consensus about what information is important and what isn’t” (217).

Google Scholar scans books and makes them available online, but skips pages. I was sure that this was because of copyright issues and to encourage people to buy the physical books. Carr says that Google is trying to compile a library of snippets, not actual full-length books, but I haven’t really seen this yet. Carr spends a long time in this chapter talking about what we give Google, but does not really expand on what Google actually takes from us. Google, as a cognitive technology, is something that we are confiding more and more of our memory to, which in Plato’s terms, is causing us to lose part of our knowledge.

So, do mnemotechnologies represent a structural loss or displacement of memory? I think that they do. More importantly, does this displacement constitute a control of knowledge imposed on society? For Stiegler, the proletarianization of memory causes a feedback loop of consuming and producing information. We give our information to Google, which is, in essence, an algorithm designed to take apart our information and give it back to us. However, when we search for something, we regard Google as something that actually produces data and knowledge for us to take in. I don’t believe, after reading this book, that it producing anything – I think that its a generator, and a recycler of our own memories and actions.

Memorization and Machines

“Inspired by the book, people began to see themselves as authors of their own memories” (178)

To continue with recollection, this is when Carr brings up Erasmus, who insisted that his students transcribe notes on the thoughts that they had while reading. The idea of one seeing themselves as the “author” of their own memories is very interesting, as it makes me think of selective memory. If someone can write down the parts of a memory that they want to remember, or the way that they would like to remember it, they can create a new meaning for it and the original context may be forgotten or disregarded.

“To him [Erasmus], memorizing was far more than a means of storage. It was the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading” (179).

Erasmus’ take on memory was one that fully engaged the mind. Like we saw in the Aristotle reading: “For one remembers now what one saw or otherwise experienced formerly; the moment of the original experience and the moment of the memory of it are never identical” (Aristotle).

With time passing the experience changes, and the mind forgets certain things or subconsciously replaces them with others. Perception is also not a perfect recording of an event because it is biased.

“The Net quickly came to be seen as a replacement for, rather than just a supplement to, personal memory” (180).

It is good that Carr brings this up, since today, it is very common for people to talk about our biological memory as if it is synonymous from the artificial memory of the Internet, as Mayer-Schonberger does in Delete.

“Rather than memorize information, we now store it digitally and just remember what we stored […] Mnemosyne is becoming a machine” (182).

Here, he is saying basically that there is no use in memorizing the contents of a book when one can use their brain capacity to store a quick guide, or an index, to an entire library. But, do we really remember it? No. We have grown too accustomed to machines that serve as easy reminders for everything we do, and the difference between artificial and biological memory continues to blur.

Memory Storage

“Though filled with a combination of seemingly random activations, aspects of the day’s experiences, and elements from the distant past, dreams may be a fundamental way in which the mind consolidates the myriad of explicit recollections into a coherent set of representations for permanent, consolidated memory” (190).

This reminds me of Stiegler’s idea of the cinema of the mind – when sleeping is the time when we are editing our memories, like the editing process of cinema after it’s shot. When we are conscious and watching something, we are, in essence, filming it at the same time and it records itself in our memory. The editing, or consolidation process begins once we sleep, and though we don’t seem to remember much in the morning, those memories are ingrained in our minds and are there for later recollection.

“Biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not” (191).

Here, Carr emphasizes a very important distinction – an artificial “brain” like the one found on a hard drive or in the Internet’s cache saves things away, and there is no process of breaking down the memory or transferring it through synaptic terminals from short-term into long-term, and then into working memory, or immediate consciousness. Meanwhile, a human brain does all of these things and the completeness of the memory depends on how it is processed, and when, and under what circumstances.

Outsourcing

“Those who celebrate the ‘outsourcing’ of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor” (191).

In Mediated Memories, Van-Djick talks about a medium such as the Internet as being like a metaphorical reservoir that holds our past experiences and knowledge for future use. She argues that although digital technologies have led to the image of human memory as simply storage and retrieval, in actuality memories are diffused across the brain and are creatively transformed in the process of recall.

“The brain that does the remembering is not the brain that formed the initial memory. In order for the old memory to make sense in the current brain, the memory has to be updated” (191).

This is important, since the biological memory is organic and any memory within it exists in time and will constantly change. When we recall a memory, we are re-starting the act of consolidation, and it becomes part of the working memory again. It is never the same as when it was originally a working memory because it gains a new context. Perfect contextualization, as we saw with Mayer-Schonberger, cannot exist in the biological memory.

“When a person fails to consolidate a fact, an idea, or an experience in the long-term memory, he’s not ‘freeing up’ space in his brain for other functions” (192).

The memory cannot ever be full, and the brain’s elasticity is always expanding and contracting, re-molding itself as it learns from experiences. The idea of the externalization of memory onto another medium relates to Derrida’s differance, which we know is his conception of the liberation of memory. Differance comes from the term “defer” which means to put off. The popular argument is that the Internet allows us to “put off” what we take in, which relieves us of the work of remembering so that we can devote more time to creative thought.

“The Web is a technology of forgetfulness” (193).

Victor Mayer-Schonberger’s Delete is about how the Internet, and artificial memory, preserves a perfect memory and never forgets things the way that we do. I don’t believe that Carr is trying to say that the Internet forgets things, but rather that it causes us to forget. And to be fair to us, when we use the Internet, it’s not that we forget, we just don’t ever grasp things for long enough to remember.

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