The Shallows - What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

🗺️ nonfiction 📅 this year ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 stars
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The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

A finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction, Nicholas Carr’s bestseller The Shallows has become a foundational book in one of the most important debates of our time: As we enjoy the internet’s bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply? This 10th-anniversary edition includes a new afterword that brings the story, “a Silent Spring for the literary mind” (Slate), up to date, with a deep examination of the cognitive and behavioral effects of smartphones and social media.


Finished: Apr 2021

Rating (out of 5): ⭐⭐⭐⭐

My personal relationship to technology

This book (and the book club group I read it with) changed my mindset completely around digital technology. I’m convinced. Since I finished the book, I stopped carrying my phone around pretty much at all. The app that tracks my phone usage stats tells me my usage went from an average of 2-3 hours per day, to under 20 minutes per day.

I also bought an analog alarm clock for the bedroom. I stopped being dependent on my phone for an alarm, so I stopped having an excuse to bring it into the bedroom at all. I put a book on my bedside table so that instead of waking up and immediately mindlessly scrolling through social media to focus my brain, instead I actually read a novel now.

This was all from one study the book described where students taking tests performed worse if their phone was in visual distance of them - even if it was on silent, turned off, screen down, untouched. Just its presence made your mind jumpy and distracted thinking about the possibility of touching it, getting messages, anything else. I absolutely noticed the same about myself at work or while relaxing.

I had a problem where I would use my phone as filler, unconsciously. Waiting for two minutes in line at the post office? Phone time? Hanging out with a friend and they get up to go to the bathroom? Phone time. I couldn’t just sit and think or wait. Without even realizing it, I was filling all my unfilled time with staring at the phone. And it wasn’t helping me.

Networked vs linear thought

The internet is literally changing the way we’re able (or, less able) to focus on long-form linear thought, as compared to breadth-first networked thought.

The book dives into some research around the internet and hyperlinks. Specifically, reading an articles and constant hyperlinking makes it harder to read and understand. For one, the cognitive load of hyperlinks is such that every time you encounter one in an article, your brain has to make a split-second decision on whether or not to click it. Even if you don’t, and you keep focus on the text at hand, these decisions are still forcing all these micro-distractions away from the process of understanding the text.

And that’s if you don’t click the links! If you do, you’re jumping around half-formed thoughts. It may feel more productive to go on a Wikipedia binge, skimming and skipping from article to article, but it really hurts long-term retention and comprehension.

In my opinion: I learn best when creating networked and densely linked thoughts (like this digital garden!). But, reading other people’s digital gardens is tougher than just reading a collection of posts. I learn really well from being able to construct and connect linked thoughts. But from a consumer perspective, it just leads to chaos and less retention.

Physicality & spatiality

Personally, I like books over kindles because of the physicality of the pages and the spatial experience of reading.

I have a simple rule for myself: read nonfiction books in physical form, fiction books on my kindle.

It works because I read a lot of fiction, and I can really blaze through a fiction book in a matter of hours (even dense ones). So the kindle helps solely from a space-taken-up perspective, especially while travelling.

However, I cannot read nonfiction on the kindle. When I’m trying to understand and learn something, and especially to recollect something, the physical form factor of the book aids in my memory. I remember something from where it was spatially located on the page (left or right side? Near the top or the bottom? What was the visual construction of the text blocks surrounding it? How far physically through the book?)

Subconsciously, these cues help my brain recall the text itself and get more understanding from it. This is impossible with the kindle. The way you can change font size means the words jump physiclly all over the “pages”. There’s no spatial awareness of “where” a line of text lives - because it all lives within the same 5x7 inch screen. No physical cues show me where I am in the book, and the little percentage indicator does not help.

If I have a physical book and I want to find a passage for someone, I can flip through looking for the visual and spatial clues, and find it in a few seconds. Even with a several-hundred-page book. On a kindle, this process takes multiple minutes, even if I limit the search scope to a single chapter.

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