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June 1, 2010

News & Opinion: The Shallows: Interview with Nicholas Carr

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 2:15 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Last year, Nicholas Carr wrote a book called The Big Switch on how computing was changing history, the economy, and our lives in powerful ways. His new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains addresses the issue from a different standpoint: That the internet, while extremely useful, is making us become more dependent on it, and in the process, is literally changing the neurological patterns in our brains, and thus, how we think.

Controversial but insightful, this is the kind of book that makes you step aside from routines you didn't even realize you were a part of, and examine them. The writing is based on both personal experience and critical research, which caused me to nod in shared experience, and learn from broader data. It's an important book for our time.

In advance of the book's release, I did a brief Q&A with Mr. Carr. His answers offer a great overview into what's covered in the book. Be sure to pick this one up when it's available.

Where did the idea for The Shallows come from?

It came, originally, from my own personal experience. I'd been enjoying the bounties of the Internet for many years, but three or four years ago I began to notice that my ability to concentrate had been severely eroded. When I'd sit down to read a book, for instance, my mind would wander after a page or two, and then I'd hop back to my computer to check email or do some Googling. It dawned on me that my brain craved to take in information in short, quick bites - the way it did when I was online. Other people told me they were having similar problems, so I began exploring what history and science had to say about the way technologies influence the way we think. The Shallows is the story of what I discovered - and the news is not good.

How are the effects of the internet on our brains problematic as opposed to evolutionary?

I think they're both, actually. The cognitive effects of the Net - the way it promotes quick but shallow thinking, the way it keeps us perpetually distracted - represents in one way a natural progression of electric and electronic media, from the telegraph and telephone to radio and TV. But because the Web is displacing many other information and communications media and becoming what I call a universal medium, it's having much farther reaching intellectual consequences than earlier media did. Some of those consequences are good - we have easier access to a lot more information than we used to - but others are bad. We seem to be losing, without much noticing it, our contemplative, reflective, quiet modes of thought. Some would argue that those modes are essential to our humanity and our culture - and I would tend to agree.

You quote and use the term, "know a subject ourselves." How is technology enabling or inhibiting us to do that?

We've begun to use the Internet as a replacement for our long-term memory. In fact, quite a few writers have applauded the "outsourcing" of internal memory to external data bases. But if you look at the unique qualities of biological memory, you quickly realize that the connections we form within our own minds are essential to the depth and distinctiveness of our thoughts and even our personalities. To truly know a subject, you need to think deeply and attentively about it and connect what you know with other thoughts and memories. If you fail to do that, you're going to be a superficial thinker.

What is good about reading a book?

The great thing about a printed book is that there's nothing else going on. It shields you from distractions, focuses your concentration. That's actually an unnatural mode of thought, but it's an extraordinarily valuable one. I argue that it was the book that in large measure trained us to be attentive, deep thinkers over the past 500 years, since Gutenberg invented the printing press. As text moves from the quiet page to the busy screen, we're in danger of losing that mode of thought. We're returning to our natural state of distractedness - but with more distractions than ever.

What are some ways to avoid becoming part of a distracted culture? And what can we do as individuals and organizations to keep ourselves and others more focused?

It's very hard, because the Net is being woven deeply into our lives - into the norms of work, socializing, education. So the trend we're seeing may, unfortunately, be impossible to stop. Of course as individuals we can choose a different course, curtailing our use of computers and cell phones and social networks and the Net. That's not easy, but it's something people should at least think about.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.