Mark Desrosiers's Reviews > The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
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Jun 01, 2011

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bookshelves: collapse, inventions, language, psycho-sociology
Read in May, 2011

Beware: when you hit the last page of this fascinating, bleak, helpless narrative -- one that addresses your own brain as a stunted, wasting bundle of unmotivated neurons -- you'll either want to retreat to a shared scholarly past, pointing at physical pages with a yad, or you'll just embrace the terrifying idiocracy-pastebin Second Dark Age that's sweeping over us. Hell, the author himself interrupts his argument on occasion to underscore his own troubles with concentration, even devoting a chapter to how he managed to finish writing this book.

But there are bright spots -- his concise history of reading (of silent reading) will hustle your brainstem and reinstate for you the one most awesome thing we take for granted. Similarly, later in the narrative he kinda bashes Google as one of the most sinister organizations ever with their 300-year plan to become a corporate repository of all information everywhere. But of course, "information" just means "data" to Google, and thus all books will be churned into a blender of searchable text: "The great library that Google is rushing to create shouldn't be confused with the libraries we've known up until now. It's not a library of books. It's a library of snippets." Love the bashing, but as with everything in this book, Google's book-scanning enterprise seems inevitable, unstoppable.

Which is why things are so bleak -- nowhere does Carr offer a suggestion that maybe this downward trajectory could reverse itself, that perhaps the "reading class" will become admired and emulated, turning people away from their Blackberries and Kindles, and back into the cracked spine of a physical book. And he really doesn't address the scarier fact: what are the brains of the new generation? He's largely writing to his peer cohorts -- those of us whose lives began analog and turned digital -- telling us sad, sympathetic tales of how we don't remember facts or quotes, how we can no longer devote deep attention to a book, how we're constantly distracted and thereby made dumber. But what about the n00bs who are born in 2011 and may never know the pleasure of sitting silently for hours with a sublime, brain-inflaming book? He doesn't go there, because really, he can't... nobody knows what the new brains will do.

Early in his narrative, Carr does bump up against an occasional dialectic -- for example with written literature we lost our magnificent oral culture, but we gained larger stores of memory and logic and a stronger insistence on evidence and facts to guide our daily lives. However, with all we're losing now -- memory, attention, perhaps even the future of literature, poetry, history -- he offers very little in compensation, just some gains in reflexes and hand-eye coordination: lower functions. His own brain is talking back like HAL, and I can hear mine doing it too: Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I'm half crazy all for the love of you. It won't be a stylish marriage, I can't afford a carriage. But you'll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.
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