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

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
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Oct 01, 11

bookshelves: civilization, non-fiction, science, pulitzer
Read in August, 2011

We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.

The price we pay to assume technology's power is alienation.

A somewhat disturbing book. It begins with a reference to my favorite movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey where HAL the computer is systematically being disconnected by the lone survivor of HAL's malfunction, David Bowman. "Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop?". But as Dave continues, HAL says, "My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it."

Like HAL, the author has been able to feel his mind "going." I have felt it too. I remember years ago being able to concentrate and focus on what I was reading to the point that my surroundings seemed to disappear as I became swallowed up and completely immersed in the environment and experiences described by what I was reading. Such intense concentration eludes me now. I have tended to attribute this loss to an aging brain, but after reading this book I am now not so sure.

Lots of studies and experiments have shed light on the subject of the brain's ability to modify itself according to the activities and habits of the person. Habits and tool use, such as internet usage, alter the brain in ways most of us do not understand or even recognize -- even after it has fully taken hold and it is too late to make significant adjustments (very similar to drug addiction). We as a society tend to adopt new technologies and their benefits without ever analyzing potential downsides or even questioning whether there are any. In many instances this is certainly unwise.

The last lines in the book refer back to that scene from 2001:
What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is HAL's emotional response to the disassembly of its own mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut -- "I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm afraid" -- and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL's outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they're following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machine-like that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That's the essence of Kubrick's dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

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