Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows

Reviewed in this essay:

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.

Google. Huffington. Sports scores. Twitter. Text. Blog, blog, blog. Twitt—PHONE CALL!—Email. Facebook. Twitter . . .

Does this read like the score of activities that occupy just two minutes of your day? In his Pulitzer-nominated book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr examines just that: the rapid-fire, attention-pruning effects the Internet is having on its hapless (and sometimes addicted) users.

Marshall McLuhan, who would be 100 years old this year, wrote that we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. While McLuhan only lived to see fairly primitive computers, the truth of his axiom continues to unfold.

Indeed, Carr recognizes his indebtedness to McLuhan’s work by alluding to the theorist in the very first sentence of The Shallows. Carr uses McLuhan as a launching point, and relying on personal observation as well as recent neurological studies, claims that the Internet is profoundly altering the structure of the human brain.

Carr develops his theory by reflecting on the nature of our “tools.” He does an excellent job of arguing that the essence of the Internet is constant distraction. He provides  a chapter discussing the significance of the shift from print to electronic reading, and delves into the deep, dark corners of the Internet with a chapter entitled “The Church of Google.”

What’s the big deal?

When you’re reading a book, you’re either reading, or not reading. Not so, with a computer. Manufacturers have for years pushed increased RAM on computers, which allows for greater multitasking. Compounded with that device once called a cell phone (which is quickly morphing into a mobile computer) as well as the embedded links and ads in any Internet article or book you might be reading, achieving that old-school, bookish focus becomes something of a monastic practice.

Indeed, attention deficit has become the norm, and attention surplus, the disorder.

The Shallows arrives amidst several other books that beg us to think critically about the technologies that are embedding themselves deeper and deeper within us. At times Carr writes with a hint of nostalgia, lamenting the loss of that bookish deep-thinking style, which also came with its own streak of problems. At times Carr limits the scope of his discussion by taking a moral stance, although it’s never excessive.

This is a very important book, and if you still have the attention span to absorb 200 pages on a single subject, this would be well worth your time.

If not, then click on. Facebook awaits.

About the author

Jordan Mandel

Jordan Mandel is an MA candidate in the University of Western Ontario's Popular Music & Culture Program. He recently released a free album called "Forward Through the Rearview Mirror" that features the voice of Marshall McLuhan.

By Jordan Mandel