Review: The Shallows

The Shallows is the best kind of polemic: it’s one that gets the facts right and lets the reader get on to disputing the ideas.  And I do dispute the ideas even as I admire the presentation and research that Nicholas Carr has done.

The focus of Carr’s concerns is that today’s information economy is changing the way people approach and process information.  On its face that assertion is true, but Carr’s concern isn’t that people search Google instead of the card catalog; he’s concerned that these tools are changing the layout and function of people’s brains.  This sounds much more dire.  He implies that people are losing their ability to read and interpret long-form arguments and similar hallmarks of the humanist scholar. That has a certain alarmist feel about it, but the facts he marshals in its support are genuine.

His argument that tools change how we think at a biological level hinges on recent research into brain plasticity.  This is the observation that neurological connections rearrange themselves throughout human lifetimes, not just during early brain development. The most dramatic examples of this are people whose brains rearrange themselves after traumatic brain injury to restore or enhance existing brain function.  These are remarkable examples, and worth a look no matter what else you think of Carr’s arguments.  His exposition of these ideas implies that he expects arguments about the efficacy of the phenomenon.  He won’t get them from me.

We do disagree, though. The first point is a bit subtle.  He seems to hold a vaguely dualistic view of the brain and mind.  That is, he seems to believe that the mind is distinct from the brain and uses the brain to think with.  Under this view the various tools are damaging the house his self lives in.

I don’t believe that at all.  I think that the brain the entire manifestation of self and consciousness, modulo the fact that we don’t know how it works and there may be elements of consciousness that reside other places. But it’s all physical.  As a consequence, brain plasticity is unsurprising; every though or memory or impression modifies the organ in some way.  I am surprised by just how widespread the changes can be, but it doesn’t feel to me like modern tools are undermining my thinking equipment.  My interpretation is that the tools and I are adapting to one another.

Philosophical fine points aside, the second point on which we largely disagree is that he believes that the traditional scholarly modes of thought are under siege.  And that this is a loss to society.  Perhaps because I believe that my brain is meeting the tools halfway, this seems non-coercive to me.  I think people who use the information revolution’s tools can change how they use their brains.  I also think that this is neither a one-way street or an binary choice.  I’m comfortable finding a sweet spot here.

All of which is a lot of extra text that underscores the idea that this is a book worth reading, even though I disagree with its conclusions.

Strongly recommended.

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