Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Review: The Shallows

When I knew that my book club would be reading this book by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, I noticed another similar book in my library's recent acquisitions. Thus, I got my hands on the book Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains, by Susan Greenfield, prior to reading this Nicholas Carr book. Perhaps if I hadn't read that one first, I might not have had such a difficult time getting into Carr's book. Alas, it was a struggle to keep with it and if it hadn't been for the book club, I certainly would have been tempted to toss it aside.

Nicholas Carr advances the same theory, that our persistent use of the Internet is altering our brains. Because of the brain's plasticity, it is rewiring all the time based on how we use it and our use of the Internet tends to lead to brief, intense, shallow surfing. Carr bemoans the fact that he can no longer sit down with a book and process it deeply (yet he is asking his readers to cast aside this affect of the Internet on attention spans by presenting a treatise full of references to great thinkers, society-changers, and pundits).

I, too, found it difficult to remain focused on his argument. It had a rambling manner which delved into all sorts of tangents and anecdotes. Some of the information was interesting. I loved learning about the use of "commonplace books"  - a notebook of memorable quotations -to retain information for later cogitation. This is a practice I love to employ; indeed, I think of my blog as a repository of concepts, ideas, and quotes I glean from the books I read. Yet, somehow, my mind had a hard time focusing in on his arguments. I don't know if I just wasn't in the mood for digesting the material or if the material was simply too full of quotes and historical tales used to support his argument.

I found Greenfield's book more accessible than this one. The author, a neuroscientist, presented her perspective in clear language, with a persuasive tone, and effective structure. Carr seemed intent upon impressing the reader with how much he had researched the ideas behind the book. For whatever reason, my final analysis is that I enjoyed the Mind Change book more than The Shallows.

Since I tend to read extensively, I don't feel a sense of danger in my own use of the Internet. I would say I use it minimally. I log on for an hour in the morning to check mail, Facebook, and news. I might write a blog post later on in the day and check Facebook again, but that is pretty much the extent of it. In fact, my husband recently bought me a phone with more capabilities than I could ever figure out how to use. While it was a godsend during my time at camp, enabling me to check my mail, forward information on to Bryce about scholarship requirements, and browse Facebook, I wasn't tied to it as some people are with their phones.

Yet, even with a limited use of the computer, I do fear the results I see in my boys who are so easily bored and often eschew genuinely fun activity in favor of sitting around on their devices (I took them to Sky Zone this week and had to cajole Sean to keep going when all he wanted to do was go home and get back on his I-pod). I observe their need for instant answers, quick-paced presentation of ideas, and the feedback of others on things they post to Instagram. They are clearly the product of their technological environment. They are fully "digital natives," while I will always be a "digital immigrant." Other parents suffer from similar dilemmas (my friend Amy linked to this mother's lament on summer and it gave me a good-natured, empathetic laugh, especially the line "Netflix ... isn't going to binge-watch itself").

I can only make a stand for myself and say that I will continue to read bound books, I will continue to write letters from time to time, and I will continue to seek balance in my life when it comes to today's technology. I don't want to live in the shallows. I want to be able to read a book with depth of concentration and mental interaction.

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