I confess that Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows has been sitting on my bedside “to be read” pile for the last three year’s – pretty much since it first came out. I’ve dipped into it on and off, and knew that it was “important”. But I figured I largely agreed with whatever it was going to say and reading it would be a colossal exercise in confirmation bias. But on finishing The Distraction Addiction I felt that just maybe I needed a little more of a hold on some of the science behind our relationship with digital technology and returned to Carr’s book.
Then finished it in two nights flat. Because it’s quite brilliant – beautifully written, exhaustively researched, and genuinely challenging.
What it’s not is some kind of anti-technology jeremiad. Carr is a seasoned writer about technology and very much part of “that world”. Rather, his starting point is that at some time in the mid-noughties he started to suspect that his own mind was being affected by almost constant use of connected technology. Specifically he was concerned that his ability to concentrate was diminished, and he wanted to find out why.
Having outlined his concerns at the beginning of the book he then goes on to sketch the history of our relationship to the written word, from the introduction of pictographic texts in Mesopotamia, through the creation of phonic text by the Greeks and Romans, on to the development of silent reading (as it turns out, a relatively late development in the Middle Ages) and on, of course, to the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press.
In outlining the history of reading, he makes the case that our thinking itself – and the very structure of our brain – has adapted. We became literary creatures, with an ability to become absorbed in text, something Carr refers to as “deep reading”.
But I think you can guess where this is going. Because the rise and rise of connected digital technology has had a profoundly negative impact on that ability to read deeply. As he puts it, “In the choices we have made, consciously or not, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration , the ethic that the book bestowed on us.”
Unlike Soojung-Kim Pang’s book, The Shallows doesn’t set out a path for addressing this, nor discuss at any length the kinds of tools being developed that might help us regain our ability to concentrate. Rather it’s a set of observations and arguments that principally stand as a warning. But as I said, it’s not hectoring. It’s actually finally balanced, with a lot of space given to thinkers who radically disagree with Carr’s argument. He’s especially open about the fact that some very smart people indeed have accepted that their relationship with knowledge has changed, that their reading is far more fragmented, but that it’s a worthwhile trade. Of course, he doesn’t agree (and nor do I), but they’re given air time.
What I’m saying here is that it’s a balanced and fair book – and a deeply personal one.
Along the way there are some juicy nuggets Here’s a handful that pricked up my brain.
A 2005 article in The Annual Review of Sociology posited the notion that we may be returning to a pre-Gutenberg world, where the deep reading of books is practiced only by an elite – the “reading class”.
Social media is powerfully addictive. Nothing new here, but I like this metaphor: “It… turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”
The hyperlink is the foundation of the web, and yes, it’s given us a lot. But it comes at a cost, because in-line links are a constant distraction, breaking up our concentration. Every time we see a link our brain has to make a decision whether to follow it or not. The decision may be infinitesimal – we may not even sense it. But it’s there. (I’ve suspected this myself since first reading link-dense text. That said, I write this way myself, simply because it’s conventional, but I’m rethinking this – not that you’d notice from that link-heavy opening para).
Of course, this is all compounded by the fact that giant businesses have been built on an advertising model that is all about the link, so the encouragement to build links into our writing is constant. “Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.”
Finally, the impact of the web on academia itself is profound. As researchers use search engines to find material, the self-reinforcing nature of link-based algorithms leads to articles and research at the periphery being ignored. A core value in academic research has previously been to uncover the gems at the margins. He quotes sociologist James Evans: “By drawing researchers through unrelated articles, print browsing and perusal may have facilitated broader comparisons and led researchers into the past.” We may be losing all of that, simply for the sake of convenience, which would be tragic.
But there’s so much more in here and I unreservedly recommend it to anyone interested in society’s – and own personal – intellectual life. I just wish I hadn’t waited so long.