Thoughts on Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”

After a couple of recommendations from a couple of different directions, I read Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains”. It combines neuroplasticity research (which I read about in Norman Doidge’s “The Brain that Changes Itself”) with ideas about a literary, print-based culture versus an electronic media-based culture. The book was mentioned in Tapscott & Williams’s “Macrowikinomics” and in Chris Hedges’s “Death of the Liberal Class”. Hedges also criticizes electronic media based culture and laments the death of print-based culture in his “Empire of Illusion”.

The basic argument of “The Shallows” is that the web is good for associating bits of information but print was good for deep reading, thinking, and contemplation. My friend Michael Albert focused on the attention span aspect of the argument in a recent blog post on ZNet: that attention spans decrease as online information flow increases.

Here’s a hopeful aspect: neuroplasticity goes both ways. If lots of internet use can reprogram us to lose our attention spans, practice thinking and contemplating can reprogram us to be reflective and thoughtful.

The other point that I’ve been thinking about is where Carr quotes Neil Postman, a very interesting writer on technology and society. On pg.151-2, Carr quotes Postman’s book “Technopoly”, who in turn was describing the key elements of scientific management. The six assumptions of Taylorism, or scientific management, as Postman writes – quoted in Carr:

“that the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

Carr uses this quote in a discussion about Google’s philosophy, and corrects the sixth assumption for the case of Google: “Google doesn’t believe that the affairs of citizens are best guided by experts. It believes that those affairs are best guided by software algorithms”.

This does take me back to Douglas Hubbard, who I mentioned in my post about Norberto Bobbio and democracy. Hubbard’s business book “How to Measure Anything”, is, if anything, an argument for good measurement and not bad measurement. His more recent book called “The Failure of Risk Management”, is even more explicitly a plea for using techniques that have some rigor and justification as opposed to subjective illusions of measurement and quantification.

What I wonder about though is, does even good measurement have possibly perverse effects? Does even good measurement crowd out important ways of thinking, like ethical reasoning or historical comparison? I am genuinely not sure about this point. Another question – if it comes to social conflict, can networked thinkers beat deep thinkers, or does it go the other way?

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.