07 September 2010

Book Review: The Shallows

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
By Nicholas Carr
W. W. Norton & Co., 276 pages

Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows, explains his theory that the Internet, like all forms of media before it, affects our brains by changing how we think and communicate. In the specific case of the Internet, this effect is to shorten our attention span.

Casting all irony aside, I will now blog about it, in hopes you will have the patience to read an entire book review. Ready? Here goes.

While Carr does believe Internet use reduces the attention span, he actually has a more elaborate thesis: Throughout history, humankind has created many tools, measures and media, all of which literally changed the way we live, usually bringing some advancement to civilization. The human brain adapts to each of these advancements. Neurologists have proven the brain to be plastic in nature, operating according to the routines by which we live. This principle explains muscle memory, addiction, and how we communicate.

The Shallows lasts ten chapters, with the charming irony that Carr interrupts some of the chapter transitions with “a digression”, perhaps to underline his overall point that few of us can stay on track anymore. Nevertheless he stays on track, starting with a personal perspective, then plunging deep into the science of neurology, followed by the history of communication media, and finally tying the two together to show that the Internet, like all media before it, influences our ways of thinking. It’s a compelling case.

This book is thick with science and history, all presented as the engaging story of our journey through oral traditions, cuneiform, papyrus, paper, books and the Internet. Carr sees the benefits of all these media. He embraces the Internet, pointing out how it not only stores information efficiently, but has developed our skills at locating the right information. We may not remember the Dewey Decimal System, because we don’t have to -- and that’s the danger. Carr quotes more than once a caution expressed by Socrates that writing down texts, instead of memorizing them, was “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”

Carr is neither Luddite nor Cassandra. Most of the books’ press coverage pursued a “bad Internet” storyline, but in reality Carr sees “the Net” (as he calls it) as simply another invention that’s not only a product of our brains but an influencer of how we use them. In that way the story is a bleak one for bibliophiles. A key finding is that just a decade and a half of Internet usage has reduced our ability to digest long-form literature such as an essay or a book. More than that, Carr laments in a personal observation, “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation.” There’s a kind of resistance-is-futile feel to this and other passages of the book.

Carr also captures a debate between Determinists, who say out technology affects our history, and Instrumentalists, who say our history affects our technology. Carr seems to side with the Determinists, based on his analysis of science and history. Science tells us the brain is “plastic”, forming neural pathways based on how we employ it most frequently. History tells us that we have always molded our brains with each new technology, including the map, the clock and the printing press. It’s worth remembering how revolutionary books were as the Renaissance dawned: “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object.”

Pursuing the Determinist angle, Carr's examination of the Internet focuses on linked text and its cascading cross-references. Reading a page in a physical book leads merely to the next page. Reading a page on the Internet can lead to hundreds of other pages with just one or two clicks. Chapter 7, “The Juggler’s Brain”, explores how Internet multitasking erodes comprehension. You can access all sorts of data but not all at one time. The software you’re using to read this review isn’t called a “browser” for nothing.

Google comes in for some criticism in The Shallows for its über-quantitative culture. Google’s very business model is based on the number of choices people make, so the more links we click, the more data we feed to the beast. It occurred to me while reading this passage that SEM is like direct marketing on Red Bull. Instead of sending in a single BRC, the consumer votes early and often, every time they click.

Why this matters to Marketers

How does The Shallows matter to marketers? I see two implications.

The first implication is how we train ourselves as professionals. The Internet isn’t detrimental unless it becomes our exclusive way of working. The antidote to Carr’s dystopian view is a balanced use of various media, with a return to more contemplative experiences. Reading is solitary and the Internet is interconnected – you’re never alone with your thoughts. We need balance.

The second implication is that we are marketing to a consumer population that increasingly lacks this kind of balance. The advent of social media will drive short attention spans. How can we engage consumers in an environment like this? It won’t be easy. We can only do so much to influence society, but just going with the flow doesn’t do much good. Balance your messages.

I’m glad you stayed with me to the end of this book review. You probably realize that I recommend reading The Shallows, preferably the physical book. You may not have realized that in tribute to the book, this review contained no hypertext links whatsoever.


  1. Nice review. I followed the link in your comment from GigaOm (no short attention span here). What this topic does not seem to address is how to get the various senses working together in this new user-distributed media environment, to drive engagement. While applaud your lack of links, you could easily have made your post more visually compelling by including a web clip, a relatively new, under-the-radar technology that lets readers share visual clips and quotes of content they find around the web. This takes the whole notion of content sharing beyond the link and into the visual realm. If you want to check it out go to http://clp.ly and try it. I would love to hear, given your perspective, how you think this technology will impact the future of content sharing and linking.

    Best wishes.

  2. To be honest, I shied away from this book because of all the 'internet is bad' media coverage, but your review has compelled me to take a second look. Thanks!

  3. Thanks, Mike! Please tell Nicholas Carr so he mails me a check for giving him a referral!

  4. That's a mighty funny comment, Chandra, given the subject matter!

    Check Amazon...or your local library!