This is a book that I have finished reading 8 years later than when I should preferably have. But as is the case with wisdom, good habits, realisation, and love, better late than never. “The Shallows”, (a Pulitzer Prize Finalist), penned by acclaimed author, Nicholas Carr, issues a wakeup call that is timely, topical and terrifying. Bringing to bear, the prescience of Socrates and the peculiarities of the science of neuroplasticity, Carr dissects in an astonishingly lucid manner the deceptive perils of an inviting buffet of virtual richness that the internet offers us all.
The book opens with a bleak throwback, as Carr takes his readers back in time to the climax of the seminal Science Fiction movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In this master piece by Stanley Kubrick, the supercomputer HAL issues anguished pleas as it is being dismantled. “My mind is going. I can feel it.” HAL laments. The internet, while not exactly ripping our minds to shreds, is ‘rewiring’ our cerebral circuits that are marvelously, yet vulnerably malleable. Employing the pathbreaking proclamations and postulations of the legendary communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan, to describe how the internet has subtly yet, undoubtedly taken over our minds, Carr painstakingly brings to us the stark essence of McLuhan’s immortal phrase, “the medium is the message”
In the internet era, where communications take place at a frenzied pace and where web hopping makes the phrase pub-hopping seem extraordinarily pedestrian, a noticeable change can be found in the reading habits of people. As Carr points out, the trend now is to ‘skim through’ lines, sentences, paragraphs and pages rather than deep read in peace and calm. Similar to the phenomenon of spending as little time as possible at each website, and clicking furiously on one hyperlink that leads to the next, which in turn, leads to another, we also surf the pages of a book with scant regard to either the meaning or essence contained within. “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves”, writes Carr.
It is precisely to award such a flurry of distractions that Carr retreated to the mountains of Colorado from the suburb of Boston to expedite the writing of this book. “When I began writing The Shallows, toward the end of 2007, I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words. I tended to write in disconnected sprits, the same way I wrote when blogging.” He also deactivated his Twitter account, stayed off from Facebook, “shut down” his automatic news reader, and abstained from checking emails for long stretches of time.
Carr also informs us that we often, unknowingly, transform ourselves into the medium which we employ in the normal course, to send and receive our message. Plagued by debilitating indigestion, insomnia, and migraines in addition to experiencing deterioration in his eyesight, German philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, and philologist Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche got himself a curious typewriter called the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball. Whilst this aided the author greatly in his writing endeavour, it also brought about a distinctive change to his writing style. In the philosopher’s own words, “The writing ball is a thing like me, made of iron yet easily twisted on journeys. Patience and tact are required in abundance as well as fine fingers to use us.”
Carr relies on a plethora of empirical research conducted by famed neuroscientists and experts in the field of neuroplasticity to bolster his argument that the internet is influencing us – none for the better – as a species. For example, there are lots of passages and pages devoted to the landmark work of Austrian-American psychiatrist Eric Kandel. Kandel who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in the year 2000, went on to show that short-term and long-term memories are formed by different signals. This is true in all animals that learn, from molluscs to man. This is where the book gets more than just a bit dense and esoteric. Dwelling on the differences between short term and long term memories, implicit and explicit memories, Carr elaborately and enthusiastically dives into the complicated field of neuroscience and the reader is left wondering whether the movie hall has projected the wrong cinema after an intermission.
Carr, in addition to Kandel, draws on the works of many distinguished academic luminaries whose contribution span subjects, geographies and eras. Norman Diodge, J.Z. Young, Michael Matthias Merzenich, Rene Descartes, and H.G.Wells are some of the names that adorn the theories set out in Carr’s work. No wonder the endnotes to the book make for some reading that is as impressive as the main body itself of the book.
Carr also dwells on the perils of multitasking. We are continually switching back and forth between manipulating the keyboard of our laptops, sending and receiving a spate of instant messages, shifting between posting selfies on Instagram and updating status on Facebook, all the while expressing our angst in 280 characters (the character limit was 140 when the book was written) on Twitter. This multitasking warrants and demands allocation of attention to various objects simultaneously with no particular focus on any one particular object. It is such a relentless mental motion that has the incredible impact of altering the physiological structure of the brain at the cellular level. A part of the brain called hippocampus, informs Carr, has a different structure for the cabbies of London who have a prodigious capacity to remember every nook and cranny as compared to a person who drives using a GPS for navigation.
Even though I had no idea of this book until a few days ago, going through the same made me realise some subtle yet perceptible changes that had taken over my writing. Until a few years ago, especially before I got myself a well functional blog, I used to review books by initially setting out my thoughts on paper. I would first compose what the writer Anne Lamott famously describes as “shitty first drafts” and refine them by crossing out lines, striking out passages and scrawling additional squiggles in between words. Once I had my blog up and running, I began reviewing books solely on my personal laptop. Although the shitty drafts still appear on the screen, they are, as I introspect in hindsight, well and truly shitty. Words which were earlier idyllic, expansive, sincere, spontaneous, and non-judgmental are now edgy, restless, abstract, curt, short and angry. They are like virtual bee stings. There are deliberately “introduced” words that are extremely amenable to hyperlinks. Sheets which earlier used to look like messy abstract paintings in black and red are now replaced by perfectly symmetrical black lines punctuated with links in blue, or is it green? Even this particular review devotes a paragraph solely to cover the sources relied on by Carr. This is a paragraph that could easily have been excised from the review, but then again so would have been the hyperlinks!
Carr wonders whether Socrates could have pioneered history’s first technology scare. In the “Phaedrus,” the learned and pragmatic philosopher bemoaned the invention of books, which “create forgetfulness” in the soul. Sacrificing remembrance at the altar of writing, Socrates warned, that people with a penchant for reading were blindly trusting in “external written characters.” This might be the right time to think how an unfettered and total trust in the internet could impact us not just as communicators, but also as human beings.
“The Shallows” – time to bring back the long and undeservedly neglected fountain pen!