Book Review: Nicholas Carr's 'The Shallows'

The 'IT Doesn't Matter' author is at it again -- this time arguing that the Internet is making us shallow.

Fritz Nelson, Vice President, Editorial Director InformationWeek Business Technology Network

June 3, 2010

4 Min Read

Close To Home
Nicholas Carr's writing doesn't specialize in feel-good moments. It is, at once, challenging and depressing and angering, in some ways because what he's saying may well be true. Maybe in the worst ways. Getting followers on Twitter, collecting friends on Facebook, and clicking the links in articles turns us, Carr says, into lab rats because we're "pressing the levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment." Recently, I've heard people talk about FOMO (fear of missing out). But that fear is also mixed up with anxiety about social standing. We don't want to become invisible, Carr says, so we keep sending messages. It has become a way of life.

You may read "The Shallows" and hate Carr, just as so many did after reading his seminal piece "IT Doesn't Matter." But you cannot dismiss it. This is a well-written book -- not surprising from a man who was an English major at Dartmouth. He makes the research stand on end, punctuating it with pithy conclusions and clever phrasing: "Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski."

He combs through everyone from Sigmund Freud to Rene Descartes to John Locke and Immanuel Kant. He quotes Walt Whitman and Umberto Eco and David Foster Walace and T.S. Eliot and, in one of the most poignant passages, Nathanial Hawthorne in his Sleepy Hollow enclave.

There will be those who call Carr a fool, an alarmist, and just plain wrong. Evidence -- research -- to the contrary will trot itself out to prove the point. But before you judge, remember your own biases; remember that if you've come to love the tools of distraction, you, like me, will find yourself being defensive. We may all come to think that we have the infinite capacity to absorb and retain the constant flow of information, that we are not so easily distracted, or that we are somehow better than the distractions. Carr understands, pointing out that "we want to believe that [the brain] lies beyond the influence of experience."

One of my only disappointments in "The Shallows" -- and it's a big one -- is that it has no conclusion, no advice for preventing or fixing the problem. Carr refers to historical shifts like the one we're going through as inevitable. That is, there's nothing to prevent it. He isn't simply damning us as individuals, but as an entire culture, quoting playwright Richard Foreman: "We risk turning into 'pancake people' -- spread wide and thin."

When I asked Carr about the lack of suggestions, he said he "wanted the book to be descriptive rather than prescriptive," in no small part because advice can "range from simplistic (take a computer break every hour) to wishful (install an app that blocks you from logging onto the Net unless you enter a special code)." Awareness, he said, is an important step toward a solution. He also said that people can make their own choices about the medium. If they "cherish the more contemplative modes of thinking, then they can choose to cut back on their connectedness and devote more time to attentive thought."

If you haven't made it this far, you may be proving Carr's point. In my defense, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot: If I had more time, I would have written a shorter review.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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About the Author(s)

Fritz Nelson

Vice President, Editorial Director InformationWeek Business Technology Network

Fritz Nelson is a former senior VP and editorial director of the InformationWeek Business Technology Network.

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