Shallow Waters and Deep Reading

I have re-read The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and this is not a balanced book review. I am an occasional reader of popular psychology books and I am guilty of selecting these books according to my pre-established bias.

The following experience puzzled me before I read the book:

I spent a two weeks vacation without computer and internet – I dedicated this vacation to make up my mind about the future of my professional career. I had decided already to return to where I came from (science, physics, engineering) and leave the IT industry, but I had not come very far in terms of actions and output. After that trip I started to re-read old physics books, such as Feynman’s physics lectures or 6 volumes on Theoretical Physics my former professor had written in the 1960s.

The vacation ended and I was back in the tread-mill of IT projects – but I managed to re-learn physics from 04:00 AM to 07:00 AM though. I had to prepare a report for a customer – and I was stunned by the efficiency I was able to apply to the task and by quality of the output. I was a perfectionist ever since and I had always received very good feedback on all kinds of written documentation. But this was by far one of my best results ever. Re-reading my report I realized that my writing had become more concise, precise, scientific again, and I needed less time then usual to get “into writing” and keep writing linearly for hours.

My conclusion was that resurrected physics thinking had boosted my performance in IT projects. I can safely say this is not true vice versa. It is not so much the field as such: computer science versus physics. “IT”- at least for me – is synonymous to a special way of working, of “processing information” that is detrimental to some mental and cognitive abilities:

  • Dealing with ambiguous situations quickly. This holds for troubleshooting under high pressure, having to take decisions quickly (based on incomplete information), transferring customer requirements into technical infrastructures.
  • Reaction instead of action. Feeling exposed to ever flowing stream of e-mails, phone calls, instant messages and trying in vain to keep the inbox free.
  • Being surrounded by peers who enjoy that type of environment, at least much more than I did. Going for the latest gadgets, reading e-mails on the smart phone, replying instantly.
  • Focussing on an aspect of a technical challenge as there is no overall goal I consider worth pursuing. Meeting a deadline set forth by some manager is not a true motivation, nor is the enforcement of legal requirements or industry standards crafted by bureaucrats.

I become good at thriving in the chaos, doing “triage”, applying a “good-enough approach” (the latter was not at all a bad exercise for a perfectionist). I learned to paint all sorts of architectural maps and topologies in my mind – actually to me this is the main link between physics and information technology, the ability to “think systems”. Nevertheless I felt the negative consequences as well (and I did not consider most of the aspects highlighted above positive either):

  • It became difficult for me to delve deep into a longer article or a book. I scanned texts rather than reading them.
  • I became addicted to checking e-mails and obsessed with replying as fast as possible.

It is hard to say if I liked all this or if I rather felt obliged to act in this way and pretend I liked it. There were times when I was absolutely positively convinced that being the prototypical IT geek is my true calling and all the not so pleasant side-effects are just part of an overall fair deal. I did not come to a final conclusion, but I can say that it was important for me to look for substantial changes.

And then I was recommended Carr’s book and I read it with the expectation to find confirmation, evidence and some scientific explanations to the processes I felt being affected by. My expectations have been fulfilled. Nicholas Carr is an accomplished and well versed writer and he has written this book based on personal experiences related to mine. But the personal part of the book is brief  – Carr focusses on putting these experiences in a broader perspective. He has done extensive research in the history of technology and neuropsychology to undermine his hypothesis that Google is making us stupid (as his article antedating the book was entitled). I cannot judge his research in terms of scientific scrutiny as I am neither a historian or psychologist. But compared to other books in the same genre he did an extremely good job on keeping his writing concise and avoiding repetitions. I have read too many books (business or psychology) that have beaten a good idea to death by repeating a basic idea over and over; The Shallows is different and new facts are presented in every chapter.

Carr tells the story of various technologies that shaped the way we comprehend the world and that finally shaped also our minds – including the wiring of neural circuits. He explains how maps and clocks profoundly changed our relationship with real or abstract structures and the continuous or segmented flow of time. How tools put between us and the world made us approach our environment in the role of scientific observers rather than engaged inhabitants. He acclaims the rise of the book although it set an end to the medieval tradition of oration and story telling; books have fostered solitary, deep reading and development of distinct, intellectual individuals. Books have made us capable of following and creating long-winded subtle arguments. All of this it at stake with the rise of the internet. He does for the internet what Neil Postman did for mass media. For Nicholas Carr TV and traditional mass media are less dangerous because of the peculiar features of the internet and because of their ubiquity and connected-ness: Bluntly put, simple user interfaces make you dumb. Helpful software as Google’s auto-completion features makes your mental abilities numb in a way comparable to the loss of muscular strength when using mechanical tools. He quotes some rather convincing scientific studies in different fields. E.g. it was expected that the availability of literature and scientific papers on the net would cause scientific authors to quote papers more often that had been hard to find in earlier times – as such papers are accessible now. But the opposite is true: The range of papers quoted narrowed down.

Summarizing and adding my flavor of sarcasm to these arguments:

  • The more “information” is available, the less value is attached to well-researched and original – but probably long-winded – articles and books. Everybody likes and links (blogs about, tweets) the simple and short main stream version.
  • Groupthink makes us dumber as a group, we turn from individual thinkers to a Borg-like collective. The last chapter in his book on automated grading of essays is truly scary.

I would add the amusing fact that today classical land mark books can be obtained nearly for free as well as e.g. video lectures and lecture notes on advanced topics published by universities. In contrast to this there are overpriced management trainings that basically teach you the type of common sense wisdom “my granny had already told me”. Thus not only do lengthy texts vanish from the radar of searchers and sufers but they are even considered less valuable.

So overall I agree to nearly any of Carr’s arguments as far as I have some personal experience (though anecdotal of course). There is one minor argument I disagree: I do not think that the amazon Kindle turns books into some new internet version of snippets to be commented on etc. For me the Kindle really is just a device for reading books. Period. But Carr might be right in the long run and my view of the Kindle is due to the differences between the Kindle products and services in the US and Europe. I am using the key board version of the Kindle, not the Kindle Fire. And I really appreciate the fact that the “internet connection” can be used for the sole purpose of purchasing books. There is no visible clock on the device, and most important no e-mail and no browser. There are just letters in black displayed on a white background in a way that makes reading a pleasure.

A critics might argue that it is not consistent to cherish books but condemn the internet. First of all, Carr’s arguments related to the internet are balanced – more balanced than Neil Postman’s arguments on TV for example. Carr’s line of reasoning is consistent and compelling. Yes, he ranks books higher than the internet and there is reason for doing so: Books and the associated development of deep reading in solitude was an anomaly in human history – an anomaly that enabled us to produce the most remarkable results in science and art. Since the dawn of the internet humankind might degenerate and return to the pre-book status: back to simpler arguments, easy-to-remember stories and a generally shorter attention span. We might become hunters again – hunters of junks of “information” (actually distraction).

There is one caveat I need to add: I am not sure of the arguments are true for all of society. Actually I doubt if effects are “that worse”. Carr as a journalist and writer is what I consider a classical modern “knowledge worker”. This is the reason why his writing resonates so much with me. I am pretty sure the majority of business or technical consultants would agree and people in high-tech industries. For “people like us” the world really seems to have become dominated by this furious stream of “information” and – most important – by ever accelerating cycles of deadlines and response times. It is cliché, but yes – people are expecting immediate responses, scrolling through e-mails on Blackberrys all the time. Anyone of us thinks he or she can beat the system by responding fastest and thus we are pushing the bar even higher.

It is important for me to distinguish between the effects of just using the technology I choose to use versus the effects of the technology that I am forced to use. You might say, this is splitting hairs, as there is no difference. Some people I know told me they are on Facebook just because all of their friends are there. So this is the networking effect etc etc., think usage of fax machines etc. There is always some level of enforcement involved, nobody would invent social networks from scratch, out of the blue – just because they would like to communicate with others in a different way.

Yet I think there is a difference and it might be due to psychological trick I am applying to myself. Nevertheless I feel a very real difference between choosing technologies and being forced to. I could literally feel it physically some time ago when the restless IT life style put me on the edge of burnout. Currently I am advancing into an industry sector new to me – a sector more associated with traditional engineering and slower paced “innovation cycles”. And to my relief I meet people who do not sync their calendars to their smartphones and check their e-mail all the time. They do not even carry any type of computer with them all the time. Yes, of course we use the internet in research and we need online conferences in projects. But there is a much deeper gap between using IT and the internet just as a tool and being obsessed with it (and what I call obsession turns into a subtle peer group pressure felt my less obsessed members of the community). Originally I was a scientist using IT as a tool, then I became an IT expert focussed on IT, now I am moving backwards. I can track down exactly when and why I the internet and software tools have been “just tools” supporting my mind that is clearly detached from the tools, or when and why I have felt as a member of the Borg collective. The type of the tool – such as internet versus software applications, browser versus e-mails, blogs versus Word processor – does not matter that much. I think it takes considerable practice, trial and error and self-inspection, but I really believe there is a mental switch or filter that we can turn on and off to make technology less or more invasive. The filter’s effectiveness is (for me) dependent strongly on the level of control I feel “permitted” to have over technology.

So I fully agree to Carr’s analysis but I am not convinced it fully applies to all of humanity, all professions and all users. I dare hypothesize that there are specific communities and professions that are much more affected or affected at all by Google’s mind-numbing tendency and the variation between different individuals is greater than what could be concluded from this analysis.

I would have been interested in reading more about Carr’s personal strategies as all those technologies built on the network effect (I need to use it if all of my friends use it) would not be able to exert any transformational power if we all resisted to use it. Personally I feel an increasing percentage of former tech-savvy users are literally unplugging – as Carr did at least for a while. Strange as it may seem – writing this blog (that is not linked anywhere) is part of my personal unplugging strategy.