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-week vacation without computer and internet; I dedicated this vacation to making 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 to 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 and the six volumes on Theoretical Physics my late 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 quality of the output. I was a perfectionist ever since and I had always received good feedback on written documentation. But this was one of my best results ever. 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. For example, there is math in both. But “IT” is (for me) synonymous to a special mode of working, to “processing information quickly” in a way that is detrimental to 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 more than I did. Going for the latest gadgets, reading e-mails on the smart phone, replying instantly.
  • Focusing 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 had become good at thriving in the chaos, doing “triage”, applying a “good-enough approach” (not at all a bad exercise for a perfectionist). I learned to paint all sorts of architectural maps and topologies in my mind – 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:

  • 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 pretended 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: I read it with the expectation to find confirmation, evidence and some scientific explanations of 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 focuses on putting these experiences in a broader perspective. He has done extensive research on the history of technology and psychology 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 it 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. The internet is “more ubiquitous” and “connected”. Simple user interfaces make you dumb. Helpful software as Google’s auto-completion features makes your mental abilities numb, comparable to the loss of muscular strength when using mechanical tools. He quotes some convincing scientific studies in different fields. It was expected that the availability of literature and scientific papers on the net would cause scientific authors to quote hard-to-find papers more often, as such papers are more accessible now. But the opposite is true: The range of papers quoted has narrowed down.

Summarizing and adding my flavor of sarcasm:

  • 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 mainstream 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 scary.

Today classical landmark books can be obtained nearly for free. You can watch video lectures and read lecture notes on advanced topics published by universities. In contrast to this, there are overpriced management trainings that 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 surfers, but they are even considered less valuable.

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 with: I do not think that the amazon Kindle turns books into some new internet version of snippets to be commented on. 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 Kindle products in the US and Europe. I am using the keyboard version of the Kindle, not the Kindle Fire tablet. 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 importantly no e-mail and no browser. There are just letters in black displayed on a white background which makes reading a pleasure.

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 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 shorter attention spans. We might become hunters again – hunters of junks of “information” (actually distraction).

There is one caveat I need to add: I am not sure if 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 as well as people in high-tech industries. For “people like us” the world seems to have become dominated by this furious stream of “information” and 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 – 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, think usage of fax machines. Maybe this is just a psychological trick I am applying to myself, and sometimes we appear to love what we are obliged to do.
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”. 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 deep gap between using technology as a tool and being obsessed with it (and what I call obsession turns into a subtle peer group pressure felt by less obsessed members of the community). Originally I was a scientist using IT as a tool, then I became an IT expert focused 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 clearly detached from the tools, or when and why I have felt as a member of the Borg collective. The exact nature 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 tendencies. The variation between different individuals might be greater than what could be concluded from this analysis.

I would have been interested in reading more about Carr’s personal strategies. 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.

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