Mark McDonald

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Mark P. McDonald
GVP EXP
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

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The Shallows, a review of Nicholas Carr’s latest book

by Mark P. McDonald  |  June 19, 2010  |  6 Comments

Nicholas Carr has just published another book and given his prior focus on “Does IT Matter” and discussions about Cloud Computing “The Big Switch”  I am sure that many IT professionls will be interested in this new book “The Shallows: what the internet is doing to our brain.” This will probably be the best known in a set of books coming out bashing the web that I discussed in an earlier post.

Here are my thoughts on the book.   The central point in Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows is that our brains change based on the technology we use and the technology we use changes our brains.  “Every intellectual technology embodies a intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work.” That quote sums up the essence of the book.

In the case of the internet, Carr says that the sheer volume of messages and the web’s very design are changing our brains away from deep thought toward more rapid response and that in that change we are losing our ability to think deeply.

Carr takes careful consideration of this idea, building a case for the internet’s impact on our brain over the majority of the chapters in this book.

I recommend it for people interested in understanding the impact of our tools on our brains.  This is as much a ‘brain study’ book as anything.

You have to read what Carr writes, which is one reason for the recommendation.  As his PR machine and popular press reactions to the book are not the same as what he says.

In many ways, Carr is creating controversy to drive the kind of attention the web culture craves that drives book sales and other opportunities.  He wants to be as much of a force in the ‘shallow’ internet world as in the ‘deep’ world that preceded it.

His ideas are not that radical.  He does not say that we should ban the internet, or that the FDA should regulate the internet as an addictive or harmful device.  This is not a technology-bashing book that his media hype or the hype around his prior books would lead you to believe.

The book is a detailed study of studies rather than original research.  Carr is more of a journalist than a scientist, thinker or policy maker.  That is ok as he raises good points and I found the book to have two major sources of value.

First, the book raises an important issue that we are responsible for our actions and our brains, not the technology we use.  By pointing out the potential impact of the Internet and its applications on how we think, act and work, Carr provides a powerful reminder associated with any technology we use to the extent that we now use the web.

This first point is pretty much summed up in the first and the last chapter of the book.  The argument is better made in an article and if you want to get to the essence of the argument, I would suggest reading the debate between Carr and Clay Shirkey in the Wall Street Journal “Does the Internet Make You Dumber?” published on June 6th 2010.

Full disclosure, I am starting Shirkey’s book after I finish this review.

Unfortunately Carr raises these issues without offering recommendations on how to retain those skills while still having the internet work for you.  If his next book is around ‘going deep’ then the sincerity of this work will be compromised and the whole point would then be to sell books

Second, the book is a great resource/compendium of scient.ific and philosophical discussions about the development of our mental tools from books to computers, their impact on the brain and society.  Carr spends a whole Chapter 8, discussing Google that provides an interesting insight into the company.  Prior discussions about clocks, maps and other tools are equally interesting.

Its funny but in a way this book is like an annotated and bound set of edited and researched search findings.  It is an ironic aspect of the book that while Carr decries Google and how it chops up big ideas; he uses the same approach in print, which is apparently ok.

Overall, recommended for people who are interested in the relationship between technology, thinking and society.

If you do not want to get into the depth of the argument or all the studies supporting it, then read the WSJ article, Carr’s Blog or other sources.  They will provide the essence of the argument, so take the time to read it in a quite place so you can think through it.

This book is a one sided as it views the web as a threat and it raises more alarms than provides alternatives.  This is not a policy book, but I can see people using to try to make policy.  Restricting technology has never seemed to work, particularly a technology that is as ubiquitous and impactful as the web.

The Shallows reminds us that these things are tools and that we can easily and unknowingly use the tools in ways that reshape ourselves.  That point alone is worthwhile to understand, regardless of how you feel about the web, your attention span or society.

STRENGTHS

  • The discussion of the brain science, while going into too much detail at times, was strength of the book.  I would recommend this book as a Brain Book as much as a book about the internet and society.
  • The characterizations of shallow behavior are accurate and things that the reader will recognize.  The need to check email, validate yourself externally, etc are all symptoms of the points Carr is raising and the help the reader see the issue at a personal level.
  • Carr tries hard to keep the argument at an intellectual level.  He could and sometimes does drift into other points, but by in large this is an examination of the impact of technology on our brains and the way we think
  • He does recognize that the web is a tool that is here to stay and that we cannot all go off into a meadow in Massachusetts to unplug.  He recognizes the point but provides little advice on what to do about it.

CHALLENGES

  • Carr raises the specter of the Internet and our brains without offering concrete advice and tools to manage it.  He says that he had to unplug himself by moving to Colorado, limiting email and stopping his blog.  It would have been more helpful if he could have provided advice on how to continue to keep deep cognitive skills while using the internet properly as not all of us can unplug. A note William Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry offers better advice on how to manage in this world in its last few chapters.  But overall book Hamlet’s Blackberry is considerably weaker than this Carr’s book.
  • The book is ‘conservative’ with hints of elitism in its views, basically asserting that past technologies were ok because they made intellectual life better, but this one is worse because its different.  Seems that the author is ok with prior technologies shaped his way of thinking but he is a little closed to the idea that others in the future may think differently.
  • The book’s argument is carried by the weight of studies Carr reviews.  He is not really advancing an argument on his own as much as raising the volume by integrating evidence provided by others.  It is as if Carr knows that the subject itself would not provide enough content for an entire book.  Fortunately these studies and his many digressions are themselves interesting, but they add weight to the book and they are not his central argument.
  • The book talks about Google, the Kindle, etc.  But it is surprisingly silent on the issue of online education.  Sure it does talk about the fact that people thought the web would be a great educational tool, but he does not talk about online degree programs – the type of work that builds deep thinking and communications skills for professional lives.  Schools like the University of Phoenix are growing like crazy and they seem like an obvious point for Carr to make but he misses it.
  • The book is repetitive with others on the subject as they all rehash arguments by McLuhan, Seneca, Socrates, Emerson, etc.  These are common citations that while powerful are overused.

NOTE: This review also appears for the book at Amazon.com.

6 Comments »

Category: Book Review Personal Observation Technology     Tags: , , ,

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tweets that mention The Shallows, a review of Nicholas Carr’s latest book -- Topsy.com   June 19, 2010 at 6:16 pm

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  • 2 danny bloom   June 20, 2010 at 2:30 am

    mark good observations BUT…please interview me here in taiwan i have very important things to say about this and nbodu will listen to me, try me….DANNY BLOOM Tufts1971

    This is a very important essay, mark. It is my hunch that reading
    on screens is not “reading” per se, but a new form of human reading,
    and I call it “screening” for now until a better word comes down the
    line, and it will, someday. Soon. I have been trying to alert the
    media and newspapers to this but not one reporter will interview me. I
    have contacted Newsweeka and Time and the NYTimes and Atlantic and the
    Boston Globe and not one outlet will publish my eccentric views on
    this. But watch: future MRI scan studies at Tufts and UCLa will prove
    that reading on paper surfaces lights up different parts of our brains
    vs when we read on screens and that reading on paper is vastly
    superiod for processing of info, retention of info, analysis of info
    and critical thinking about the info read. I have no PHD so nobody
    listens to me, but let some Times reporter interview Dr Wold and Dr
    Tenner and Anne Mangen in Norway, and Paul Saffo and Kevin Kelly and
    Marvin Minsky, they all agree with me. The Times will listent to
    them. Sharon Begley at Newsweek is writing a big cover story about
    this now. As in the New York Times Sunday magazine and Time has a
    summer cover on this too. See more at my blogs. – Danny Bloom, Tufts
    1971

    To sum up: reading on screens is not reading per se. it is a new form
    of human reading, vastly inferior to paper reading. but what does this
    mean for the future of civilization and does anybody care? I do.

  • 3 Gary Ares   June 20, 2010 at 8:25 am

    Dr. McDonald,

    Excellent review. I appreciate that you have taken the time to develop your thoughts, instead of copying a section of the book and pasting it into a blog with a few comments. I first learned about “The Shallows” in a Wired Magazine review, and immediately became captivated because it spoke to me…loudly.

    Immediately, I bought the book, and read quite linearly and deeply for an entire day. Several chapters are a mess with all kinds of underlining, stars and notes. Though I must say I somewhat trudged through topics like the history of reading.

    This book was more of the self help variety, for me, in that it portrayed exactly how I have been consuming the web for the past decade. Yes, my experience connected with the examples about following links, losing tract of where I’d been, and spending day after day in this mode not realizing how shallow my retention really was.

    The good news is I made immediate changes in the way I approach the web. In particular, turning off email all together at times, NOT following links, and only allowing a few open web pages at a time ( at this moment there are 5 others beside this one – that’s a few for me).

    Once again, I appreciate your review because it is thoughtful and leaves another trail of information which people like myself can learn.

    Finally, I will add a link from my site where I have compiled a list of links to a wealth of information on the book, and Mr. Carr himself; http://bit.ly/akf320

  • 4 Mark McDonald   June 20, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    Gary, thanks for your kind comments regarding the review. I have finished a post about the things you can do to get your brain back from the internet that will go up tomorrow. Welcome your thoughts on that post as well.

  • 5 Research Paper – Selected Bibliography | leslieblog   December 9, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    [...] Mark. “The Shallows, a review of Nicholas Carr’s latest book.” Gartner.com. 19 June 2010. <http://blogs.gartner.com/mark_mcdonald/2010/06/19/the-shallows-a-review-of-nicholas-carrs-latest-boo…>  (accessed 9 November [...]

  • 6 Research Paper – Selected Bibliography | Leslie LIS768 Blog   January 19, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    [...] Mark. “The Shallows, a review of Nicholas Carr’s latest book.” Gartner.com. 19 June 2010. <http://blogs.gartner.com/mark_mcdonald/2010/06/19/the-shallows-a-review-of-nicholas-carrs-latest-boo…>  (accessed 9 November [...]