A short, sort of review of Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows. What Google is Doing to our Brains.”

Many technology writers  deify or reify technology.  There is often an assumption that more technology is by definition a good thing.  Nicholas Carr’s recent book challenges that. This is probably why many tech types don’t seem to like it.

Looking through my blog archive, I’ve often disagreed with Carr, but rather than just base my view on this latest book via headlines and what others wrote, I decided to buy the book and read it to make up my own mind.

I found it to be an excellent read. Well researched, tight prose, and an eclectic mix of scientific, philosophical and social material.  I was on a cycling holiday when I read it. My blackberry had given up the ghost, and the only computer I had with me was the bike computer.

I began the book expecting  to disagree with Carr. I make my living out of researching technology so I figured that I would join the queue of other tech folks dissing his “dystopian” views.  By about a third of the way through I found myself agreeing with him.  He spends part of a chapter discussing Joe Weizenbaum, who should be more famous and read than he is.  More than any Computer Scientist, Weizenbaum challenges the notion that technological progress is good for humanity. Carr echoes many of Weizenbaum’s concerns, in a more accessible form.

In reading the book, I’m reminded of two other writers, Alain de Botton, who is my favourite modern non-fiction writer.

He says much the same as Carr, but more lyrically. 

I felt keenly the painful psychological adjustments required by life in modernity: the need to juggle a respect for the potential offered by science with an awareness of how perplexingly limited and narrowly framed might be its benefits. I felt the temptation of hoping that all activities would acquire the excitement and rigours of engineering while recognising the absurdity of those who, overly impressed by technological achievement, lose sight of how doggedly we will always be pursed by baser forms of error and absurdity.

quoted from the Sorrows and Pleasures of Work.

 his recent post is also on the money.

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.

The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties—something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows. We are continuously challenged to discover new works of culture—and, in the process, we don’t allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds. We leave a movie theater vowing to reconsider our lives in the light of a film’s values. Yet by the following evening, our experience is well on the way to dissolution, like so much of what once impressed us: the ruins of Ephesus, the view from Mount Sinai, the feelings after finishing Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich…

The need to diet, which we know so well in relation to food, and which runs so contrary to our natural impulses, should be brought to bear on what we now have to relearn in relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.

The second is GM Hopkins. I’ll leave you with a verse from the Habit of Perfection.

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

I’m glad I took the time to read Carr’s book without distraction.  I need to find more time to savour the joys of quiet reading and thinking.  As De Botton says “To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine.”