Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bookmarks -- The Shallows

As I began to read this book, I have to confess that I use the Internet so much, I was scared to find out how bad it is for me. Not only do I use the Net for as a writer (research, writing, keeping track of submissions, not the mention to submissions themselves), but it is an integral part of my teaching. My students essentially do every assignment online, and I do all my grading online via a course management system. I keep track of my family and friends via the web, including arguments and prayer requests. I even follow my favorite soccer teams by watching them as much online as I do on television.

I mean, I already kind of knew something was amiss, but I was not ready for what I found out in Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains.

This is a fascinating book about the way the Internet has not only revolutionized the way we do things, but the way we think. Carr lays out a strong argument that the brain's plasticity allows it to physically change due to a variety of stimuli, and that what is inherent in the Internet makes those changes rapidly. Where we gain in some processes (and Carr is quite fair about the value of the Internet), we lose in such necessary elements as meditative or deep or critical thinking. The is the type of thinking is as important as the type of quick thinking the Internet encourages, as it needed for creativity and problem solving among other things. The book also exposes the shift in thinking since the first computers were created from a sense that knowledge encompasses many elements to the idea that knowledge is merely a matter of getting data (any data) as quickly as possible.

Carr includes a great deal of history and science to develop his ideas, including details about more than how the first computers were invented and put to use, but the ideas behind those who built and used them. Where controversy might occur, he includes plenty of information from those who are not likely to side with him, so the naysayers have their say. And the book includes a number lighthearted moments, such as the "digression" chapters and Carr's awareness of the ironies inherent in writing a book as this.

I like that Carr does not take an alarmist tone, but I must comment on two chapters that have me thinking I should do some re-thinking about how and how much I use the web. One chapter is "The Church of Google," where Carr present the history of the search engine/company, but also explains the frightening rationale used to make us believe that data and information is the same as knowledge. The other chaper is the one that follows, "Search, Memory," in which Carr persuasively argues against the metaphor that the brain is like a computer, particularly in how it stores information and memories.

The book is a bit difficult to read, but that is because it is filled with research and scholarly inquiry. I think every teacher should read The Shallows, at the very least, because it addresses the very nature of how we learn. Students should read it too, but ironically, many, having grown up in a world where the Internet was always in existence, may find it tough sledding.

Years ago, when I started teaching, and students were nervous about using a word processing program to compose their papers, I remember telling them that within a month they would wonder how they got along with it. I have said this about a number of technological innovations since then. Now, I'm convinced we better find a way to get along without the Internet, at least for longer periods of time, to give our brains the other stimuli, nourishment, or whatever you want to call it to bring us back into the balance we need.

Kudos to Nicholas Carr for his very important, honest, and even response to a growing, if unacknowledged, crisis.

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