I just finished reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows last night. I picked it up because I really liked his other book, The Big Switch, but I was kind of disappointed this time around. It’s not that the book was dull. It was extremely interesting (so interesting that I might just do several posts about it over the next several days), but the argument that runs through the whole thing strikes me as extremely overblown.
I can give you the short version because Carr does over and over again: The Internet is changing the structure of our brains. All that stimuli it’s providing is turning us into the kind of people with attention spans so short that they can’t sit through a fifty minute lecture without checking their phones. Here’s Carr describing the effect of the Internet on himself:
“When I began writing The Shallows, toward the end of 2007, I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words.”
So Carr unplugged, and got the job done. You can too. So can everybody’s students.
As you can see, I’m not sympathetic. While reading the book, I kept thinking, “Why am I reading a book about why nobody reads books anymore?” Take this clown, for example:
“I don’t read books,” says Joe O’Shea, a former president of the student body at Florida State University and a 2008 recipient of a Rhoades Scholarship. “I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly.” O’Shea, a philosophy major, doesn’t see any reason to plow through chapters of text when it takes but a minute or two to cherry-pick the pertinent passages using Google Book Search. “Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense,” he says. “It’s not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web.” As soon as you learn to be “a skilled hunter” online, he argues, books become superfluous.
Telling Joe O’Shea about the joys of reading fine literature wouldn’t work. Telling Joe O’Shea that it is impossible to get all the pertinent points about a book through Google Book search unless it’s “full view” wouldn’t work. How about this:
You are never going to get the kind of high-paying, white collar job that you undoubtedly aspire to if you have the same attention span as my Jack Russell Terrier. Once in a while just turn off the computer, leave the phone in another room and teach yourself to concentrate on something, anything, and it will help you in the long run.
I can’t help but wonder if from now on I’m actually going to have to start teaching my students how to read. You start at the top left-hand part of the page and then you move your eyes to the right…
Update: Wouldn’t you know that right after posting this I ran into a New York Times debate on “Getting Around Textbook Sticker Shock.”
Take a deep breath. Now think how much deep reading the average college student would do if ALL their textbooks were online. Are you depressed yet?