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The Big Answer


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The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

a book by Nicholas Carr

(our site's book review)

Nicholas Carr Has Written a Silent Spring for the Literary Mind

Finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction: “Nicholas Carr has written a Silent Spring for the literary mind.”—Michael Agger, Slate

Is Google making us stupid?” When Nicholas Carr posed that question, in a celebrated Atlantic Monthly cover story, he tapped into a well of anxiety about how the Internet is changing us. He also crystallized one of the most important debates of our time: As we enjoy the Net’s bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply?

See Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman, as he discusses the replacement of reading and thinking by entertainment. He says we are settling for bread and circuses, which is a phrase used to describe the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion, distraction, or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace, as an offered palliative. This epitomizes what our media and politics give us in 2017 while we are busy amusing ourselves to death and doing anything BUT thinking.

Neil Postman discusses the replacement of reading and thinking by entertainment, also saying we are settling for bread and circuses (diversion and distraction) rather than depth and meaning
Neil Postman discusses the replacement of reading and thinking by entertainment, also saying we are settling for bread and circuses (diversion and distraction) rather than depth and meaning

Now, in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr expands his argument into the most compelling exploration of the Internet’s intellectual and cultural consequences yet published. As he describes how human thought has been shaped through the centuries by “tools of the mind”—from the alphabet to maps, to the printing press, the clock, and the computer—Carr interweaves a fascinating account of recent discoveries in neuroscience by such pioneers as Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel. Our brains, the historical and scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. The technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways.

Books serve to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought, but, in the internet era, we are losing our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection
Books serve to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought, but, in the Internet era, we are losing our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection


We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection
We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection

We've Beome Great Skimmers, But We Cannot Focus or Think

Building on the insights of thinkers from Plato to McLuhan, Carr makes a convincing case that every information technology carries an intellectual ethic—a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and intelligence. He explains how the printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. In stark contrast, the Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources. Its ethic is that of the industrialist, an ethic of speed and efficiency, of optimized production and consumption—and now the Net is remaking us in its own image. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

Part intellectual history, part popular science, and part cultural criticism, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains sparkles with memorable vignettes—Friedrich Nietzsche wrestling with a typewriter, Sigmund Freud dissecting the brains of sea creatures, Nathaniel Hawthorne contemplating the thunderous approach of a steam locomotive—even as it plumbs profound questions about the state of our modern psyche. This is a book that will forever alter the way we think about media and our minds.

The dumbing of America via the Internet
The dumbing of America via the Internet

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Nicholas Carr—author of The Big Switch (2007) and the much-discussed Atlantic Monthly story “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—is an astute critic of the information technology revolution. Here he looks to neurological science to gauge the organic impact of computers, citing fascinating experiments that contrast the neural pathways built by reading books versus those forged by surfing the hypnotic Internet, where portals lead us on from one text, image, or video to another while we’re being bombarded by messages, alerts, and feeds. This glimmering realm of interruption and distraction impedes the sort of comprehension and retention “deep reading” engenders, Carr explains. And not only are we reconfiguring our brains, we are also forging a “new intellectual ethic,” an arresting observation Carr expands on while discussing Google’s gargantuan book digitization project. What are the consequences of new habits of mind that abandon sustained immersion and concentration for darting about, snagging bits of information? What is gained and what is lost? Carr’s fresh, lucid, and engaging assessment of our infatuation with the Web is provocative and revelatory.—Donna Seaman, from Booklist

Carr quotes neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who says we are training our brains to pay attention to crap
Carr quotes neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who says we are training our brains to pay attention to crap

Many of Us Do Not Lose Abilities Online—We Enhance Abilities

It should be obvious that those of us who really know how to use the Internet as a life enhancement do not limit our use of it to web surfing and scanning. We surf and scan to get the latest news and to enjoy a few occasional videos and to research various subjects like the latest ebooks, but once we finish, we concentrate deeply for hours, reading and writing. Far from losing our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection, we are enhancing these things by intensive thought and concentration. Like Carr and Postman, we are concerned that most people are apparently NOT adept at using the Internet as a life enhancement that leads to deep thought, creativity, reflection, etc. But since we do not experience this liability, we'll continue to utilize the Internet constructively and creatively like Carr, Postman, and thousands of ebook writers and bloggers do often. Apparently, many people lack the willpower to resist the Internet's temptations to be a time wasting distraction that serves as an escape from reality. This suggests the question: What is so bad about their realities that they must "escape" them? Our research section answers that, and our MC Artcles section answers what they can do about these life dilemmas.

As Amazon reviewer John W. Cowan says, "So what will happen when [a human brain] confronts a life choice? Will this passive instrument skidding from meaningless bit to another meaningless bit see itself suddenly as an agent? A 'decider?' Or will it in panic seek the next button to push, even if that button bears the label 'Self Destruct?' According to Time magazine this is happening now in the Silicon Valley high schools; kids depressed and without a sense of agency pushed around by the ripples on the surface of the Internet are choosing to leave life. Rutabagas have lost their interest. Having your cat liked did not fill the hole intended for having yourself loved. And this child is not accustomed to doing things about things. This child does not do. This child is done to. With the same alacrity that he or she pursued the prompt to watch the seals he or she may 'decide' it is time to end this."


Many People Are At Effect of the Internet

He just described the liability of being "at effect" rather than "at cause." (See More info about at cause and at effect.) It can lead to depression or worse. It is a problem that usually traces back to inadequate parenting. The best ameliorative is cognitive therapy, NOT antidepressants. See Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. The book introduces the principles of Cognitive Therapy, which teach us that by changing the way we think we can alter our moods, deal with emotional problems, and get rid of depression without the use of drugs. Studies have shown that treating depression this way is superior to most other approaches.

Cognitive Therapy teaches us that by changing the way we think we can alter our moods and deal with emotional problems
Cognitive Therapy teaches us that by changing the way we think we can alter our moods and deal with emotional problems


Feeling Good is a great book to empower the treating of depression as well as ridding oneself of negative thoughts and emotions resulting mostly from parenting errors
Feeling Good is a great book to empower the treating of depression as well as ridding oneself of negative thoughts and emotions resulting mostly from parenting errors

Having said this, it must be recognized how TV, computers, iPhones, and the Internet can all play a part in exacerbating such a person's psychological weaknesses and alienation, but so can inadequate positive social contact from friends and family. Trying to get this from "friends" on Facebook will simply make things worse. See Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? and Why Do We Need Communities?.

If TVs are sucking our brains out of our skulls, imagine the effects of the Internet
If TVs are sucking our brains out of our skulls, imagine the effects of the Internet


This is your child's brain. This is your child's brain after 10 years of Internet use. Any questions?
This is your child's brain. This is your child's brain after 10 years of Internet use. Any questions?

We Are Replacing Depth of Knowledge for Breadth

Carr says greater access to knowledge is not the same as greater knowledge, an ever-increasing plethora of facts and data is not the same as wisdom, breadth of knowledge is not the same as depth of knowledge, greater access to knowledge is not the same as greater knowledge. The book is sciencey in a good way, although repetitive. But it could have used more interpretations, solutions, and a more useful conclusion. We've long suspected the Internet is—if not frying our brains—at least distorting some critical thinking abilities. This book lays it out and it's scary. People simply need to use moderation and keep their activities balanced, not obsessive, like today's kids, who are clearly addicted.

We need to use moderation on the Internet and keep our activities balanced, not obsessive, like today's kids, who are clearly addicted—the Internet is—if not frying our brains(?)—at least distorting some critical thinking abilities
We need to use moderation on the Internet and keep our activities balanced, not obsessive, like today's kids, who are clearly addicted—the Internet is—if not frying our brains(?)—at least distorting some critical thinking abilities

A dozen years ago when we all saw so many school kids become so attached to their phones and texting, as well as Google, Facebook and video games, that we started worrying about it all actually changing the way their brains worked, and if a new type of human would emerge in future generations: homo sapien technicus. Turns out the answer is yes. Yet we weren't prepared for how some friends' mental capacities would change—which also happened to Carr. A few years ago a friend of ours started using an iPad. When he wanted to look something up on Google, it was often 20 minutes before he returned to whatever he was doing because he had to check his email, play games with "Friends," check Facebook or the status of various apps. He did not relate this habit to the fact that in the same few years, when he sat down to read a long article or a book, he couldn't get into it—he felt restless after 200 words. He thought he was aging. But he wasn't. He read this book and realized he was experiencing altered mental capacity because of his Internet use and habits.

Is Google Making Us Stupid? Not really, besides—a failed U.S. educational system is doing that all by itself
Is Google Making Us Stupid? Not really, besides—a failed U.S. educational system is doing that all by itself

Carr Says We Are Less Able to Think Creatively and Deeply

Carr's argument is that the Internet is slowly replacing our need to remember things, and that with less of a fund of knowledge, we find we are less able to think creatively, deeply, and productively. Instead, we are grabbing bits and pieces of information here and there via Internet searches, but it doesn't necessarily add up to any kind of a rich or meaningful understanding of anything.

Very few would argue with the benefits of information access or cognitive skill improvement or faster problem-solving, all items resulting from the Internet revolution, which Carr happily explores. The strength of Carr’s text lies in his ability to seamless weave history, science, technology and a philosophical point of view into a single narrative. Carr encourages readers to embrace the power of technology without being alienated and driven to distraction in the process—without amusing ourselves to death. The Internet harms our ability to empathize, concentrate, and retain new information. Carr's book explores the brain science behind it, giving examples throughout history about how humanity's actions and thoughts shifted with the invention of new media technologies.

Is Facebook making us lonely?
Is Facebook making us lonely?

Stephen Marche tells us that "The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are, but the greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are." The Internet harms our ability to empathize or think or concentrate. On Facebook we obsess about self-presenting. But since the picture we present is the one we feel others want to see, we feel that who we really are stays invisible online to cyber-friends, so we end up more lonely than ever. See Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?.

Facebook and Twitter—are they stealing our brains? (perhaps Trump's?)
Facebook and Twitter—are they stealing our brains? (perhaps Trump's?)


Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention, but now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are
Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention, but now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are

Carr Traded "Scuba Diving in a Sea of Words" for Jet Skiing

"'Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,' Carr writes, with typical eloquence. 'Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.' This is a measured manifesto. Even as Carr bemoans his vanishing attention span, he’s careful to note the usefulness of the Internet, which provides us with access to a near infinitude of information. We might be consigned to the intellectual shallows, but these shallows are as wide as a vast ocean. . . . What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. . . . A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn’t making us stupid — it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter. . . . The Shallows is most successful when Carr sticks to cultural criticism, as he documents the losses that accompany the arrival of new technologies. . . . numerous surveys suggest that the Internet has diminished our interest in reading books." (Source: Our Cluttered Minds, Jonah Lehrer, NY Times)

Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words . . .
Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words . . .


 . . . now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski
. . . now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski

"Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words," Carr writes, with typical eloquence. "Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." This is a reference to the degenerative social transition from reading books to web surfing, which means people have traded depth for superfical diversion—mere entertainment. Books serve to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought, but, in the Internet era, we are losing our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection, says Carr. He is certainly correct that this is the unfortunate experiece of many people. But he can rest assured that there are millions of us who, far from losing our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection, are enhancing these things by intensive thought and concentration online, reading and even writing ebooks, blogs, research, and articles. Those of us who really know how to use the Internet as a life enhancement do not limit our use of it to web surfing and scanning. Unlike those who let the whims of the Internet lead them around by the nose, we act decisively and intentionally to pursue our creative goals of learning, researching, thinking, and writing, and are not seriously impacted by the silly ads, clickbait, and temptations of the Internet. Let them annoy some other suckers.

'You will do as I say, slave. Now go find your credit card and buy the following items . . . '
'You will do as I say, slave. Now go find your credit card and buy the following items . . . '


To Carr, we are just pitiable slaves to the computer who are constantly interrupted
To Carr, we are just pitiable slaves to the computer who are constantly interrupted

"For Carr, though, we are just pitiable slaves to the machine. He insists that hyperlinks 'propel' us to other texts, though I find it quite easy not to click on them if I don't want to. When Carr goes online he complains of constant interruption by email, Twitter and Facebook updates, though I seem to have the option to leave clients unopened or turn off notifications. Recently, I have even managed to purge 95% of my RSS subscriptions while still getting useful things done with the Internet. This kind of thing is what I would consider basic intellectual ecology in the online age. Yet such self-discipline (the adoption of 'filtering strategies,' as Palfrey and Gasser put it) doesn't seem to have occurred to Carr: in front of a computer screen, we are for him impotent and without volition, so the only options are to drown in cyberbabble or to 'disconnect' completely. . . . Either you can think deeply when using the Internet, or the Internet prevents you from doing so." (Source: The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr, Steven Poole, The Guardian)

Carr asserts both. Usually one has to go on a talk show to get someone arguing against one's thesis. Carr takes both sides all by himself. Perhaps his main argument about the Internet being a demonic beast that seizes control of your mind the second you log on is more hyperbole than reality. Carr might have said that he experiences the big, bad Internet that way but our mileage may vary. But we did not find this in the book. Another book about the Internet, Born Digital makes for an optimistic rebuttal to Carr's anti-computer stance in which he leans toward unplugging. Born Digital shows that people are unsuperficially learning and retaining post-Internet as well as they did pre-Internet. Poole's review is correct, basically, that Carr's overly pessimistic view of the Internet is too deterministic, not giving human willpower its due. But Carr's book is also more fair and balanced than Poole allows. Regardless of which writer is overstating, parents should still monitor their kids' Internet use, as there are a lot of dangers on the Internet, some of which kids aren't ready to cope with. See Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens.

It’s a parent’s job to keep kids from running into the traffic, regardless of whether we’re referring to Internet or car traffic
It’s a parent’s job to keep kids from running into the traffic, regardless of whether we’re referring to Internet or car traffic