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Written by August 24, 2010

“The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” – A Book By Nicholas Carr

I have trouble focusing sometimes.  Allow me to give you an example: Do you recall reading the sentence, "I have trouble focusing sometimes"?   I hope you enjoyed it, because it took me half an hour to write.  I typed the first two letters with gusto, but then a critical event intervened:  I saw a squirrel climb a tree outside my window.  After observing this fascinating rodent for a record-breaking 20 seconds, important questions soon occupied my thoughts:  Ones like, “What is the evolutionary advantage of a cute, fluffy tail,” and “Why it is such a ‘must-have’ in the world of squirrels?”
These meanderings were rapidly followed by yet another compelling distraction – the urge to uncover answers.  And it wasn’t long after reading two whole paragraphs on the subject of squirrel DNA that I soon found myself with five additional tabs open in my browser, one for e-mail, another for YouTube, Google News, Facebook, and yet another for email (apparently to observe twice as many people not writing me.)
 In the matter of an hour, I had managed to skim a handful of paragraphs in Wikipedia ranging from the history of the Russo-Japanese war to a surprisingly thorough sketch of the early life of Bob Saget (please don’t quiz me on anything), look through a total of several hundred Facebook party pictures (none that I had been invited to), watch 14 YouTube videos of trampoline accidents, and play a quick game of online solitaire.  So — I conclude, Nicholas Carr may in fact be on to something.
In his fascinating and controversial new book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” Carr posits that the Internet is quite literally reshaping the way we think. The endless stream of information (aural, visual, and textual) is actually altering the neural pathways in our brain, he says, and unfortunately much of this change may be for the worse. Drawing upon a wide variety of research, including recent discoveries in neuroscience, Carr demonstrates that the Internet is taking advantage of the plasticity of our brains, impairing our abilities for critical thinking, reflection and memorization, and effectively sapping our concentration. In other words, it’s the reason that we forsake a long book for our Blackberries, and the reason why I can’t finish writing a sentence without doing a million other things in the most inattentive, cursory way imaginable. As the author puts it in the original essay that inspired the book, "My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
Carr is no Luddite either. He understands the immense importance of the World Wide Web and the myriad ways it has changed all of our lives for the better (free exchange of ideas, fluffy squirrel tail photos et al.) His book is a thoughtful, honest look at a real problem, and an eloquent plea for a return to intelligent discourse and deep, critical thinking. I heartily recommend it.  (I should note too that these last few sentences took me close to an hour to complete. I thought I saw a moth. It was a piece of lint.) 

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