How shallow thinking harms our ability to be productive and learn: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

How is the Internet and social media changing our brains? Is this change for the better? Will the changes in our brains from today’s digital media help or hinder our long-term success in life and our ability to learn?

Where Deep Work tried to answer these questions and provide a path towards getting focused attention back in your life, The Shallows, as a precursor, works to define the problems inherent in our digital culture today. Where Deep Work cited some studies and other materials, The Shallows has numerous citations per page from a vast array of scientific studies, recent books, and writings from the Roman era or earlier.

One of the big assumptions made by author Nicholas Carr is:

In the end, we come to pretend that the technology itself doesn’t matter. It’s how we use it that matters, we tell ourselves. The implication, comforting in its hubris, is that we’re in control. The technology is just a tool, inert until we pick it up and inert again once we set it aside.

When we had a culture that relied on the oral transmission of knowledge, that knowledge had a shortish life. If the orator wasn’t able to catch the attention of those around him, then the idea would die. When books came along and people started writing down their knowledge, we gained the ability for ideas that didn’t catch to live on and catch later. Without this writing most of us never would have heard of Plato or Anne Frank or Emily Dickinson and the world of knowledge would be poorer for it. Because these authors had access to a print medium we get to benefit from their thinking hundreds of years later.

With the ease of online publishing and social media we’re in a another shift, with new mediums available. While there are many great things that come from the ability for anyone to easily publish their work, we need to be careful that we don’t fall into the ‘any benefit’ mindset described by Cal Newport in Deep Work. Just because there is a benefit, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t weigh the trade-offs that are inherent in this new medium.

1. Deep work is becoming hard

The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

In college, I remember lying in bed for around 95% of a 24-hour block. I got up to use the bathroom, and have one meal, and that’s it. The rest of the time was spent on my back in bed and nobody disturbed me. No I wasn’t sick — I was reading a great book.

Recently I gave my wife my iPad and moved over to a Kindle Paperwhite as my main e-reader. I intentionally picked a device that was bad at many things to help reclaim my focus. Reading off my iPad mini was a great experience. It was fast and the screen was great. It’s not really that heavy and I could do so many things on it outside of reading a book. But that ability to do so many things with it is also its biggest problem.

The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.

I could check my site stats or check out IMDB or play a game I had installed. I’d read a bunch of pages in a book and then realize I had no idea what it was talking about because I had also checked on three other things at the same time. My attention was scattered and my learning was harmed because of it.

While I could choose to not check into many other things, I found that it was all but impossible to continually exert the discipline to not be distracted by many little things. It was like cookies in my house. No matter how much I say I’m not going to eat them all, if there are cookies in my house I’m sneaking cookies.

Even moving to the Kindle Paperwhite I had to make the choice to leave my phone on the other side of the house. This is a single choice to not have a phone tempting me instead of 52 choices not to pick my phone up and check what’s new.

The boons are real. But they come at a price. As McLuhan suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, 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.

What the Internet and our phones do to us is make boredom something we can easily escape. We think nothing of pulling a device out of our pockets when we stand in line, and by doing so we train focused productivity out of our lives.

Looking at our computers at the main task we need to do, we easily flip over to Twitter or Slack or something that’s not the hard, focused work that we should be doing. Just like Carr, we don’t dive in deep to the work at hand, but we skip around, making a bit of progress here and there in the midst of distractions everywhere.

And we call that productive.

Our use of the Internet involves many paradoxes, but the one that promises to have the greatest long-term influence over how we think is this one: the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing message and stimuli.

2. The overstimulated brain has trouble finding relevance and making connections

Experiments indicate that as we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise. We become mindless consumers of data.

Digital tools don’t just harm our ability to focus though. They harm our ability to draw connections. Much of my life is in Evernote. Despite the problems I have with Evernote, and thinking it’s ludicrous for them to add lame features while there are real issues with using the core software, I use it many times a day for many things.

I’ve got research papers stored in there. Photos of my children in my journal. Web articles and receipts for my business. It’s my single repository for pretty much anything I need to find and my brain has been trained to recognize that.

The problem with this outsourcing of knowledge is that it hampers your ability to draw connections between disparate pieces of information. If I hadn’t started writing these book reviews I’m pretty sure I’d not have noticed the connection between most productivity books, most books on deep work, most books on happiness and most books on learning effectively. I’ve read a number of the books before and never saw how so many of the main concepts are the same, just differing in the language the author uses and how they’re applied to the problem the book is trying to solve.

When I just outsourced my highlighting and notes to Kindle and then storage in Evernote, I never really had to think about what I read. It was just out there until I needed to find it again, though I’d forget and never look it up anyway. It would get buried under the avalanche of other articles and books I’d read.

The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our “cognitive load.” When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information—when the water overflows the thimble—we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory.

Cognitive Load and Decision Fatigue operate in the same way. When you’ve spent the day making hard decisions, thinking about what to make for dinner becomes hard. Your ‘decision muscles’ are worn out and you’re more likely to choose something that’s not really all that healthy for you.

Confronted with all the popups, ads, and links to other content we see online, our brain is simply overloaded. As Carr says, we can’t keep any more information in so it just spills out, never to be seen again.

I only follow five RSS feeds now and I never read them on their sites. I never even read them in my RSS reader. The only place I read online articles now is in Instapaper. This means I don’t have to deal with a terrible site with a bunch of distracting crap. Even interesting links in articles get pushed back to Instapaper, I don’t go jumping around. I even limit the number of articles I’ll read in a day to two or three, which means I’m never going to get to much of my Instapaper queue.

I limit myself in all these ways so that I can make sure I don’t go into cognitive overload and lose the ability to draw connections between content.

3. The popular just becomes more popular

Considering how much easier it is to search digital text than printed text, the common assumption has been that making journals available on the Net would significantly broaden the scope of scholarly research, leading to a much more diverse set of citations. But that’s not at all what Evans discovered. As more journals moved online, scholars actually cited fewer articles than they had before. And as old issues of printed journals were digitized and uploaded to the Web, scholars cited more recent articles with increasing frequency. A broadening of available information led, as Evans described it, to a “narrowing of science and scholarship.”

Confirmation Bias is the tendency we all have to continue to seek out information that confirms the opinions we already hold. We discount contrary opinions as irrelevant and the main portal to the Internet — search engines — only reinforce this in us.

Google figures out the results we want to see and shows us more results like that. If people visit a search result and then click back right away, Google uses it as a signal that the result was not what the user expected.

While getting the results we expect is a good thing it’s also a very dangerous thing. It enhances our already innate tendency towards confirmation bias by never even showing us contradictory opinions. It breeds a culture that is opinionated, not informed.

We have to work really hard to make sure that we’ve done the work required to have an opinion and investigated the ‘other side’ so thoroughly we could make their arguments for them better than they can. This is only going to get harder as the Internet becomes better at reading our intentions and only showing us information that matches that which we already think we know.

Even books have this going for them. We can choose not to read books that hold opinions contrary to our beliefs. I’ll write more about this in the future, but in losing a culture dominated by oral storytelling we lost public face-to-face debate about the ideas we have. We started to make confirmation bias easier to live with when we got the book.

More than just finding the information that is contrary to our opinion, the Internet breads content that is short, has a bunch of links, and is in a list. This long post about a book is going to see much less traffic than some listicle with three tips for cooking eggs. The Internet breeds shallow content as we all reward it with our attention– if you can call skimming a list of bold words attention.

Just as I’ve stopped reading almost all RSS feeds, I’ve stopped reading list posts. I choose not to reward shallow work with my attention. This does bring a contrast with what I read and what I write as many of the online publishers I write for want shallow content that’s ‘shareable’ to get this vaunted attention of two seconds of scanning. Even on my site where I’d rather write long pieces like this regularly, I feel caught in the trap of ’shareable’ content so that people will come see anything I have to say.

Just to get you to read this message, I feel the pull to resort to write content I no longer read because I feel it has little value.

Recommendation

The Shallows is a great book for those who want a deep explanation of the problems that the Internet and digital media bring with it. It’s got lots of references to other great reads on the subject as well. If you’re looking for a book with some ideas about how to work yourself out of the random shallowness of the Internet, then look somewhere else. I’d suggest Deep Work which has a great set of strategies to enable more deep work in your life.

Carr spends lots of time on the history of content, but rarely gives you a solid reason about why the history is relevant in the context of the discussion today. I continually found myself wondering why this multi-page discussion of Google and its founding principles was really relevant to the central point that Carr was trying to make. After these many pages, you’ll find a vague sentence that tries to pull it all together.

While The Shallows is an interesting read, I think that it’s mostly useful to read in context of the later works like Deep Work which used many of the ideas in The Shallows as jumping off points for a much more practical application.

Get The Shallows on Amazon

photo credit: domiriel cc

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