A Proactive Review of Nicholas Carr’s Defeatist Book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

This is a copy of my review of Nicholas Carr’s book _The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains (Kindle Edi.). I posted the original this morning on GoodReads.com

Nicholas Carr’s book The shallows is an entertaining book that raises flags about the impact that technology is having on our reading habits. He essentially claims that we (more specifically, our brains) are becoming superficial processors of information because of technology. In carefully reading the book, I found that he supported his thesis through insinuation and rhetoric rather than from premises to the clear conclusion you’d expect from the subtitle of his book.

There are plenty of good things to say about this book. However, I will focus on its significant problems so that we can address them.

Problems:

  1. The Shallows overemphasizes neuroscience and overlooks swaths of highly relevant cognitive science. The book is really about problems that cognitive science deals with (cognitive neuroscience is a discipline that contributes to broad cognitive science.)
    For example, required reading in educational psychology is Pressley, M., & Afflerbach, P. (1995). Verbal protocols of reading. Mahwah, NJ. It’s not mentioned or alluded to.
    I’ve worked in neuroscience labs in the days before it was common to draw over-reaching conclusions from its evidence. I recommend this book:

    Satel, S., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2013). Brainwashed: The seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience. Basic Books: New York.

    See also Stephen Pinker’s criticism of this book in a NY Times article.

  2. Carr doesn’t systematically characterize the very problems he aims to address. If he had, he would have realized that many of the issues we face in learning with technology also apply to learning without technology. They are age old problems. This is not just a theoretical point: In order to solve these problems, i.e., to become better users of technology, we have to clearly understand the problems we’re dealing with. (That’s basic engineering: We need to get the requirements right!)

  3. The Shallows is defeatist. True, technology does challenge us. But There are intellectually productive ways to use technology. By systematically analyzing specific weaknesses with technology in the light of cognitive science we can use it to our advantage.

In other words, The Shallows is not a balanced, systematic treatment of the problems it tries to characterize.

My first book, Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective, is essentially a response to this book. Chapter 1 presents a critique of both The Shallows and naive optimism. I deliberately used the word “profoundly” in my title to make the point that technology can be used to help us delve well beyond “the shallows”. We can profoundly and effectively alter our minds with technology.

  • Part 1 of Cognitive Productivity systematically reviews the challenges and opportunities we face in learning with technology in the Age of Knowledge.
  • Part 2 reviews the cognitive science that is pertinent to addressing the problems and capitalizing on the opportunities.
  • Part 3 presents solutions to the issues raised in Part 1 using the science in part 2. It has quite detailed recommendations of how to use technology in a cognitively productive manner.

This web site, GoodReads, is an excellent example of how technology can help us learn. Here we all are, reading each other’s reviews about important books. Thanks to technology, we are developing our developing our understanding in response to good books. This kind of sharing of ideas with kindred minds across the globe was inconceivable in the old days.

Cognitive Productivity is available on Leanpub at https://leanpub.com/cognitiveproductivity/ . It will soon be on Amazon and iBookstore.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest.
Author of Cognitive Productivity .
Cognitive productivity consultant and public speaker.
Adjunct Professor of Education & Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science, Simon Fraser University
Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp.
See About Me for more information.

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