The Shallows

Started reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows on a flight out to San Francisco last week, and was pretty drawn to his argument.  He claims that using the Internet is actually changing our brains, making us respond to short-form broadband stimulation rather than long-form contemplative “deep reading” (his term; a good one).

It gibes with a lot I’m seeing. First of all, he observes at the beginning that he and his friends have seemingly lost the ability to read books, or at least have had the ability diminished.  True here.  I wallow in “short-form” reading all day, but it’s almost not reading anymore, it’s flitting from link to link in order to form a quick “gist” of things.  It’s a new form of intellectual interaction, well-suited to the Web.  All arguments Carr makes.

I had noticed the atomization of content on the web.  As bits industries are disintermediated (see my post on that here) the length of the information artifact gets smaller.  Albums get replaced by songs get replaced by ring tones.  Features get replaced by stories get replaced by blog postings.  Movies get replaced by episodes get replaced by snack videos.  This atomization of course supports Carr’s thesis: it’s optimized for info-grazing.

What’ll happen to the world of long-form thought?  I argue that “Morlocks” — the scientific, technical, and clerical managers who actually run stuff — will still have to read and write and think “long form”, because complex technical and other systems need extended thinking to work properly.  But maybe I’m just trying to salvage a bit of the Enlightenment.  Maybe it can all be done with some kind of intellectual MapReduce: simple operations performed in parallel over a huge set.  Maybe that’s the wave of the future.

What do you think?


2 comments on “The Shallows

  1. Anonymous says:

    Could it be that we’re better wired for short form? That long form is an artifact of old distribution economies that are being shattered by the web? Oral tradition was short form, after all. The average song is only 3 mins – a long one 7-8. The elevator pitch is 30 seconds or 3 minutes. How many of the songs on that disc where worth publishing anyway? How many books should have ended hundreds of pages sooner? It’s tempting to ponder that the economies that forced us into long form eactually enabled boring, and unnecessary verbosity, bluster, and diseconomy of communication.

  2. Dan Gordon says:

    Maybe. Political speeches in the era of Lincoln lasted 4 hours. Serbo-Croation oral poems went on for hours (I know this, believe it or not, because I briefly majored in Folklore and Mythology (between stints in Math and Biochemistry)). You hear of “tribal” palavers going on for hours or even days.

    There’s vats of fat in the average long-form text product — I’m especially thinking of MRDs and product specs here 🙂 — but I don’t think the new shortness is any return to some prior past.

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