BOOK REVIEW: The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr

Book Review - The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

The Main Idea:

There are two opposing schools of thought: “Net enthusiasts” believe we are in a new golden age of information access and user participation. “Net skeptics” feel we have entered a world of mediocrity and narcissism.

“Deep reading” and “losing oneself” in a book requires the ability to concentrate over long periods of time. The internet challenges this type of reading. i.e. We multi-task, are bombarded with streams of endless information, and it is easier than ever to find more information about topics we are interested in. Personalized magazines (i.e. Pulse, Zite, Flipboard), RSS feeds, hyper-linked articles – every page is packed with links directing our attention away to an entirely different location.

“As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.”

 

“. . . we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.”

– Nicholas Carr

In order to avoid becoming “pancake people”, there needs to be both: “time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden”. The distinguishing characteristics of a well-formed mind include both the ability to “find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection.” (Carr 168)

Interesting Tidbits:

  • Clocks were invented originally by Christian monks for precise timing of daily prayers
  • There were no punctuation marks or spaces in original written language (scriptura continua)
  • Reading is pleasurable because of the series of “intellectual vibrations” it sets off within your own mind.
  • Enlightenment used to be achieved through introspection, according to American Transcendentalists and English Romantics.
  • Now, more access to information means more knowledge and more power – a mode of thought that’s been in place since at least the Industrial Revolution.
  • “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” – Seneca

Brighter Software Means Dimmer Users

As “users” of web technologies, we expect programs and software to be endlessly user-friendly. Apple has revolutionized user-friendly product design, and Google tries to interpret our needs in order to provide the best possible search results. We are so spoiled by these industry leaders, we feel as though all technology should look and feel the same. Programs that  require the least bit of thought or patience are considered executed with “poor UX”.

We simply don’t want to play around or figure anything out by trial-and-error anymore. We lose patience, and feel entitled to something better, more intuitive, something that understands what we want to do and makes this possible with minimal resistance. The result is users who fail to grasp underlying concepts, or themes that exist within these technologies that we can take with us and apply to future interactions.

This interpretation completely challenges what I’ve observed on the web as a cult-like following for UX in both web and product design. Carr put it well: “The brighter the software, the dimmer the user.”

Nature Restores Our Humanity

 Carr does offer us a way out of the “electronic forest” – by referencing both scientific studies and personal accounts of nature as a remedy for this information overload. After spending time in natural settings, away from cities, people are shown to exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and are more calm.

In sum, this book was extremely enlightening – both from an informative perspective, as well as a contemplative one. 🙂 Highly recommended.

BOOK REVIEW: I Live in The Future and Here’s How it Works

I Live in the Future and Here's How it Works by Nick BiltonI think I should have read more reviews of this book before reading it…as someone who uses the internet, and enjoys reading about it from time to time – this book was boring.

Read Only If You Think Internet = Scary

I had an internal conflict pretty much the entire time as to whether or not I should just quit and move on with my life. I kept thinking of this incredible article about not finishing books just for the sake of finishing them – but it turns out I’m too big of a pushover.

Highly recommended for “technochondriacs”, or anyone who feels like they’re too far behind in today’s digital revolution to understand any of it.

Sorta Like Reading 1984 in 1986

The fact that it was published in 2010 sort of gives it an excuse. The ideas and concepts it discusses have been discussed so much – with colleagues, friends, blogs, etc. – that nothing really felt that “futuristic”.

There were actually several “what if’s” that now exist: we really do receive totally personalized versions of the news through sites like Zite, Flipboard and others. Google really does deliver personalized results based on a person’s social circle, search history and geographic location. It’s pretty neat that Bilton was able to project so accurately these once-revolutionary ideas, but you just can’t read this book anymore if you’ve already had conversations and read articles about this stuff.

Bilton as a Blogger v. Author

Bilton is the lead tech writer for the NYTimes blog, Bits. He definitely knows his stuff – which is why it was frustrating to read sentences like “Look at Apple, the early computer company that has moved into music, music players, cell phones, and new electronic readers.” Ohhhh, that Apple? And this is a line that appears toward the very end of the book. It just felt a little bit too spoon-fed.

That said, it is easier to digest content online when it’s simple, straightforward and with a dash of humor. So maybe the style of the writing is better suited for a blog format, than a 266-page book. In the future (and here’s how it works), I will definitely refer to Bilton when when a new gadget or technology comes out and I want an early adapter’s opinion of it. So…there’s that.

BOOK REVIEW: Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda

Laws of Simplicity

This was my first read on design theory – the title, subtitle, cover design and author of Laws of Simplicity all appealed to me at once. The book presents a convincing case for the importance of simplicity and user-friendliness in the field of product design.

The author, John Maeda, is a digital artist and computer scientist. He’s a former Associate Director of MIT’s media lab, and currently the President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
The 10 Laws of Simplicity – Put Simply

There are 10 “laws” of simplicity – each presented as a chapter. My personal favorite is the # 1 Law: Reduce – “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.

I even found a nice desktop image of the Reduce law, by the author/digital artist:

Laws of Simplicity - John Maeda - Desktop Pattern

This blog post does a nice job of summarizing each law one by one. They’re pretty straightforward and although I read this book almost a year ago, I only recall the 1st Law causing me to pause a moment in consideration; the rest are sort of common sense presented in style.

Simplicity of Product Design

Apple is constantly referred to throughout the book, for creating consumer products with an emphasis on usable and attractive design. The iPod stands out as a prime example of a product whose form factor contributes significantly to the overall appeal. It’s not just a way to carry music; it’s an attractive, sleek & simple way to carry your music. There’s a discussion of the successive generations of iPod, with improvements made to the physical interface for improved usability. Remember the circular trackpad? Sort of a precursor to gestures.

I especially loved Maeda’s analysis of the iPod’s reflective mirror-like backside, as a way to make the device look and feel even smaller and lighter.

Noteworthy Mentions:

  • Raymond Loewy = Coke bottle, 1930s. Concept of “streamlining”
  • Wolfgang Weingart = master of Swiss typographic design. Repetition breeds simplicity.
  • Paul Rand – logo design for ABC, IBM, UPS, Westinghouse
  • Jonathan Ive – Apple
  • Ikko Tanaka – father of modern Japanese graphic design
  • German design: gestalt. Design fits perfectly with the mind’s idea of what it should be. (e.g. Audi, BMW, Braun)

BOOK REVIEW: Googled by Ken Auletta

Ken Auletta’s book “Googled” is about the birth and development of the company through 2010, when the book was published. It discusses how founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with the idea of indexing the web. How Google expanded into such diverse industries as technology, advertising (AdWords and AdSense), media (YouTube), publishing (Google Books), news (Google News), and others.

My job as an SEO content writer is to cater to the whims of Google – making it so my client’s websites perform as well as possible in Google Search. As a Search Engine Marketer at a web start-up, “Googled” is a useful read.

If the internet makes information available, Google seeks to make information accessible. Connecting people to the information they need is Google’s goal. They accomplish this by gathering data about consumers as they search online. The process is refined constantly – an estimated 400 tweaks are made to Google’s algorithm each year. The intentions seem good, and the company is associated with concepts like efficiency, productivity, clarity, usability and simplicity.

Google was a pioneer practitioner of the freemium business model (offering a basic product for free and building a user base before monetizing). Google’s goal is actually to send users away from its site, and toward the information they seek.

Questions raised:

  • Is Google’s corporate culture so prosperous because the stock value is so high? Or the other way around?
  • Where is the boundary between usability and invasion of privacy?
  • Has Eric Shmidt really never taken advantage of the free massages at Googleplex?
  • “Will Google become ‘a source of content, a platform, a destination that seeks to keep people in a walled Google garden?'”

Best Snippets & Quotes:

“I’m a well-trained introvert…Being with people drains me of energy” – Marc Andreessen, Co-Author of Mosaic & Co-Founder of Netscape

“Content is how the consumer chooses to spend time.” – Herbert Allen III

“YouTube succeeded in democratizing information.” – Auletta

“Is Google’s customer the advertiser or the user?” – Auletta

“People with the right information make better decisions for themselves. People presented with the right commercial opportunities will buy things suited for them.” – Sergey Brin

  • Emotional equity = trust by consumers that companies care not only about profits but also about them – Jim Stengel

“Why would you go to work at a place where your contribution is not seen as central to the success of the organization?” – Peter Thiel, CEO of PayPal

  • The emotional power of a commercial is weakened by the informational power of the Web. – Auletta

“Instead of a company asking what’s going to change over the next 5-10 years – you should ask what isn’t going to change?” – Jeff Bezos

“If you don’t listen to your customers, someone else will” – Sam Walton

“You know you’ve won when the government stops you.” – Ted Turner

“Insecurity tends to breed fear, and at worst, paranoid. Neither emotion produces clarity.” – Auletta

New things/people/concepts to explore:

  • Irwin Gotlieb
  • “Faustian”
  • the semantic web
  • Talgam (conductor)
  • Google employees are given the opportunity to spend 20% of their time at work on “passion projects”. Marissa Meyer claims over half of Google’s products are results of the 20% time.

Further reading:

  • The Cathedral and the Bazaar” – Eric Steven Raymond, 1997, Linux developer
  • Bill Gates’ “creative capitalism” speech – 2007, Harvard graduation ; 2008 – World Economic Forum, Davos
  • The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr
  • The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
  • DLD – Digital, Life, Design Conference in Munich

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: