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.

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Facebook After Weddings Feels Like Rocket Science

Facebook Wedding Photos

Facebook can prolong post-wedding bliss . . . or instill anxiety in hung-over guests.

I went to a picture-perfect wedding this weekend, and posted a ton of iPhone pics on Facebook. Everyone complains while it’s happening but then harasses me to post them as soon as I can.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

My passion for taking iPhone pictures at events like this lately has led to some heated privacy discussions, untagging requests and questions about how to remove comments. One of my friends went so far as to explain to me that she’s worked so far to get to where she is, and can’t afford to have it all taken away with some drunken pictures of her posted on Facebook. (You’d think the person who said this was a kindergarten teacher, but it wasn’t.) After a post-bachelorette party posting session, I received frantic phone calls from friends who didn’t understand that I set the albums to private, and that no one but us could see them.

I try and be as respectful as possible, and honor all the “take down/untag” requests I can – but I can’t help but notice how increasingly difficult or annoying the process has gotten; ironically as Facebook claims it’s goal is  “improve” the user experience, it feels more complicated than ever.

More Users, More Responsibility, More Confusion

There’s a huge catch-22 going on with Facebook’s growing popularity and photo-sharing that’s resulting in UX improvements that are actually making everything more complicated than before. It’s the easiest way to share pictures with friends, but this means it’s also the easiest way to inadvertently share pictures with friends’ bosses. Technophile parents are popping up all over the network, and with them comes irresponsible content sharing. Facebook is aware of this, and has made several privacy improvements over the past couple of years.

Unfortunately, these “improvements” are tucked inside Settings windows and easy-to-miss rollover icons, that most users just don’t notice.

So when I get a text message from the bride the day after her wedding asking me how to tag people on her iPhone, I don’t even know where to begin. Facebook has changed it’s user interface so many times – most recently a couple of weeks ago to improve the app’s speed – that it’s pretty impossible to visualize yet alone describe the user-flow of an action as simple as tagging. I had to tell the bride to be patient, and that I’d tag them myself once I got to a computer. The iPhone app was simply too complicated.

Facebook Wedding Photos 1

The tag icon reveals previously-added tags

Facebook Wedding Photo 2

No tags were previously added on desktop, and there’s no way to add them on mobile.

View the full *public album on Facebook: Jennie & Tommy

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.

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