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.

“The best designers in the world all squint when they look at something. They squint to see the forest from the trees — to find the right balance. Squint at the world. You will see more, by seeing less.”

– John Maeda, graphic designer, computer scientist, university professor, author

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