H. Doug Matsuoka's notes in the margin of the Big Everything.

9.14.2010

Surfing The Shallows on an iPad -- a Book Review

The order of title and subtitle is inverted on the cover
I looked forward to reading The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, but thought it would be a fitting challenge to read the ebook version on the iPad.  Could I read a book about how the internet is wrecking our ability to read books on the preeminent internet skateboard of the moment? 


This was a bit of a cheat, though.  I had already read a couple of books on the iPad's baby cousin, the iPhone.  As soon as the Kindle app was available, I downloaded it onto both my laptop and my iPhone.  I liked the ability to load one book onto both platforms and have my place synchronized through the internet.  Malcolm Gladwell's, What the Dog Saw, was my "starter" test book. It's a compilation of essays.  Leery of my ability to read a whole book on the iPhone Leery of the iPhone's ability to present an entire book in readable form, I thought I'd test it out on a bunch of smaller essays.

No prob at all.  In fact, it was a very rewarding experience.  One of the things that attracted me to reading on the iPhone was the ability to read in bed.  It's easy to keep your place and there's no need for a booklight.  (What did I think of the What the Dog Saw?  The next book I read was Gladwell's Outliers.)

But when I bought an iPad, I immediately fell down a rabbit hole in the internet.  I started taking both the iPhone and the iPad to bed and there was no reason to get out of bed except to attend to the limitations imposed by human flesh.  Factoid: The iPad perfectly fits into a one-gallon Ziploc baggie so you can watch Netflix in the bath. Seriously.  I wasn't working (I'd been laid off); and I wasn't working ON anything at all.  But gee whiz, I was learning a lot about the internet.  I couldn't tell you what that was because I was forgetting it as fast as I learned.  But I was spending all my time learning whatever it was.

The iPad, although kind of a large iPhone without the phone, is quite a different beast.  It changes the internet from a nice, wet, squishy place to "surf" to something bright, noisy, abrupt, and most of all tactile -- all pops, grinds, and hardflips

This is what a page from The Shallows looks like on the iPad:  

I have the screen set to be dark brown on light brown -- very easy to read, but a bit bland.
(click makes big)
And here's some of the competition -- what some other stuff looks on the iPad.  And remember, these are just screenshots -- static, unmoving, and silent.

Spin the globe and click a video.  This app actually sucks.
(click big)
Flipboard takes my Twitter and Facebook data and automatically formats it into a magazine.
(click big)
And paper.li takes the people I follow on Twitter and formats it into a "newspaper" (and puts an ad in too).
(click)
Netflix chooses movies based on my previous selections.  Note that I stopped watching Zardoz (boring).  But I thought The Men Who Stare at Goats was quite good.  I didn't rate it because as soon as I hit the rating button it posts it at Facebook.  Without asking -- gotta fix that.
I managed to put the internet addiction behind me, but I laughed in recognition when Carr writes, "I'm not thinking the way I used to think."  You n' me both, bro.  He raises the specter that this change in thinking is more than just a change in thinking.  He makes a case that it's a change in the very wiring of the brain. He makes a plausible enough case to raise some serious "uh oh's" and one of those is the assertion that the changes in brain wiring can happen relatively quickly ("Brain cells that fire together, wire together").  The symptoms he describes are familiar enough.  The need to switch from one thing to another -- as in check email twitter feed headlines Facebook etcetera.  Also the shortening of attention span.  Even to me, posting a Youtube video longer than two minutes seems like asking a bit much of people.  I can't believe the TV ads of my youth were a full minute long.  What kind of epic was needed to sell laundry detergent?  What kept people from changing channel to see something more engaging? Oh, I forget, that was before the remote was invented.

Here's a state-of-the-art 14 second commercial (It's in Japanese, but who needs a translation):


Yet that the brain can rewire and change so quickly is at odds with something else I've read recently.  This is your Brain on Music, the Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel J. Levitin is the book that mentioned the study by Anders Ericsson, the now widely cited "10,000 hour rule".  That rule suggests that it takes focused attention and practice for 10,000 hours to become qualitatively expert at anything.  I mention this rule because it has gained much use and credibility of late.  Ten thousand hours, is three hours a day over 10 years, about what a gifted child studying music would put in before heading off to conservatory.  Ten thousand hours is also 10 hours a day for 3 years, or 20 hours a day for a year and a half.  So even if you spent all your undivided attention on working the internet, the change would take quite a while.  At least according to the 10,000 hour rule.

But that's the brain we're talking about.  Carr himself is a wonderful writer -- a great wordsmith.  The title of the book mentions the brain, but essentially what Carr writes about isn't that bland enigmatic meatloaf of an organ, but about the mind.  In the beginning he warns, "Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts -- the faster the better."  Uh oh. 

Here's a neat pivot on the words "brain" and "mind": "There's growing evidence, moreover, that our brains naturally mimic the state of the other minds we interact with, whether those minds are real or imagined."  (Cue Twilight Zone guitar riff here.)  Cool writing.

One of the big controversies over The Shallows is the question of whether the changes in thinking and brain wiring Carr describes is actually a bad thing.  Maybe our thinking and our brains are adapting as they always have to new conditions, and this twitchy kind of thinking actually serves to improve us rather than degrade us.  Carr quotes digital media scholar Clay Shirky's opinion that old stuff like War and Peace is just "too long, and not so interesting," and further that praises for these old literary works "were just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access."  I thought that was amusing enough to finally take War and Peace off my must-read list.

Just thought it might be interesting...
Harvard professor and psychologist Steven Pinker takes a swing at The Shallows in a New York Times op-ed piece ("Mind Over Mass Media") without mentioning either Carr or the book specifically.  He dismisses the warnings of Twitter-induced diminishing attention spans and the reduction of discourse to bullet points by citing technology related false alarms of the past.  But I was disappointed.  I expect more from a highly-touted smarty-pants, especially a Harvard professor.  Maybe it's a limitation of the op-ed form itself, but this brief 800 word essay doesn't present much by way of fact or argument.  He compares fear of the the new internet technologies to be like the blaming of comicbooks for juvenile delinquency in the 50's when delinquency was actually declining or for blaming video games for crime in the 90's when the crime rate was falling.  He tells us that antipathy for the new technology is just a neo-luddite fear of the new and innovative and that everything is okay, nothing to see here, move on.  And he wants us to accept that.

Carr wrote a thoughtful 2,000 word response ("Steven Pinker and the Internet") which effectively responded to Pinker's column and threw some decent punches of his own.  I'll skip the blow by blow if you'll let me digress from the manly art of combat to bring up a question or two about gender. 

We men -- we build ships and bridges and hydro-electric plants.  We lead armies.  We run countries and by God, we write books.  The fist fight between Carr and Pinker is over the very broad issue of how the internet affects humanity and society.  Well, there is another way to look at this.

Another recently published book that addresses the attention challenges of the internet is Winifred Gallagher's, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.  This thoroughly engaging book describes the dynamics of different forms of attention and many of the same challenges to deep thinking that The Shallows describes.  But instead of trying to determine whether this is bad or good for humanity, she frames it as a quality of life issue.  What is it that you want to do with your attention, knowing that, "Your life is the creation of what you focus on -- and what you don't."  It's one of the most important things about the quality of your life and how you live.  Am I being stereotypical to describe this as a feminine perspective that has completely escaped the guys?

And with that in mind, consider the truth in Carr's statement that, "The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention."  I would like to know how many people have managed to read the entire book on iPad.  And you know what?  I think this quantity is knowable.  Amazon knows.

Amazon knows how many people who have cracked the book have finished it.  They know what page you're on right now.  Of course, they ain't telling, but they know.  There are a couple of neat features of the Kindle and the app.  Buy a book and you can download it to your work desktop, your iPhone and iPad.  You can read the book on your workstation while you pretend to work, and on your iPhone on your stop at the dentist, and on your iPad before you go to sleep.  In order to make all this easy, the furthest page you have read is sent to the Amazon Kindle cloud.  And since the screens are of varying sizes, discrete "locations" take the place of the archaic paper "page."  When you open the book on your iPhone it checks the furthest location you've read and goes there, and when you open the book that night on your iPad it goes to the furthest location you got to on your iPhone.  That's pretty cool.  It also means that Amazon can keep track of how many people that crack location 1 get to the final location. 

I'm guessing this number is fairly low.  Another feature of the Kindle app allows you to highlight (and even make "marginal" notations).  If you allow it, the Amazon Kindle cloud also keeps track of this information.  It then shows you the most popular of what others have highlighted.  The furthest "popular notation" in The Shallows is at the 17% mark.  Whoa.

I'm going to be following up on this to see if I can get more info from Amazon.  If any of you find anything, let me know, okay?

So, yes, I did read the entire book.  It took me about a month.  But let me tell you something.  I saved the reading of the book for times I had set aside to really pay attention to it.  I made highlights and notations, but I also took notes the old fashioned way -- with paper and pen.  I took eight pages of notes in smallish handwriting on lined A4 size paper.  (This is just a weird personal affectation.  Aside from insisting on taking handwritten notes, I then scan the notes into a database for future reference.)

In the end I don't think Carr convinced me completely that the internet is bad for humanity.  And at any rate, he doesn't suggest much of an antidote.  But I did find the book a very engaging read, and full of well documented points to contemplate.  So yeah, I loved the book and I may have been seduced by Carr's ability as a writer.  The book has certainly influenced the path of my thinking, that's for sure.  I'm trying to think of the under140 character Twitter review.  Probably something like, "#TheShallows a deep breaking good read" which kinda combines literary, internet, and surf metaphors which -- come to think of it -- would just confuse the hell out of everyone. 

So what now?  I opened an Aardvark* account and asked, "Any good books responsive to Carr's charges in The Shallows that the internet is making us stupid?"  Answer received: Clay Shirkey's Cognitive Surplus.  OK, I had the Kindle preview edition sent to my iPad.  We'll see.

But let me get girly on you.  If the preview doesn't read well, I'm not reading the rest of the book.  I'm not reading for the benefit of humanity or to determine what nation we should next attempt to obliterate.  I read because it's one of the things that makes life worth living.  My life, baby.

-- H. Doug Matsuoka
Makiki, Honolulu
14 September 2010

Update of 21 September 2010.  I cross posted this here at Open Salon.  Open Salon is a different place -- more social, less solitary perhaps -- than a single writer's blog.

*Yes, Aardvark is now owned by Google.

5 comments:

  1. This topic seems to be spawning an entire new genre, doesn't it? Thanks for the review (of book and iPad). I have an iPad already, but I'll be checking out the book.

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  2. I've failed to finish perhaps two books I've opened on Kindle. Those were books I got free, and they were rubbish. I have started and finished at least a hundred.
    I do think you're being stereotypical when you suggest Winifred Gallagher's is a feminine perspective. Fact is, anyone who ever achieved anything notable in life did so by means of focus and concentration - playing an instrument well, writing a book, discovering a cure for a disease, and so on. You touch on this earlier in your post with the "10,000 Hours" rule.
    This kind of person has never been more than a small percentage of humanity. In the past, most of the rest of humanity was more or less invisible, since there was a brutal sifting-out process required to have your work published, or recorded, or whatever.
    The sifting-out process does not really exist on the Internet. Anyone can publish, if they restrict their magnum opi to 140 characters, or Facebook's 420 characters, or they use no-brainer tools like Blogger to write their own blog. (I use Blogger myself, because I want the process to take no time away from the process of producing thoughtful content).
    Your own blog is an example of focus. You read a book. You thought about it. You read or referred to other books. You came up with interesting information and thoughtful opinions, because you focused and spent some time on the project - a blog post.
    You make it clear that - like me - you have to guard against being swept into the tidal-race of the trivial or distracting which the Internet presents.
    At the same time, as I tried to suggest above, the ability to focus and concentrate means you have to shut off the distractions. Only the nature of the distraction has changed. In Victorian times, for instance, the distractions might have been social ones, and there were probably just as many.
    The Internet can also enhance the reading process. On my blog, under "Book I'm Reading Now", I describe a process of reading passages of Jared Diamond's "Collapse" and perhaps going out to the Internet to explore connections which occur to me while reading. That's a focus-enriching process, not a distraction.
    I think at the end of the day I'm saying it's down to the individual - as it always has been - to use the Internet wisely as a tremendous resource for focused attention on any topic you care to name, and not to let it become a romp through triviality.

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  3. Thanks for your comments, Bill.

    (Bill's most recent post about reading on the iPad is here: http://billhillsblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/ipad-blows-kindle-out-of-water-but.html)

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  4. Thanks for the post, Doug. I too notice a fervent distractability in my reading life as I jump from device to book and back to other device. I blog a lot because at least I'm already at my computer, eh? My husband just got an iPad touch (we're late adopters) and downloaded Donald Rumsfeld's new memoir for me (which I refuse to buy). It's like 3,000 screens long!!! aloha, Susan

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  5. Nice post! Keep it up the good work.

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