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Deep in thought

The information explosion, instead of making us smarter, is probably rewiring our brains to a level of superficial understanding.
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The Shallows

By Nicholas Carr (Atlantic Books, 2010) $40 Buy@Fishpond

Nicholas Carr may well have taken inspiration for his title from the familiar lines of Alexander Pope’s poem ‘An Essay on Criticism’:

A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Or maybe he is simply pointing out that the ubiquitous internet is leading mankind through an evolutionary shift that may mean our brains are becoming adjusted and hardwired to shallow thinking. Carr argues convincingly that humanity hasn’t been exposed to such mind-altering technology since Gutenberg.

The information explosion, instead of making us smarter, is probably rewiring our brains to a level of superficial understanding. Courtesy of the internet, we’re sipping snippets from a fire-hose of information. Carr writes “… we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking technology encourages and rewards.”

In a nutshell, that’s the thrust of the book. Like lots of simple ideas, its point could have been made in an essay, but who buys essays? It has been woven into a very readable book, supported with psychological insights and diversionary narratives on other technological breakthroughs—from clocks to maps—that have also influenced the way we think.

If you’re interested in loftier, more philosophical things than the contents of Paris Hilton’s handbag, this book is entertaining and accessible. Well worth a read if you’re wondering where mankind might be heading in the cerebral department.

Mike Hutcheson is a director of publisher Tangible Media