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Have you noticed a shorter attention span?

(I wrote this review in 2010 I'm pulling it into the blog because I think that the core of this book will end up as a fundamental truth about the internet.  Specifically, Nicolas Carr provides a fascinating argument about how the internet has a physiological effect on you and I.)

The Shallows : What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain. By Nicolas Carr.

Author Nicholas Carr is a heavy internet user. He senses that his time spent online has fundamentally changed how his mind works. This realization drives his work in "The Shallow's". As a preface, Carr is not some dude contemplating his navel on a therapist's couch. He's a Harvard Professor and a serious student of the information technology world. Here's Carr's introductory self assessment:

"I'm not thinking the way I used to think.  I feel it most strongly when I'm reading.  I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.  My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That's rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.  I feel like I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

You too?  This observation and then a recent interview with the President of Google (Eric Schmidt) is motivating my review of this book.  Schmidt was asked what he worried about.  In his list of worries was the effect of the internet on deep thinking.  I thought "hey that's Carr's point".  Indeed it is.  And this book therefore appears to be a addressing an emerging topic for people who care about information technology, society, and their mental acumen.

This book explores how your surfing of the internet is changing your brain (and yes it apparently does). The book tells you precisely how that's happening. Carr integrates a range of research to illustrate how internet surfing stimulates your brain while actually diminishing what you remember and more generally how it is restructuring (and limiting) your ability to analyze. Carr provides a range of factoids, not least of which is that we all read more slowly (and remember less) on web pages because they contain lots of distractions (specifically advertisements in motion, contrasting color, infinite opportunities to hyperlink, and the ever present "bong" of instant messages and e-mail.) The book drives you toward one overarching conclusion: your brain "on Google" is evolving to be a really excellent information hunter gatherer. However it's not evolving in ways that might allow you to actually do something to integrate and apply that information.  You and I are becoming wide but not deep (ie. we're in "The Shallows").   Meanwhile, Carr also runs through research that shows that a mind marinated in the continuous buzz and distraction of an online lifestyle is slower in grasping the moral dimensions of a problem or situation.  Such a grasp requires quiet contemplative reflection and something increasingly not afforded by the Internet use.
If this review has not focused your attention, here's the book. Read it while you still can! The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains And if you're motivated by Carr, here's his blog called Roughtype.

Does the Internet Serve You And Me (Or Do I Have That Backwards)?

I wrote this a couple years ago.  And I've only become more concerned that technology is evolving without sufficient public debate.  For those of you who remember the movie "The Matrix", yes it would appear I've taken the "blue pill". Anybody want to sublet my pod?

The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google By Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr is the Harvard professor who wrote the "Does IT Matter?" article in the Harvard Business Review a few years ago (and who consequently got a bunch of people agitated). In the Big Switch, he looks at the evolving structure of the internet and sees parallels with how the electrical grid evolved over the last century. He rolls the story forward and like Jonathan Zittrain in "The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It" he finds some things to worry about. They are big things.

What are the implications when in the name of convenience, simplicity, personalization, and good service your every click is understood by Google (or whomever)? What are the human implications of Google knowing (or being able to infer) lots about lots, and lots about you - all without your knowledge? What are the implications that the device on your belt or on your desk is not fully in your control? Here's a couple real world teasers that the tech savvy among you will spot as technologically trivial: Did you know that your PC camera and microphone can be turned on without your knowledge? Same for cell phones ... even when they are powered off. Same for "OnStar in your car").

This book and others begin an interesting debate about the boundary between the internet and you. If the internet becomes the world's "brain" what does that mean? And if this does comes to pass, what is your future as an autonomous individual? This is a big question. It's not yet answered (and only marginally posed). But it does get me thinking about those old Star Trek scenes about "assimilation by the borg". Before the borg got all pushy about joining the club, did they actually have a sales pitch? Would it be familiar to what we hear today? Just wondering ...
Nicholas Carr's blog is called Roughtype. You can purchase the book here: The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google

The Dark Side of Your Amazon Kindle e-reader.

(I continue grabbing a couple of my old reviews of favorite books and dropping them onto this blog. This one is from 2008.  This book legitimized my concerns that the individual is loosing their autonomy in the internet world. The author reignited some of the internet libertarianism of the 1990's and happily privacy and control remains an important issue today.)

The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It By Jonathan Zittrain

I read this book on my Amazon Kindle. Ironically this book describes why my Amazon Kindle (and for that matter your iPhone) may represent a problem for the information technology industry (and for all of us as individuals).

Zittrain describes how open devices and software platforms can faciltate innovation and how closed platforms don't. Further, he discusses how these emerging closed device platforms risk converting the internet into a tool for simplified corporate or governmental control of what you see and hear. This book, along with "The Big Switch" by Nicholas Carr, challenge the conventional cyber-utopian assumption that the internet will continue to be a wide open landscape where you independently (and privately) choose when and where you can go. The battle is for control of the end-point device.

Zittrain has certainly spotted the dark side of Web 2.0. He has specifically illuminated those selected design assumptions within and around the internet that can shift the net from a tool by which you manage your life -- to a tool by which others manage your life. This is a serious book that merges the future of technology with public policy (and without ever actually discussing public policy -- he instead wisely focuses on the implications of certain technology architectural choices).

"The Future of the Internet" is one of the first books to directly question the sustainability of cyber-libertarian assumptions about the internet. If you cherish those long standing assumptions, you may want to spend a little time on this book.  You can buy the book here: The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It .  Also here is Zittrain's blog on the evolution of the internet and privacy. 

Starting your career as a software engineer leaves its mark. 

This explains much regarding my writing habits.

Randall Munroe is a physics guy with a sense of humor.  More at his blog.


Defining The Humanist's View of Information Technology


(I continue grabbing a couple of my old reviews of favorite books and dropping them onto this blog. This one is from 2010 and remains today a very useful reflection on all the technology in our lives.)
"You Are Not a Gadget" By Jaron Lanier
Darn. So there's a cultural dark side to all of the hot new tech in our lives? Author Jaron Lanier has been at the center of information technology thinking since the early days (he introduced the idea of virtual reality). Most credentialed digerati take a utopian view of information technology and the internet. Not so much Lanier. "We Are Not a Gadget" casts a very skeptical look at some fashionable information technology concepts. Read this book if you seek an insider's philosophical counter-argument to trendy ideas like social media, the wisdom of crowds, open source, web 2.0, and the singularity (man merges as machine).
Lanier looks at prevailing assumptions about computers of infinite intelligence, he assesses ideas like a world hive brain (Google) and he looks at the collective wisdom of crowds (Wikipedia). Then he drives a cultural counter-argument against it all. Lanier acknowledges that a social media like Facebook increase our connectivity but he also argues that social media narrows our humanity by essentially forcing it into a column (and a business model). Meanwhile, he argues that a consolidation of minds on Wikipedia is useful but only skin deep and not insightful (diversity within a single mind creates new things ... but a consolidation of minds does not").
Lanier adds himself to a growing list of thinkers who worry that the collectivist ideology of the internet quietly diminishes the individual and creativity and that it establishes the internet as an element of control (not liberation). I could go on but will simply say that this book is important and worth a read. Jaron Lanier establishes in reasonable terms a new humanist's point of view about the internet and the implications of how we are now designing computers and software (wrongly and narrowly in the interest of the "lords of the cloud" says he). More practically, he simply shows you a few tricks on how to be a heretic for the religions of Silicon Valley.  Here's Lanier's book if you're interested: You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) Also, here's Jaron Lanier's website.