9 thoughts on “The Shallows on All Things Considered

  1. Phil Henshaw

    Nick, There’s possibly more to this than meets the eye on first look.

    The idea that books may be going out of fashion, to be replaced with many more quick little ideas to respond to, is similar to an idea that time itself may be going out of fashion. Having ever less time for things is actually a direct consequence of our practice of increasing productivity, making ever more productive decisions with ever less effort, to multiply our wealth.

    The problem is that the limit is confusion, so… to survive we need to find a “happy medium”, a sustainable level of neglecting the details of things, as it were,…

    Ever increasing neglect of the details is another aspect of what we are all observing is happening. Talk about risky choices!! ;-) Somehow it escapes our attention… that skipping over ever more details means taking ever more short cuts until we make some bad mistakes. I started writing about it in the 70’s

    You might say this is from a “physics of perception”, perhaps, because it does indeed stem from physics research on the natural limits of organization in systems, and applying even to thought. Perhaps the short piece of mine you might latch onto is one called “What wandering minds need to know”. It’s one of my essays on how our information worlds and the physical world can wander off in separate directions when we don’t keep them connected.


    Thanks for you book!

  2. John Schoettler


    I have the feeling this book is going to make you a ‘household name’ (in a good way).

  3. Printsjohn

    I am a letterpress printer and dedicated to obsolete beautiful fine printing and it’s attendant artifacts and tendencies. I know the book was a big step in human consciousness. I also feel sure that humans were full of deep thoughts and capable of long concentration before Gutenberg. As evidence I offer the oral tradition. Vedas, eddas, sagas, ragas, ballads, myths, stories, . . . We used to go on for hours around the fire and listen and remember and repeat.

  4. Nick Carr

    Printsjohn – Very good point, and one I agree with (though I didn’t have the presence of mind, or the time, to bring it up in the interview). I write at length about the development, and various manifestations, of the human capacity for concentration and contemplation (going back to oral culture) in the book. Thanks, Nick

  5. Courtney


    This is a great interview! I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for a long time and I think the conversation it inspires is one of the more important ones we will have to engage in during this major technological transition. I am just so thankful to you for leading the discussion in such an articulate and mindful way.

    I think it’s interesting when people use the argument that you can’t criticize the Internet because it is the very medium that enables these types of conversations to take place, e.g. when the interviewer points out the irony that your interview is taking place on Skype and will appear as featured content on the web. This seems like such a limited way of looking at the issue, in which the Internet must be either all good or all bad, and there can be no nuance in between, in which any criticism of the Internet’s drawbacks amounts to a complete dismissal of all technological progress. The issue to me is not the platform that the internet provides– the ability to represent content in a way that can be shared–but the type of thinking that using it in excess conditions. Access to information, the ability to share and dialogue with people, a global type of connectivity: these are not inherently bad things. The pathology of checking behaviors, the deterioration of deep thought, the loss of empathy on the web — these are the threats of web-conditioned thinking. The fact that your interview will be posted online is not the issue; the fact that people might watch it with 15 other windows open, Itunes playing, and crafting their next Tweet is the problem.

    I’m concerned about those who are so enchanted with what the web provides us that they fail to see its major drawbacks — it’s fascinating that many seem to not want to admit what they are losing out on, and instead try to clamor about all they have gained. It is consistent with what the model of the Internet is, in which information is seen as the only currency while emotional and psychological depth is grazed over. Why is it so hard for people to admit that while information is power, a lack of focus on what is relevant and what is not results in brains filled with useless content? With no filters? With the inability to do things of value with that information? If we aren’t able to acknowledge the limitations of modeling our own thought processes on the way the Internet represents information, we will have little success in shifting our approach to it. This to me is the main issue: that as a result of our internet-bred shallow thinking, we have already lost the ability to critically and meaningfully evaluate what is happening to us.

    Keep up the good fight!! You are doing a fantastic job.

  6. tom

    So might this be “the last important book,” before books that require deep reading, extended concentration and deep thinking evaporate into the digital ether? I hope not!

    Can’t help thinking you pulled your punches a bit toward the end of the interview, where you talked about distraction being the “normal” state of the human mind.

    The printed book, and the type of concentration it requires, has given us 500 years of extraordinary increases in the depth of our knowledge about our world. If everyone in the future reverts to a distracted mind-set, where will the new treatments for cancer come from? Who will make major advances in any field of endeavor that requires a deep understanding of complex, interacting systems–which is pretty much every field of endeavor these days?

    And then there are the political implications of herds of people with even shallower understandings of their world then they have today–or are we already seeing some of this effect?

    The effects of reverting to distracted mode are likely to be profound.

  7. Craig Dalton

    Hi Nick,

    enjoyed your interview on NPR, as a 40 something academic I am wondering if my ability to concentrate is travelling along with my cognitive decline – unrelated to internet usage. However, I want to question your suggestion that we are going back to the “distracted state of the cave man”. I think this is taking the hollywood movie cliche of an ape like man being chased by dinosaurs and sabre tooth tigers every 5 minutes – sure this happened but if you look at the lives of many indigenous peoples over the last 10,000 years, most of their time was spent doing repetitive (?contemplative) tasks such as gathering, hunting, harvesting, in tune with nature, the sun, the seasons. Going to bed at sunset, getting up at sunrise. Not so distracted. Take care.

  8. David Locke


    Deeply enjoyed the On Point session. Don’t know if you were too close to hear, but I thought Nick Bilton’s comments–both structure and content–illustrated the very points you made, an irony I believe he did not see.

    For structure: he finished very few of his sentences. Typically, he’d get partway through an idea, then switch to something else.

    For content: his comment about friends (paraphrase: “I’ve got dozens of friends online”) revealed a confusion between friendship and acquaintance, a fundamental mis-understanding about the quality of deeply focused listening essential to friendship.

    Also relevant: in “Reading in the Brain,”

    Stanislas Dehaene argues that reading requires us to bend brain structures evolved for survival tasks to quite different uses. If your argument holds, it implies that one consequence of clicking in the shallows might be that those structures would retreat back toward their evolved modes.

    Last: your discussion reminded me again that true learning is often painful because it requires we push into unfamiliar territories. If relief from that kind of pain is just a click away . . . .

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