I had the pleasure last month of talking about The Shallows with Christopher Lydon, a superb interviewer, in his offices near Charles Street in Boston. Lydon has a very different view of the Web than I do, which, combined with his sympathetic reading of the book, made for, I think, a particularly good conversation. You can listen to it, via Lydon’s Brown University-based Radio Open Source program, here.

13 thoughts on “Tradeoffs

  1. Crazyfinger

    Great exchange of thoughts. I liked it. There is a lot that you yourself have thought about, thought through and still doing on this topic. Nevertheless I am amazed at the state that we have brought ourselves into, which is to have to defend the point of view that deep thinking and solitude is an essential quality we should not lose. Wasn’t it only a few years ago that we thought this was the obvious, no-need-to-state-it sort of thing? I was thinking of the wick vs. electric bulb epilogue you have in your “Big Switch” book. That drives the point home a lot more poignantly that the argumentative mode that we often find these days. In addition, I wonder if this sense of loss of solitude-filled thinking/imagining and an urgency to recapture it is felt more urgently by those who write. I mean seriously write. But there is a counter example to it. Do any of you remember sometime ago Clay Shirky saying something like we don’t need “War and Peace” or something to that effect? Makes me pause and think. He also wrote books, right? So what are we missing? Why would someone say that? I hope we don’t drive ourselves into a world where solitude and privacy is no longer viewed as a basic mode of human being but turns into an ideology to be fought against/for. Internet has that effect on values, making them into hasty ideologies so people can take a position.

    Good stuff.


  2. Seth Finkelstein

    Yes, Christopher Lydon was part of the blog-evangelist group a few years ago. Someone of the necessary status to push the issue should ask him how it’s all worked out for him. My impression is it hasn’t been all that successful. But he might be able to fairly argue it was his best chance, even if it hasn’t paid off well for him.

    Arguably he’s too nice a guy to do all the amoral huckstering required to make it big in the evangelism business.

  3. John Schoettler

    Those who have a religious-like zeal about the near omnipotent power of the Internet and are for whatever reason (be it shallowness or blind devotion) are unable to critique it. They need to be provided (often repeatedly) a list of facts showing what people are actually spending their time doing on the Net, and not filling the absence of these facts with their own utopian (and often inaccurate) fantasies of what people are doing. For many the Net has become a new religion which they have emotionally and intellectually attached most of their dreams of humanity onto and are afraid to bite the hand that feeds them (so to speak).

  4. Pointy Arrow

    I read the book and I’m not totally sure I get the “shallow/deep” metaphor. There’s a litany associated with each — “shallow” = community, short timespan, variety, while “deep” = solitary, longer timespan, consistent text/topic. but why is community shallow? (discussing things with others tends to complicate and qualify our ideas). why is a quick study shallow? (some people live their lives contemplating a celebrity’s goings on, which seems ‘shallow’ but is certainly not brief, while many of the most foundational discoveries have been made in a flash of insight). why is ‘variety’ shallow? (for Aristotle it was the very basis of establishing a thing’s essence to compare and contrast it.) I ‘get it’ when i hear it, but (following the book’s premise elsewhere) it doesn’t hold up when I think about it harder. it seems like a metaphor that took control of the yoke.

    ps: i critique because the book was great, really a well-researched and well-written book when taken in its parts and its evidence without trying to….think really deeply about it. (ouch! i kid, couldn’t resist. no, actually, I just disagree with the main metaphor, and think that the arguments hold but point to a slightly different conclusion, perhaps a more humble one than “shallow” but very important one).

  5. Danny Bloom


    Nobody is talking about this but they will be soon, you too I hope. It’s this: reading on paper is so different from reading off a screen, i call it screening to give it a new name, that current and future MRI and PET scan studies will show, my hunch, that different parts of the brain light up for paper reading vs screen reading, aka screening, and that these regions are superior for paper reading for

    1. processing of info

    2. retention of info

    3. analysis of info

    When these papers are published, the news media will have a field day with this. I have been told by a top reporter at the NYTIMES, not the tech section, another area, that he/she is planning a major story on this MRI research on reading vs screening in the next few months. He/she has already started the reporting and may call you soon. Get ready. If my hunch is correcet, will it make any difference? No.

    The tech train is already out of the station, as Dr Gary Small has said in the LA Times and it cannot be stopped. Sigh. Just as warnings about radiation and cancer has not stopped cellphone sales at all, so too will the news the the brain reads on paper in a superior way to screening won’t make any difference. The train has already left the station and there’s no stopping it. Even your very good book can’t stop it.

    But wait for this amazing research to be published soon. It does not mean we should not use screens. Screening is useful and convenient. But is not reading. Get over it everyone. You are not reading this note, you are screening it.

  6. Danny Bloom

    Just listened to the radiocast, very good. Long live technology yes.

    …..and just one note, well, a few: in the very good LAT feature story

    last week, the authors quoted Dr Gary Small of UCLA psychiatry dept as saying a

    key quote: ….Small, director of the Center on Aging at UCLA and author of

    “iBrain,” said Internet use activated more parts of the brain than reading a

    book did.

    On the other hand, online readers often demonstrate what Small calls

    “continuous partial attention” as they click from one link to the next. The

    risk is that we become mindless ants following endless crumbs of digital data.


    “People tend to ask whether this is good or bad,” Small said. “My response is

    that the tech train is out of the station, and it’s impossible to stop.”

    Impossible. To. Stop.

  7. Danny Bloom

    And Nick, one last note, re “frankenbooks” —

    ‘Frankenbooks’: new term for e-books

    Dear editor, published in Korea Times today:

    As someone who enjoys reading on paper, whether it be a newspaper or a magazine or a book, I have coined the term “frankenbooks” as a new word for e-books and e-readers.

    I am using the term with humor, but also in a serious manner, and also as part of what we might call a cautionary tale, since device readers and e-books are here to stay, like them or not. I just hope “frankenbooks” do not replace paper books completely. If that happens, we’ve lost the game.

    At the same time, I like reading the news on screens, and using our screen technology to post letters like this one. I am not an anti-Internet Luddite.

    In fact, I like both paper and screens, and we need a balance.

    Hopefully, the term “frankenbooks” will make readers pause and think in which direction we are going. Toward the light, or toward the darkness, I’m still not sure.

    Danny Bloom


  8. William

    I’ll preface my comments by admitting I haven’t read Nicholas Carr’s book but I have listened to two of his audio interviews. I work for an ISP and use the internet all day every day as part of my job. Nicholas’ assertion that these mediums are ‘training us’, and that the internet is doing something to our brains is at best an incomplete picture.

    The internet is a medium and its a medium that lends itself or encourages certain behaviors from humans. Internet sites are designed to steal our attention but not to train us to be inattentive. Our inability to focus attention on ANY medium together with an inability to formulate goals is a condition that has faced humans since the dawn of time. There are volumes and volumes written on the subject which I’m sure author of The Shallows has read which go into the subject in great detail. Just google ‘Ouspensky’ or ‘Gurdjieff’ and ‘attention’.

    This is not a condition that will end by eliminating the content of the internet from our consciousness, we need to practice or train our attention and strengthen our inner will whilst in the middle of the battle or whilst engaging the internet and other external influences. The alternative is to live in isolation on a deserted island.

  9. Barney Oran

    The notion of “outsourcing memory” to external databases or “memory as a hard disk” is a dangerous oversimplification that doesn’t give due credit to the nature of our brains, to network-enabled modes of thought, or frankly to computers themselves! The metaphor of memory as a hard disk fails miserably not just in terms of describing the changes in our modes of thought in a technology-enabled world, but it also fails from a basic computer engineering perspective! Computers are organized in many layers of memory as are brains. The processor has a cache, the mother board has fast memory, we have a much slower hard disk and even that uses a faster chip to cache information. Now, we have remotely stored information that we can access over the network. So, “data storage” is not the best metaphor. The process of developing “understanding” can be better described as a data compression process or index building [that is developing faster or more accessible paths between two connected pieces of information]. As a mental prosthetic, the internet enables us to do those things extremely well, so just because we didn’t dig the trench with our bare hands doesn’t mean we didn’t dig the trench!

    The problem is that while it can be used as a tool/prosthetic in this way, it also consists of a lot of consumable media that is no more or less conducive to deep thought than TV. So what? Back in the day, folks would sing and chant and drum the same songs and stories over and over…

  10. Kroberts39

    All of the points you bring up are addressed by Carr in his book. The fact that you think two time-pressed audio interviews will get you the same level of detail/analysis as a well-researched book is exactly the crux of the problem. Snippets are now all one wants or needs.

    I finished the book a couple of weeks ago. It’s incredibly interesting, so check it out if your local library still carries books.

    Nick: My only complaint is that you describe Kant as a rationalist. How dare you insult my favorite German philosopher!

  11. William

    I may have come across as a little harsh in the above comment, I enjoyed the interviews and I prefer to read from paper books.

    Quality of attention is important. Whether we read from a paper book or an iPad, our ability to control attention is not dependent on the medium where the influence resides but on factors wholly within the individual themselves.

    I fully appreciate that one might have a preference to read a paper book in a serene location but that is a different matter. Personally I prefer paper books, I don’t think I could have read War and Peace from a computer monitor, an iPad maybe. With practice on strenghtening attention one isn’t so easily caught by all the superfluous infomation found on mediums like the Net but they are there for the inattentive.

    You managed to find the time to direct me to read the book but you had no time to give an example and elaborate. When I listened to the audio interviews I listened carefully to the authors comments and I addressed those comments, not the content of the book.

  12. John Schoettler

    Any extension of our senses (by the tools we use) alters the way we think, act, work, and interact with others. The inherent lure of digital devices (at their core) is that they give our senses an artificial and magical like extension of their original purpose. The question we need to ask ourselves, are giving up something more genuine (and deeper) by acquiring the magic-like power the new digital kingdom promises? Will this digital kingdom live up to it’s glorious apex decades from now (as Ray Kurzweil or Kevin Kelly dream about) or will it eventually decay into a tyrannical empire of narrowness and darkness (as often retold in science fiction)?

  13. Danbloom


    a top teck expert tells me today

    Dear Mr. Bloom:

    I am very much an outsider in this matter.

    My view is that computer documents today,

    which simulate paper and have at most

    one-way links that can’t overlap (on the Web)

    are a travesty of what is possible and a

    crippling burden on the human race.

    Studies of effectiveness of today’s

    electronic documents merely go along

    with these inane conventions and give us

    no sense of what is possible.

Comments are closed.