Making sense of “The Shallows”

I’ve got a problem.

On one hand, I’m passionate about technology. I’ve been an active user of computers since back in high school when I cracked open my Mac Plus to install an extra four megabytes of RAM. Let’s just say Lode Runner ran a heck of a lot faster after the upgrade.

And my academic work improved as well. I remember using Hypercard for a class project, dragging the buttons around, creating links to other cards, and basically, creating. What did I create? I wish I remembered. I’d like to say I had some sort of overall epiphany when playing with Hypercard, but if I had, I’d probably have ended up in Silicon Valley with the other dot-com folks, either retired at 38 or scrounging for work.

Technology has long been a part of me. But I’ve also long been a reader. I’ve buried myself in books for years, losing myself to the plot of everything from the Narnia Chronicles to Nicholas Carr’s most recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.

And that’s where the problem comes in. What is the Internet doing to our brains?

Carr’s book posits that the explosive growth of digital media is essentially shortening our attention span, literally changing our brains from ones able to focus on books to brains which are better designed to handle the often chaotic firehose of information that is modern media. “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind,” Carr writes, one “that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts–the faster, the better.” While paying tribute to both the inevitability of change and the benefits new technologies bring, Carr’s book is an implict warning about the future.

Admittedly, there’s a range of opinions about Carr’s book, which I find particularly frustrating since much of the criticism has come from technology and education writers I trust and consider part of my Personal Learning Network. But as a teacher of English — especially one who values the act of reading — I have to be concerned.

I’ve been concerned for a few years, especially since 2007, when the National Endowment for the Arts’ report “To Read or Not to Read” really shocked me. Coming on the heels of its 2004 report “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” the two reports painted a bleak picture of reading among teenagers. According to the reports, both reading scores and interest in reading as a pleasure activity were in a gradual but unmistakable decline — particularly among teenagers. Reading for pleasure — that is, reading for fun outside of school, steadily decreases between the ages of 13 to 17. In 2004, 54 percent of 9-year-olds reported reading “almost every day for fun.” But for 13-year-olds, that number dropped to 30 percent. By 17, the percentage was at 22 percent.

Perhaps more shocking was that the report also noted a similar decline in college graduates. Even though the report noted that educational level correlates strongly with reading habits, it still found an 18 percent drop in literary reading among college graduates. One in three college seniors reported reading nothing at all for pleasure in a particular week.

The report studiously refused to speculate on the possible causes for these numbers. So I presented this report to my fall 2007 English 9 Honors class. They had no problem telling me exactly what they thought. To paraphrase one student’s comment: the farther you go in school, the less time you have outside of school for pleasure activities. Given the choice between reading a book and playing a game or talking to their friends online, how many students would realistically choose a book?

The class nodded. And I was only a little surprised. These were the best and brightest of the entering class of 2012. And they were bluntly telling me the older they got, the less they’d read for pleasure.

“Is this a problem?” I asked. They agreed. “Well, what can we do about it?”

That year was the first time I assigned independent reading as an academic task. That year, we limited the independent reading project to the first quarter. This year, I’ve made independent reading a core component of my class. I expect my students to read independently for at least two half-hour sessions a week. I’m tracking their reading not with intrusive reading logs, but with a combination of informal check-ins, discussion groups and an end-of-quarter portfolio. Though it only counts for 10 percent of their grade, I consider their independent reading one of the most important aspects of the course.

At the same time, I’m trying to model my own reading, both by discussing it in class along with my students and using new media such as my wiki and my new academic Twitter account. Which is itself interesting, because my renewed concern about technology’s impact on our lives coincides with me launching my most technology-enabled class ever. I’m again using an online platform to communicate with students and their families outside of school. I’m playing with Twitter to explore how a limited amount of social networking can help improve communication between home and school. And in my most exciting endeavor, I’ve moved all my lesson planning to Google Calendar, enabling me to among other things push out a constantly updated class agenda. I don’t have to write things down once in my planbook and once online. I do it once.

You see, despite my concerns about technology, I’m an optimist about the future. In that regard (and perhaps as an antidote to Carr’s book), I’ve just begun reading Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus.  And it’s making me hopeful for the future. In a June 2010 talk in Cannes, France, Shirky argues that given contemporary media tools, many people choose to use them to create, rather than consume:

But now that we’ve been given media tools…that let us do more than consume, what we’re seeing is that people weren’t couch potatoes because we liked to be. We were couch potatoes because that was the only opportunity given to us. We still like to consume, of course. But it turns out we also like to create, and we like to share.

Carr’s book paints a picture of the Internet as a firehose constantly pumping distractions into our mind. But while we consume media, we also create it.

I don’t see the decline of the book as inevitable–at least not in my students’ lifetime. And while new media does have the potential to distract, it also has the potential to create.

Hopefully we can have the best of both worlds.

P.S. Shirky’s talk on “Cognitive Surplus” is worth watching in its entirety.

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29 thoughts on “Making sense of “The Shallows”

    • I certainly hope so as well. I’m certainly encouraged by a 2009 NEA report that shows adult “literary” reading is on the rise. Plus every revolutionary advance in media technology throughout history has been accompanied by prophets of doom — which is why reading Carr’s book makes me so awkward, because I can see the historical parallels while people holler, “this time it’s different.” Hard to tell what’s going to happen during a revolution.

  1. I was born in 1938, but I have always liked technology. Since I have made a living much of my life as a typist, I especially appreciate electronic text editors. (I remember the time when I had to make multiple carbon copies of long documents and the hassle involved in correcting errors by erasing all these copies after making each mistake.)

    I myself don’t like to use the Internet passively. I use it to publish my blog, “Interlingua multilingue,” which is a pedagogical resource for students of Interlingua and its source languages, the anglo-romanic group.

    I no longer have a television set in my apartment, however. While there is good television programming, most of it is crap, and just about all of it is driven by commercials (the content of its programming is just the tail of the dog). I agree with Jerry Mander’s arguments in his book “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.”

    Television does not offer its viewers any opportunities for creative input into the medium, but the Internet does, and I am grateful that I am able to publish “Interlingua multilingue” and to use Google’s translation engine as an editing tool to prepare it without having to pay anything for this privilege.

    If the Internet, like television, has any serious downsides, I think that people in time will respond by either using it less or by abandoning it entirely.

  2. Are you familiar with Sherry Terkle on Youtube? She too has some interesting thoughts about the sociotechnological issues of education in the digital age.

    How are you connecting with parents through social networks? I am a human services provider and have begun a blog to connect with parents and would be interested in ideas that would improve my efforts.

    • Yes. I have joined Facebook. I use it primarily as a medium for promoting my blog, “Interlingua multilingue.”

      I also have attracted a lot of other foreign-language enthusiastic to my list of friends.

      Basically, working to promote Interlingua for the past few years has given me a raison d’être for learning and improving my computer skills.

      Thanks for the referral to Sherry Terkle on YouTube. I will follow through on your suggestion and see what she has to say!

    • I’m not familiar with her work, but she certainly sounds like someone I need to learn more about. Thanks for the referral.

      As far as connecting with parents through social networks, I’ve only just begun. Most two-way communication goes through e-mail and the telephone. However, by setting up my wiki and a “professional” Twitter account, I feel like I’m starting to take some initial steps. There are people out there far more advanced than I. I’d start with Will Richardson’s blog and “The Innovative Educator.”

  3. I wrote my first response to this post before watching the video on Ushahidi.

    Projects like Ushahidi make me very excited and optimistic about the long-term prospects of the Internet.

    It is in the spirit of projects like Ushahidi that I started publishing “Interlingua multilingue.”

    During my university years, I was interested in studying languages and linguistics. Publishing “Interlingua multilingue” certainly helps me maintain my writing, editing, and foreign-language skills.

    I also hope that it provides a useful pedagogical resource for students of the Romance languages and Interlingua!

  4. I just finished reading The Shallows a few days ago. Ironically, I found it challenging to focus long enough to read through the entire book. Not because it wasn’t interesting, I found it fascinating. It was just hard to disconnect long enough to focus on reading without feeling compelled to check my email, Facebook, Google reader, answer a text message, check the stock market or the latest news feeds.

    I agree that our attention seems so fragmented, creating a rhythm that affords but a few minutes for each activity. Reading a book is a luxury and frankly I was feeling a little guilty about devoting even an hour to a single activity.

    On the other hand, I think Shirky points out something Carr fails to mention in his book – the fact that the content on the web, or at least a great deal of it, is user-generated. Consumers are producers too.

    Wikipedia is an excellent example of a non-linear and ever evolving body of knowledge (blogs are another). As a collaborative work, Wikipedia is created or negotiated, by its users – the consumers. If we only consume the Internet – like we watch television – I would have to agree with Carr. But it is not linear; it is constantly changing and evolving – always in development. And so like the brain, user and collaborative knowledge is possible.

    The challenge is to find focus, and to pause so that we may reflect on what we have discovered, to organize what we learn, and to participate in the conversation.

    • I myself find Wikipedia to be a wonderful information resource.

      I recognize that the information it provides can be inaccurate, but the people running Wikipedia seem to be working hard to insure the accuracy of the information it contains.

      What makes Wikipedia much more useful than encyclopedias in book form is that it can be constantly be updated with new information about things that are constantly changing, such as pop culture.

    • I agree. I did get the feeling that despite his comments about users of FB, Twitter, etc., Carr views most web users as fairly passive consumers.

      In my case, trying to emphasize the need for “focus” with my 10th-graders is a core challenge, and one that to me is a critical life lesson, not simply a language arts issue. And I wouldn’t for a second feel guilty about devoting an hour to an activity like reading a book. If anything, after reading his book I’ve become more convinced of the need to occasionally “power down” both as a way to focus our attention and to consider the most appropriate uses for technology. As I frequently tell my students, just because you can hit the “publish” button doesn’t mean you should.

      Delicious irony, perhaps, but I read The Shallows on an iPad. I found it quite natural, and not at all distracting.

  5. ahhh…this is a great post! thank you. i may have to get this book; however, the subject stirs a very nervous, almost anxious feeling inside me…while i dabble in the internet quite a bit, it kills me that kids these days can’t seem to live without it, can’t bring themselves to pick up a book…because books require “brain” work, books are boring..and where are the picutes?!…furthermore, who wants to use their imagination these days?! heaven forbid. anyway, my son was practically born with a mouse in his hand and before the age of 4, seemed to navigate a computer more efficiently than i could! now, at the ripe age of 9 (10 in two weeks!), the computer, his DSi, video games, wii, even television…are the only things that seem to inspire (?) him. not only that, but when his eyes glaze over and he doesn’t even acknowledge the piece of candy that i’m waving in front of his face…i know it’s time to make some changes. last week, i did an experiement…no tv, no computer, no DSi, no technology whatsoever! he fought it at first, but ya know…left to his own devices and resources and ideas, he was playing with toys that were covered in dust, using his imagination, wanted to go outside and explore. (btw…we went on a walk and i did give him one piece of technology…a digital camera. he took several awesome photos…that was putting technology to good use, THAT was having the best of both worlds.) don’t you agree? i even put myself on a stricter “internet diet” last week…our household felt calmer, more relaxed. we were talking more…laughing more. my friends, it seems to me the answer is always quite simple…everything in moderation. the internet/technology is absolutely beneficial and an amazing resource (not to mention fun!)…it’s just how you use it. I shudder to think that eventually, people won’t even have to talk to eachother to get stuff done. (I guess I kind of went off topic…) Again, great post Ted!

  6. I believe to be a good writer or, maybe, any kind of writer, you have to be a reader. I guess that doesn’t always have to mean books. In my 60’s I read books, blogs, twitters, cereal boxes… I guess balance is the key. And, I see in my grandchildren, video games are more dangerous distractions than interesting stuff on the internet.

  7. An interesting aspect I notice in the reading of this blog and in watching the Shirky TED Talk is the value of information in relation to the incentives therein. A Logic Expiriment: If it is more favorable to trust information provided by an unbiased / unmotivated informant, then is a quality depiction of a given event provided by a blogger a more accurate depiction of the given event versus an account reported by a “real” Journalist from Fox or CNN or Al Jazeera?

  8. A very important question that should be answered before we panic:

    Is reading, or specifically reading books, the best available way for us to grow our minds?

    (With some secondary questions arising, including “If not, then which way?” and “How does the Internet fare in a comparison?”, and some alternate approaches to the main issue, e.g. “Is prolonged thinking on a small area superior to shorter thinking on several areas?”.)

    The answer is not obvious. The possibly largest complication is that it is not reading, in it self, that develops us, but thinking on what we read. This thinking, however, is not in anyway tied to reading, but can come from looking a joke-diagram on graphjam.com, observing the flight of a bird, or from watching TV. (Indeed, a very significant portion of my own epiphanies in the fields of human behaviour and psychology have been triggered through TV-series, including e.g. “House”. At the same time, I spend more time thinking on what I have just read than I do on the actual, physical reading with many books. The possibly greatest source of insight to me has been writing.)

    In contrast, some even frown upon the reading of fiction as a waste of time and brain-cells compared to reading books on science or own thinking.

    As a side-issue: Some of your students claimed that they did not read as much as they otherwise would have, because school took too much time. This fits well with my own observations that school can often (far from always) be a hindrance, actually preventing students from learning and developing. (This the more so, the more talented and willing to learn they are.) Here we should not be scared because of the students’ attitudes to books, but instead question how much time should be spent on formal schooling.

  9. Interesting article. With the technology and those hi-tech gadgets available, consistent reading can still be done provided that a person knows how to manage his time. Having the internet is much more better than before because we get to read certain articles and get updated on whatever is happening across the world. Kids should be guided if we want them to exert time and effort with regards to reading.

    • Yep. But how to best guide them? What about this example, for instance, where the teacher encouraged his students to “unplug” for a week? Is this an effective way to approach things? I have some awkward feelings about this approach…on the surface it looks good, but then what happens?

  10. I sought out the owner of one of our most successful book stores to find out if she has any fear about the death of books. In a nutshell, she is very confident that popular books will be on iPads, Kindles, EBooks, etc. but specialty books will still be in demand. And she said, “You’ll notice I don’t stock the New York Best Seller type books. I specialize in specialty. And I have always made a good living.”

    Interesting take. Especially when we are located in a more ‘rural’ area of West Coast Canada.

    • Hah… what a great anecdote. I have no doubt that changes, when they happen, will take quite a long time. But I think Carr actually talks about that at one point in the book — how he believes that readers (of books, at least) will still be around for several generations, but that they will become a more specialized and smaller group.

  11. I think the “research” suggesting that reading (and writing) is in decline with high school and college students ignores few key factors — too many doom and gloom conclusions but too few facts.

    Before explaining let me tell you that I find your article inspiring because of the work you’re doing with the students! 😉

    I also have to admit I haven’t read Nicholas’s book so I am not proclaiming it is about doom and gloom — the only thing I ever read about the book before your post was this New Scientist article http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/09/nicholas-carr-surfing-our-way-to-stupid.html, which is not enough to form an opinion in my mind.

    The first thing that I believe the research usually ignores is the fact that the current youth writes A LOT more than any previous generation. They have a chance to write on so many platforms, including SMS, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, blogs, etc. and they do so enthusiastically. Sure, the traditional protectors of the language can say that “U R gr8” is not even a sentence, but the fact is that the only independent writing I was doing as a kid was when doing crosswords! 😦

    With writing comes reading — though people would traditionally expect the opposite! Since writing is such a ubiquitous activity with the younger generations — all of their friends use SMS or Twitter and are on Facebook — they have no choice but to read what others write. True, most youth doesn’t write Shakespeare on MySpace, but we’re after independent reading in general and not talking literary styles, are we?

    To truly assess the impact of technology on something like independent reading one must be open-minded about what independent reading really means. If we limit ourselves to what most people think of “schools approved” literature than even my comic books would have to be proclaimed as wasted time and I read thousands back in the day! 😉

    The next thing that the “research” omits is the socialization value of reading. I am personally very interested in how the human mind and behaviour develops from childhood and adulthood and found the work of Judith Rich Harris and her two books The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike very eye opening!

    We usually undermine the power of group socialization to shape the young minds and make them conform to a certain norm or behaviour and we ascribe too much value to the impact at home and from the school system. The truth, as Judith very clearly describes, is that the kids are shaped by the group they identify with and the internal struggle to climb the social ladder or simply find a niche in which they can be successful or recognized within the group.

    I have tried to understand this myself in my own blog by writing a series of articles touching on the subject of nature vs. nurture at http://mybin.wordpress.com/nature-vs-nurture-series/

    Of course, I came up with more questions than answers, but that is exactly the kind of approach the research saying that reading is in decline is missing. No one seems to be asking questions around the social value of reading? What if (not) reading is a prominent behaviour that the kids need to adjust to if they want to be accepted by the group?

    What if the definition of reading in this context is too limited? Could a proper research find that independent reading is not in decline, but only a select literature is, while reading in general is flourishing among the new generations?

    I like the story the owner of the bookstore souldipper is referring to … this is someone who is paying attention to the behaviour of her customers rather than reading about it in books and articles! 😉

    Being a teacher, you have power to inspire and empower your students to explore the social environment in which they exist — with reading being just one piece of its fabric. All you can hope for, unfortunately, is that they will learn to ask questions — they’ll need to seek out the answers themselves 😦

    Cheers,

    Kima

  12. It seems to me that the internet is just a tool and as such can be put to any use. I used to read some 1200 pages a week, now I read perhaps only 400 precisely because I do so much on internet. But the stuff I get to do on internet — browse out-of-print books on archive.org, listen to opera on bbc.co.uk and chopin competition on polskieradio.pl, debate evolutionary psychology on a yahoo mailing list — isn’t dumb. and i could not do any those things a decade ago anyway — i.e. i get to them only because the internet exists; so, in my case, i should say, the internet is allowing me to have a deeper, more satisfying cultural life. It’s not all Shakira and Obama out on the net, you know. on the other hand… a lot of the books which people are no longer reading are drivel like operah’s guide to whatnot or better sex in seven easy steps — no loss there if they’re no longer read, don’t you think?

  13. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I enjoyed your writing about wondering the why behind decreased pleasure reading. And I liked Michael Eriksson’s comment.

    I wonder if the situation is more complicated than the position of Internet = Decreased Pleasure Reading. It may, but what about the many options of entertainment? TV has more channels than ever, and tons of video games are out there. We have lots of choices to entertain ourselves, and you mentioned that fewer people are choosing to read for pleasure.

    I think books are wonderful — I have a degree in English and love taking my two daughters to the library to bring home towers of books.

    At the same time, I wonder if books are the one of the many ways of learning — and the Internet provides a fast, powerful option. I can find so much information very quickly. And TV can be an amazing learning tool (thank you Discovery Channel and History Channel!).

    As you mentioned, the Internet can provide the opportunity to create and share. YouTube gives a publishing platform for budding videographers (and pranksters). Flickr lets you share photos. Etsy gives a forum for crafters and artists to sell their wares beyond local festivals. Blogs let us share our thoughts on anything that interests us — including the question if the Internet is causing our thinking to be more fragmented.

    Which it might, I really don’t know. I think of the Internet like other things. Yes, there’s a lot of junk on the Internet — just as there’s junk on TV and junk food in the grocery store. But the Internet can also be a powerful tool for creativity and sharing.

    Thanks again for your post. Best wishes with your teaching!

  14. I was three when I started reading, 27 years later I am still devouring books. Having recently left the wonderful bosom of Uncle Sams Misguided Children, I was shocked to learn my fellow Marines really detested reading for personal pleasure, not to mention the average guy I served with hadn’t even picked up a book on their own that wasn’t for a report. With illiteracy rates at an all time high, I feel very sad that so many people out there would rather turn on the tube then find some brain entertainment on their own.

  15. As we’re discussing about the state of reading here, I think there’s a bigger problem with education. Waiting for Superman addresses some part of it, but I think a little obscure film I’ve got a chance to see at a film festival screening in Vancouver brings up even bigger questions than Waiting for Superman!

    I filmed the Q&A and tried to put some thoughts of my own around the movie Schooling the Children: The White Man’s Last Burden at http://mybin.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/while-us-waits-for-superman-kids-in-the-world-are-drafted-as-failures/

    I hope to intrigue you to visit the movie site, as I did with Sir Ken Robinson, and share it to as many people as possible, to give them a chance to think about the question it asks!

  16. Pingback: The Importance of Being Reading « Mental Crud

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