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Is the Internet changing how we think?

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The criticism is not all one-sided though. Slate Magazine calls The Shallows "a Silent Spring for the literary minded," and other critics have been equally laudatory. I would urge you to read The Shallows and make your own judgement. I found it a nuanced, fascinating and passionately written look at how we process information, with excursions into such topics as memory, writing, media, and the malleability of the brain. The book is well researched, with extensive notes and a bibliography, but is very readable.

Carr is not writing a jeremiad. “The Web’s been a godsend to me as a writer,” he says. “Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or the pithy quote I was after.… The Net has become my all-purpose medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind.”

But the Internet’s benefits come at a price, he warns. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr gives examples of others -- a university literature professor whose students don’t want to read books, a Rhodes scholar and graduate student in philosophy who doesn’t see the point of reading a book from cover to cover, a friend who contends that the Internet has made him smarter, if less patient.

The Shallows doesn’t provide any solutions. Indeed, Carr says the problem will only get worse as computers become smaller, more pervasive and more connected. But the book does succeed in raising awareness of the issue.

Two more quotes, the first from Carr:

“The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden. We need to work in Google’s “world of numbers,” but we also need to be able to retreat to Sleepy Hollow. The problem today is that we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion. . . .”

And the last word, from a 17-year-old commenting on Carr's original piece in The Atlantic:

"Like most of my generation, I was raised on a maybe overwhelming helping of the Internet. It took a great deal of effort for me to finish the article. My mind was wandering after the first few paragraphs. Not being able to see the end of the article was even more discouraging and I had to scroll down to see how much more I had to read, as if I was running a race and needed motivation to finish. I can't remember the last time I read a book for fun, and I used to read constantly. But now I'm worried I may not be able to get back into the habit as easily as I used to.”

Even if you can't get back into the habit, make the effort to read this book. Turn off the computer, put away the smartphone. Get a copy of The Shallows, and read it. I promise you, it'll be worth it.

Elsewhere in technology news this week:

  • Apple released the latest version of the iPhone. Both Bell and Rogers will be offering it in Canada sometime soon. But Rogers is pleading with customers not to call regarding the new gadget. On both its website, and in an email to customers, Rogers has posted the following message:

“Dear Customer,
The iPhone 4 recently launched in the U.S. and several other countries outside Canada. We’re anxiously awaiting the launch of the iPhone 4 in Canada on the Rogers network, however, at this time we don’t have anything to announce on availability and pricing. We expect that these details will be announced well ahead of the Canadian launch. We’ll continue to share details as soon as we can by e-mail. In the meantime, we recommend that customers do not call our Customer Care representatives as they have no additional details.”

  • Hyper-local blogs are fashionable, according to the Vancouver Courier. The Courier article mentions two blogs (one of which doesn’t seem to be operational yet). But local blogs in Vancouver are nothing new: beyondrobson.com has been operational for quite some time now, as has New Westminster’s Tenth to the Fraser.
  • The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has approved “.xxx” domains for pornography websites. It is expected the domains will be operational by the end of the year. Other top-level domains still awaiting a decision from ICANN are .asia, .mail and .tel. More information, including background on the controversy surrounding this decision, can be found on CNET.com.

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