Notes from The Shallows

One of the most important books I’ve read in recent memory; this book explains behaviors and habits I’ve noticed in the past in myself and in others. The title aptly and succinctly describes what I’ve noticed: becoming shallower as in lacking depth of thought.

I’ve been reading about and (attempting to) introduce stoic practices in my life, I believe, as a natural way to counter some of the behaviors that I started to unconsciously develop.

Before I proceed, I offer you to partake in an exercise. Grab a piece of paper and pen and, whenever your attention drifts, whenever you think of something else you could be doing instead of reading this, don’t act on it, just make a note in the paper. Like in meditation, just observe, don’t judge it, just observe the impulse to go do something else, to check your phone, to scroll on Facebook/Hacker News/Reddit/Twitter. I promise this article won’t be long as I will be doing this exercise as I write this too.

Here we go.

The Shallows is not a new book but I hadn’t heard of it before. I came across it when I was skimming You are not a Gadget. That book didn’t speak too me too much but the title “The Shallows” peaked my interest.

The main premise the author puts forth is that innovation in the information-production and consumption technologies have a deep impact in our cognitive processes, memory and physical skills. From the creation of maps, to the alphabet, silent reading all the way to the creation of the web and more specifically within the web the concept of hyperlinks.

The strongest argument is that the speed + amount of information available via the web have had an impact to our cognitive processes as important as the invention of the alphabet.

[Random thought: wonder if there’s anything to this point and the fact that Google renamed it’s holding company to Alphabet]

Scattered attention

The book covers how learning is only capable when attention is focused on the subject at hand. The mere presence of hyperlinks in the texts we consume online makes us pause for a split second to decide whether following that link is worthwhile (I’d add that the fear of missing out on The Information That Could Make The Difference will make us following links (“Open In a New Tab” anybody?) much more likely). That split second decision becomes a small rock in our path that makes our brain stumble a bit and become slightly more distracted and a tad more tired.

Research shows this to be a fact: people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.

It is the very fact that book reading “understimulates the senses” that makes the activity so intellectually rewarding.

Decontextualized arguments → simpler arguments

The way we explore text has radically change too, perhaps this is the biggest change and it’s an overwhelmingly interesting point.

Where we used to randomly browse libraries, use friends’ recommendations we now just search on Google and get straight to the point Google considers most relevant to the search we’ve done. While this is obviously desireble in many ways and extremely useful there’s the unintended consequence of jumping, particularly with Google Books Search, ahead of ourselves and into the middle of an argument. Long gone are the times in which writers could elaborate and prime the reader for a deep thought by setting up a carefully crafted context.

We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.

Can you image a modern Plato’s Allegory of the Cave? How would the setup been constructed today? Would SEO inform the design of the argument? Would the capacity of gathering shares and likes shorten the scope of the argument? What about Ayn Rand’s John Galt’s speed? Would she have him spur a poignant two-liner punch. Some arguments simply can’t be broken down into a single page.

As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style. Writing will become a means for recording chatter.

James Altucher

I like James Altucher, his message and his demeanor. I like his practice of 10 ideas a day as a way to become an “idea machine”. Yet many times I feel like his books are written for distracted idiots. I mean, they are, but I feel like his arguments lack certain depth that he could have easily acchieved if it weren’t that constructing arguments that span more than a half a page would alienate a broad portion of his audience.

I feel a sense of loss when the modern philosophers must consider the shareability of their quotes. Soundbites and snippets are king in the Twitter era, but at what cost?

Suckers for Irrelevancy

When we multitask we become less deliberate, less able to think and reason out a problem. We become more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought.

Since “neurons that fire together, wire together”, as we multitask online we train our brains to pay attention to irrelevant stimuli and to consume text via skimming rather than deep reading.

As opposed to long-form reading, web surfing incentivizes hurrying off to “related” information, further and further from the original intent. Somehow, all roads online lead to Youtube videos of cute cats.

The strip-mining of “relevant content” replaces the slow excavation of meaning.

Economics incentives are naturally tilted against deep reading

Internet giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter make most of their profits by serving ads, thus, the most pages we hit the more opportunities to load and see more ads. Deep reading of a long-form essay goes radically against this incentive. Even if Google lives up to their motto of “don’t be evil” their incentive is diametrically opposed to that of the thoughtful reader.

Promoting the rapid discovery and retrieval of information is not bad. 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 reflection-mode, where growth happens and wisdom accrues. 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.

Forming Memories

The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory.

If we’re unable to attend to the information in our working memory, the information lasts only as long as the neurons that hold it maintain their electric charge — a few seconds at best. Then it’s gone, leaving little or no trace in the mind.

The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted — to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers. Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering. Our growing dependence on the Web’s information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.

Outsourced Memory

Multiple people have argued in favor of the potential of the web to act as a way to “oursource” our memory. Our embrace of the idea that computer databses provide an effective and even superior subtitute for personal memory is not particularly surprising. It culminates a century-long shift in the popular view of the mind.

The shift in our view of memory is yet another manifestation of our acceptance of the metaphor that portrays the brain as a computer. If biological memory functions like a hard drive, storing bits of data in fixed locations and serving them up as inputs to the brain’s calculations, then offloading that storage capacity to the web is not just possible but liberating. It provides us with a much more capacious memory while clearing out space in our brains for more valuable and even “more human” computations. The analogy has a simplicity that makes it compelling yet it’s misguided.

The analogy falls short in multiple ways, one of the most obvious ones being that the brain doesn’t have a limited capacity for “memory storage” as a hard disk does; the amount of information that can be stored in long-term memory is virtually boundless. The most compelling aspect of this point is not the faux opportunity cost of new memories but rather the fact that evidence suggests that, as we build up our personal store of memories, our minds become sharper. The very act of remembering appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future.

We don’t constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them.

Perhaps the most poignant argument against the idea of becoming a simple index of information and externalizing problem solving and other cognitive chores to computers we reduce our brain’s ability to build stable knowledge structures that can later be applied in new situations.

Disagree

Nicholas Carr makes a point to refer to books as “printed” books. As an avid reader of Kindle books I tend to disagree with his emphasis of the paper books. As stated in the book, the problem with reading and distraction is the constant prompts to go read something else or the ease with which we can abandon a 20,000 essay for a quick facebook fix or youtube video.

This is not the case with dedicated ereaders. I have my kindle in my hands and I don’t have a quick access to the web (yes, the Kindle has an “experimental browser” but using it, thankfully, painful enough to make this a no-go and it has been that way since the very first Kindle) and, most importantly, I don’t get links embedded in books constantly as is the case in websites (again, I know links are possible in ebooks, but they are not the norm).

I think the fears and distrust the author places on ereaders are valid fears that just never materialized. FWIW, I think we can count on Jeff Bezos as a guardian of our attention with his emphasis of making the Kindle a device that “melts away into the background and allows the authors’ words to come out and be the protagonist.”

What’s next?

Where the book falls short is in proposing a way forward, a way to “fight back”, a way to regain the control of your mind and attention. I wonder if this was on purpose as a way for the reader to rekindle creative thought or simply was out of scope of the book.

FWIW, here’s some of the strategies I’m pursuing.

  • Set an intention when navigating
    When I need to consult the web for something I’ll write down on a piece of paper next to me what I’m looking for, this way I can quickly catch myself when I’m going down the rabbit hole.
  • Limit the number of tabs I open
    I installed a Safari extension that will close the left-most tab on my window whenever I open more than 6 tabs. This is making me more reluctant to follow new links.

Links

Safari extension to limit tabs

Experiment results

Somehow I was quite focused during this writing session, perhaps because of the very topic at hand. I noted only five distractions in my notebook. Here they are if you’re curious:

  • My gf sent me a message, was tempted to read it.
  • Thought about checking social media. 🤦🏻‍♂️
  • Thought checking Amazon to see if my gf’s book is ready for sale or still listed as “Not Available”.
  • Found The Atlas Society and was tempted to read about it.
  • Got a new email, thought about checking it.

How about you? What distractions did you write down?

Thanks for reading this! If you were interested in this I highly recommend you get the book, it’s a super fun read and there are many topics covered that I didn’t write about here. And if you enjoyed these notes make sure you hit the ❤ button so more people can benefit from it!