The Shallows

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Over the last week, when talking with friends and colleagues about the book I’m currently obsessed with—The Shallows—I’ve had to be immediately specific in discussing the details. That’s because when you tell someone today that you’re reading a book about “what the internet is doing to our brains,” they tend to instantly respond with a vague conjecture that assumes an understanding like: “I know, it’s so terrible,” or “It’s just awful, right?” Of course, we quickly jump to those conclusions about subject matter because of the way our brains have been altered, moving immediately to the conclusion of the summary before taking in the details. I’m guilty as a motherfucker of doing that. Between the internet and driving on 101, it’s like the part of my mind that helps exercise patience and restraint has been lobotomized. As the author Nicholas Carr writes: “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 a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”

What I’m trying to avoid in my discussions is any assumption about the entirety of what Carr has to say, or the potential misunderstanding that his entire book is just more evidence to an inconvenient truth we already know: our attention spans are being permanently destroyed by the web’s continuous flow of data. The Shallows, ironically, is much deeper than that. It’s not just a well-written report about a subject we all get uncomfortable with (like how alcohol gives you cancer). It’s a wholly humanistic response to our somewhat robotic evolution as web users and it’s the best breath of fresh air I’ve taken in months. I can’t write too much about it, however, because as Carr adds: “Even a blog post of three to four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” I’ll simply say: the part that scared the shit out of me about The Shallows wasn’t so much the evidence about how our brains are changing, but rather the responses from various intelligent, literary folk who don’t seem to care. Many think we’re simply evolving as thinkers and that the web allows us to get smarter, faster!

In relating all this to alcohol, one of the biggest dilemmas I faced as a retailer was deciding whether to join the Parker point party and shorten my booze analysis to fit the limited confines of today’s fast-moving consumer, or stick to longer, more-detailed evaluations that provided better substance. Fighting the web-based future hasn’t worked too well for a number of long-standing American enterprises, but on the other hand how can any retailer distinguish themself when all you have left are points and price? If you don’t evolve, you risk annihilation. If you jump in with the rest of the lemmings, you’re just another hyperlink in a vast sea of SEO madness. I left the retail business for that very reason; yet, I couldn’t escape the same shallow dilemma by switching to health IT. In the end, regardless of where we work, we’re competing for attention spans that no longer exist, so you have to draw the line somewhere. Personally, I’d rather caucus with whatever focused synapses are left and go down fighting, than cater to the new era of monosyllabic marketing and continue to live in emptiness.

Read the The Shallows if you agree.

-David Driscoll