Friday, 11 February 2011

REVIEW: The Shallows - How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, by Nicholas Carr (5*)

(Atlantic Books, 2010)

Every once in a while a book comes along that changes your life. You suspect it by the end of the first chapter, and by the time you close the book it’s assured. First came Naomi Klein’s No Logo, urging us to look beyond the gleaming images of big-name brands. Then there was Joanna Blythman’s Shopped, pulling us behind the benign faces of Britain’s most successful supermarkets. And now I can add Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows to the list, this dazzling polemic exposing the uncomfortable truths behind the all-powerful reign of the Internet over our modern lives.

Like No Logo and Shopped, The Shallows is hard to summarise in any meaningful way because its argument is so complex and sweeping. This is not a book to devour whole – it is a book to be carefully read, considered and absorbed. Carr isn’t a nostalgic professor yearning for the old days of leather-bound tomes and quill pens. But while he readily admits that the Internet has become a vital, entertaining and useful tool in his everyday life, he was also beginning to worry about the unseen effects of his online life. This book is the eloquent sum of his extensive and thorough research.

It’s quite a ride. In exploring his subject, Carr reaches way back into the history of intellectual technology, considering the impact of early innovations such as maps, clocks and the book on human life. From there he moves into the age of the computer, from the earliest machines through to the all-pervasive use of the Internet we see around us today. The last few decades, he explains, have raced by in a blur, and suddenly the World Wide Web is our medium of choice for almost everything we do.

But what about the biological impact of the Internet? Here is where things get really interesting. Modern neurobiological studies have shown that the brain’s neuroplasticity allows it to change with each experience, each path to learning we take. And thanks to the Internet, our brains really are shifting, away from paths that allow deep reading and reflective thought, and towards a chemistry geared to process the distraction and rapid-fire information that the Internet represents. Carr shows how even reading a simple page containing links and hypertext is a far cry from reading a page in a book, requiring us to stop, however fleetingly, to process the meaning of the link (What does it link to? Does it sound interesting? Will it be relevant to me?) and demonstrably disrupting our absorption in and thus our understanding of the text. In fact, it uses a different area of the brain entirely, one geared towards problem solving rather than comprehension. A little scary given the way schools and other institutions are already throwing out their books and replacing them with PCs and e-readers, isn’t it?

I could keep going forever, but the point of the matter is this: the Internet can be damaging. And as the future entwines itself more and more tightly with the virtual world, it makes sense to be savvy enough about its effects to be able to use and enjoy it without allowing it to destroy the things we value: our attention, our concentration and our ability to understand and process information that requires a little more involvement to fully grasp. Go, buy the book. It may just turn out to be one of the most timely and vital books of the decade. Open your eyes, open your mind – and maybe it’ll change your life too.

  • "My mind isn't going - so far as I can tell - but it's changing.  I'm not thinking the way I used to think.  I feel it most strongly when I'm reading.  I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.  My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That's rarely the case any more.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.  I feel like I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.  The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."
  • "Between the intellectual and behavioral guardrails set by our genetic code, the road is wide, and we hold the steering wheel.  Through what we do and how we do it - moment by moment, day by day, consciously or unconsciously - we alter the chemical flows in our synapses and change our brains.  And when we hand down our habits of thought to our children, through the examples we set, the schooling we provide, and the media we use, we hand down as well the modifications in the structure of our brains."

Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

REVIEW: To Touch a Wild Dolphin, by Rachel Smolker (4.5*)

(Souvenir Press, 2002)

Sometimes a book comes along that manages to balance a range of genres with such perfection that you close it having smiled and cried, experienced new places and lifestyles, and learned more than you realise, all without ever having left the comfort of your sofa. To Touch a Wild Dolphin definitely fulfills that description.

Monkey Mia, in Shark Bay, on the West Australia coast, is known for its friendly wild dolphins, who come right into the shallow waters and interact readily with humans. These days they are a huge tourist draw, but when Rachel Smolker first discovered them in the early eighties, hardly anyone knew about them. For Smolker, a marine biologist, they provided the perfect opportunity to study dolphins in the wild, learning to identify individuals, recording dolphin communication, and observing all the different elements of dolphin life, from courtship to hunting. For fifteen years she and her fluid team of colleagues and assistants spent huge swathes of time at Monkey Mia getting to know the dolphins, sharing their joys and sorrows, and reaching ground-breaking conclusions about their previously mysterious existence.

Reading this book and sharing the dolphins' lives felt like a real privilege, and it was utterly absorbing from start to finish. Smolker is a wonderful writer, moving effortlessly from lyrical descriptions of the beautiful Shark Bay area, through profound thoughts on the links between humans and dolphins, to accessible and concise information on all areas of dolphin society, without ever losing the thread of her narrative. She superbly captures the nuances of each of the key dolphins' personalities so that the reader grows as close to them as they would to any character in a novel, and experiences their happiness and their losses all the more deeply. She describes life in the rough camp by the beach, and offers anecdotes about interaction with the dolphins that range from the sublime to the horrific. And alongside all of this, Smolker distils everything she and her team learned from their time with the dolphins of Monkey Mia, from foraging techniques and courtship rituals to communication and male bonding, offering a complete and reverential picture of the wonder and complexity of the dolphins' lives.

This is a tour de force of nature writing, bringing together elements of science, natural history, ecology, autobiography and travel writing. It will make you laugh and cringe and cry, and leave you with a new respect both for dolphins and for the people who have dedicated their lives to studying them and working to develop our understanding of these amazing creatures. Read it!

  • "My mind still in that floating, receptive state of the recently asleep, I settle down on the deck to admire the spectacle: the phosphorescent comets below and the Milky Way above.  The magnificence of the scenery pulls me far above and beyond myself.  Shark Bay is a tremendous, wide-open expanse, jutting out into the Indian Ocean.  Distant from any city lights, it is a place where the night skies offer up a slowly rotating banquet of constellations, pulsating multicolor planets, bright clouds of star clusters, and dark, eerie nebulae."
  • "I reached out slowly and tentatively and touched her side.  She watched me intently but did not flinch or move away.  I was stroking the side of a wild dolphin.  Her skin was silky smooth, slightly rubbery, and surprisingly warm for a creature living in the ocean and resembling a fish.  I felt suddenly aware of how odd my long, gangly arms, with all those independently moving digits, must seem to her.  She was sleek, a torpedo."

Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.