Book Review: The Shallows

NOTE: This post marks the end of my longest blogging drought since starting this blog a little more than a year ago. For more than a month, I posted nothing. That’s unacceptable, but there’s no point in self-flagellation. What matters is that I’m back with another book review.

Yeah, it feels good to write again. On with the review:

About a year ago, I noticed an odd irony about my college experience. When I looked back to high school and compared my study habits, classes, and the things I remembered then to my college classes right now, I found that I was much sharper in high school. I remember being much more focused and engaged when I memorized biology terms as a high school freshman than when I studied Hegel in Intro to Philosophy last semester. I have no doubt that I’m smarter and more informed than at any other point in my life, so how could this be? (aside from sleep deprivation)

I found the answer in Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Few books have shaken up my thinking like this one. It will probably end up changing the long-term course of my intellectual life. Here’s why:

As the subtitle implies, Carr’s argues in “The Shallows” that the internet is changing our brains. It is shaping the way we think largely without anyone realizing it. This happens at the neurological level. The more we do certain activities, the better we become at them because our brains forge new circuits to make us more adept and sensitive. This applies to motor skills like playing the piano as well as more abstract thinking like reading a book. The more we practice a certain pattern of thinking, the more our brain map makes space for it.

This process also works in reverse. When we don’t practice certain things, those neural pathways start to go away. In people who become blind, for example, the neural paths that the brain once used for sight are rewired to enhance other senses like hearing and touch.

The implication of this is, as Carr quickly points out, is that technology ends up shaping and even controlling us much more than we might like to think. In the case of the internet, it trains our minds to be distracted. We jump from one thing to another within seconds—always shifting and moving and consuming. . . without really retaining. And with the sheer volume of information out there, we hardly have a choice. Between RSS feeds, Facebook status updates, Tweets, email, and instant Google searches, no one can afford to read anything anymore.

At least, we don’t read in the same sense that we traditionally mean when we “read” a book.

At this point, Carr treads with care. As a technology writer who has written for publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Wired, he has a pretty good understanding of the power of the internet to process information, mine data, and help us live better, more productive lives. He shows us how the internet has wrought an irreversible change on humanity, but demonizing the web is the last thing he wants to do. It is not inherently good or bad. And Google in particular is neither God nor Satan–although many people see it as one or the other. Even though the impact of the internet is unique, technology has always changed the way we think. Continue reading →

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Political Journalism and Lolcats–Together?

Politico writer Ben Smith made waves last week when news broke that he was leaving most of his duties at the young political news site to head up a new  team of journalists at BuzzFeed, a website devoted to distributing popular social content across the Web. The editorial team, Smith said, will cover traditional beats like sports and politics plus other, “non-traditional” news categories.

On the surface, it seems like an odd move. In the world of elite political news coverage, Politico is where it’s at. Everyone in Washington, DC reads it. It’s one of three things that former president George W. Bush reads every morning (the other two are the Bible and the Wall Street Journal). When I spent a semester in DC, the first journalist I met had some advice for me: read Politico–every day.

BuzzFeed, by contrast, collects and promotes anything that lots of people are clicking on, seeking to provide “the viral world in real time.”  It is thus geared toward everyone on the Web; we all know the posters and gag videos that come up on such sites. I do not frequent either of the two sites myself these days, but from what I know of the two, I would have no qualms about spending a few hours a week reading Politico.

BuzzFeed? It hosts a weekly battle to choose the “best”, most time-wasting flash game and makes lists of top viral videos.

So why did Smith make the switch? Clearly he has an entrepreneurial spirit, but I think he realizes something more. Simply put, the internet is powerful. Some have called it the “Second Gutenberg Moment,” and I don’t think that is much of an exaggeration. Those who learn to tap into this power have the potential to gain a lot of influence in a short amount of time. I doubt that Smith hopes to become the next Drudge or Zuckerberg, but as many articles about the move have pointed out, BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti is a co-founder of the successful HuffingtonPost. Peretti knows how to work the web better than most, and it appears he hopes to duplicate his success with BuzzFeed (although he refuses to speak directly about comparisons between the two). Continue reading →

A New New-Media Strategy

Everyone knows that traditional print is in decline, but as I was reminded over and over again during my semester at the Washington Journalism Center, journalism isn’t going away, it’s just evolving.

Several months ago, the New York Times started charging for online subscriptions. That sent plenty of waves through the industry, but now, two newspapers in Philadelphia are adapting to the evolution of new media in a much more creative way. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, which share Philly.com as part of Philadelphia Media Group, are now offering their paid subscribers an Android tablet at a discounted price. The details of the deal, like pricing and length of subscription needed to get the deal, are still to be announced.

Apparently this is the first time that any publication has bundled a device with its content. It seems like an idea that should be very effective at sustaining paper readership, even if it only ends up being a smaller yet more dedicated core. I think it’s a brilliant way to ensure subscribers for at least the foreseeable future. The genius of it is that it preserves the paid subscriptions. Unlike most publications which have released almost all of their content for free online, this deal would break readers of the “free-app/free-website” model and bring them back to a more traditional model of reading the paper.

My main question is sustainability. Greg Osberg, CEO of Philadelphia Media Group, predicts that the program will cost his company six figures. This is all fine and good for now, but will they continue to offer this deal to all potential subscribers in the future? For a paper that just recovered from bankruptcy, is such a deal economically viable over the next few years?

If not, then this seems to be little more than an effort by the papers to delay their own destruction. You can bet that a lot of papers in the mid-market range will be watching the deal’s beta test this august and debut on Black Friday with great interest.

Welcome to the Blog

Welcome to ACwords! This is my second attempt at blogging. My first try had its highs and lows, but mostly lows. I never achieved much of a readership besides a handful of friends and family members. I posted inconsistently and, last summer, decided to completely abandoned the whole thing.

So here’s the goal this time around. I want to post my own original content at least once by the Sunday of every week. I think that’s reasonable: one post a week that I write myself. I will also occasionally post links that catch my eye, maybe offer a bit of commentary on things, etc. Substantial posts of my own work will center on personal philosophical/theological musings, art analysis and criticism like film and music reviews, political commentary, criticism of news coverage, perhaps the occasional poem or short story, and whatever else inspires me.

This blog will not be another one of those public diaries where I post things like insignificant personal ramblings or pictures of me and friends. Hopefully, it will be a place for intelligent commentary and conversation. After a few months, I want this to have developed into something that I can use for my portfolio.

I also plan to repost some of my work on the (hopefully) rare week that I can’t get something of my own up. I wrote a few decent pieces at my old blog as well a some things for school that may end up resurfacing here.

It will probably help you to get an idea of where I’m coming from personally. I’m a Christian, sometimes a bitter, confused and cynical one, but a Christian nonetheless. I struggle with my faith, I have doubts, and I make lots and lots of mistakes. My core beliefs are rooted in the Bible. I’ve been influence quite a bit by people like C.S. Lewis, John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon, Timothy Keller, and Albert Mohler (among others). But I also want to be a writer and a thinker in the public square. I’d like to be a journalist, teacher, and perhaps even screenwriter eventually. My concern in this regard is with the truth and understanding how the world works. I believe I can bring all subjects under the Lordship of Christ without necessarily bringing in the Bible or any explicit mention of God.

Understand, though, that all that “religious” stuff will come up eventually because I care more what God thinks of my writing than anyone else. I just don’t want to be that one-sided, fundamentalist Christian metaphorically beating people over the head with a “Jesus brick.”