A Making of the Minds

The Books

The Shallows

 

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Author: Nicholas Carr

Genre: Nonfiction; Science/Technology

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Published: 2010

Number of Pages: 240

 

I first encountered Carr as a college student when I was assigned to read his 2008 essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The basic premise of both the essay and the book is to point out and analyze how the internet is changing the way humans think and remember things.

The subject matter can get a little dense at times, but the overall idea is fascinating. Carr not only points out how current technology is changing our hardwiring, (so much so that “hardwiring” and “brain” are somehow now synonymous) but also looks farther back in time to see how other inventions such as the clock or the printing press altered the “typical” human mind long before the World Wide Web took its turn.

 

 

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Under the Never Sky

Author: Veronica Rossi

Genre: YA Dystopia; Speculative Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published: January 3, 2012

Number of Pages: 374

 

This novel is set in the future—about 300 years after a solar flare hits Earth and destroys the magnetic poles. The impact releases an unknown element—soon named aether (a term borrowed from the Greeks)—into the atmosphere. Aether is unpredictable and violent—conjuring electrical storms that leave the earth scorched and barren in its wake.

The story follows a Dweller girl and an Outsider boy several generations after the events that brought about the aether and explores their differences along with aspects that have not changed despite centuries of isolation.

 

The Ties That Bind

Warning: Mild spoilers for Under the Never Sky follow in the form of backstory details.
No major plot points will be given away.

Maybe you feel skeptical about the claims Nicholas Carr makes in The Shallows. I admit that the idea does initially sound a little conspiratorial, but think about it. What is your best friend’s phone number? How about your mother’s phone number? Your work’s? Your child’s school? There was a time when many of us knew all these digits by heart, but with the advent of cellphones which store that information, very few of us bother with memorizing numbers anymore. Carr’s argument is merely an extension of that phenomenon. If we can rely on technology to store that information for us, why not allow it to hold other facts and ideas for us as well? Carr calls this “the pancake effect”—our stores of knowledge are becoming more and more shallow as we relegate more and more information to the Cloud rather than our own heads. Our brains are very elastic and can change relatively quickly to new environments such as the one created by the internet and the Information Age.

In Under the Never Sky, Veronica Rossi explores the idea of brain elasticity through the lens of a post-apocalyptic world. Basically, it became very dangerous to live out in the world after the advent of “aether” a sort of electrical element that creates violent storms that rip and scorch the earth. In an effort to save at least a portion of mankind, a lucky subset of the population was moved into completely enclosed cities called “Pods”. Those who dwell in the Pods are safe from the aether, but are seriously at-risk of developing cabin fever on a highly-destructive scale. To keep their populations safe from themselves, the leaders of the Dwellers develop a complex virtual reality system that is touted as “better than real.” The Dwellers eventually adapt to their new (virtual) reality both mentally and physically. They’re immune system is so weak that they call the world outside the Pods the Death Shop—even just breathing the air will result in death within days.

Meanwhile, those left outside the pods are left at the mercy of the element. They revert back to hunting-and-gathering or feudal systems to survive. The aether doesn’t stop there though; the element creates a prime environment for evolution through random mutations. The events of Under the Never Sky take place about 300 hundred years after the appearance of the aether. In that time, the Outsiders have acquired a subset of individuals whose senses have radically advanced—Seers (bird-of-prey-like sight), Auds (incredible hearing—one character can hear thoughts if he is touching someone’s bare skin), and Scires (Highly acute sense of smell—to the point where the more powerful ones can scent emotions). Through her characters and the events of the novel, Rossi posits that given the right evolutionary circumstances and a few hundred years, human populations could diverge to the point of nearing two separate species. This is thanks, at least in part to the high elasticity of the human brain.

Whether it is a clock, the written word, the internet, virtual reality, or the absence of those things, technology and our access to it definitely has an effect on humans and how we think and behave. It is important to explore ideas such as the one depicted in these books so that we can judge for ourselves where to draw the line, if at all, for our dependence on technology.

 

Up Next

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

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