Search This Blog

Tech Book Face Off: The Shallows Vs. Thinking, Fast and Slow

After my book review on Pragmatic Thinking and Learning and How the Brain Learns, I received a recommendation to read another book, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. I decided to go with it (thanks +Helton Moraes), and I ended up pairing this book with another popular book on how the brain works and how we humans think, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Through these books I have a personal goal (it's good to have a goal when reading) of finding ways to regain control of my mind and hopefully improve my thought processes. Do these books help clear a path to that goal? Let's see.

Design Patterns in Ruby front coverVS.Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby front cover

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains


If you've been feeling distracted and anxious lately, and by lately I mean the last decade or so, this book promises to help explain why that is. Right away in the first few pages Carr starts explaining how new technologies can change the way we think:
… media aren't just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I'm online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swift moving stream of particles.
I found myself nodding along to his laments about the Internet of distraction. I've been feeling that way as well. Although, instead of dragging me along down an ever increasing whirlpool of messaging, tweets, and timeline updates, I've become increasingly weary of reading short blogs, trivial articles, and banal tweets on the web. I find myself more drawn to longer, higher-quality books, the deeper content of which seems to be much rarer on the Internet.

More people, even well-learned people as Carr relates, are deciding that Google is all they need to absorb information and gain new knowledge. This trend is amazing to me as today we have a better selection of excellent books available to us than at any point in history. Even on the narrow subjects that I read about, without spending much effort on selection, I've found that easily half the books I've read are well worth it, which is way beyond my success rate for web content.

The problem with web content is twofold. First, it's difficult to create enough context within the space of a short web page, and hardly anyone is going to stop long enough to read anything remotely longer. There's simply no comparison to the amount of context that can be created in a 200-400 page book, and context makes a huge difference in understanding. A book will immerse you in a specific topic, while the Internet will immerse you in a vast ocean of hyper-linked information. Most of us simply get lost in that ocean, drifting aimlessly. Second, published books are frankly more well-written than most Internet writing. Publishing is certainly easier on the Internet—anyone with a connection can do it—so while we may not see some brilliant pieces of work get published in book form, the Internet is absolutely filled with crap that we have to wade through to find the good stuff. It's incredible that nearly anyone can now publish their writing for the world to see, but that same advancement has made it much more difficult for readers to find the real gems. On the flip side, I think the Net has made it much easier to find great books to read, so as long as you can get in, find a book, and get out before you lose all sense of direction, it can be amazingly helpful.

That's criticism of web content, but what about the Internet in general? Why is it so difficult to stay focused while plugged in? The answer is contained in the interplay of two things: the design of Internet applications and the incredible flexibility of our brains. Through numerous studies of the brain over the last decade or more, we now know that the brain is not static. Carr says, "The genius of the brain's construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring but that it doesn't." This neuroplasticity allows us to quickly adapt to new environments and situations, and we can continue to learn throughout or lives. "Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind—over and over again."

Because of neuroplasticity our brains will actually rewire themselves in response to new technologies, and it happens surprisingly quickly. Significant changes can happen within a matter of weeks of using a new technology, and those changes can generalize and spread to affect all of our day-to-day behavior and even the structure of our brains over the course of years. The collective brain of our civilization has been rewired multiple times with the introduction of new technologies: clocks, money, writing, and the printing press have all had profound effects on the way we behave and how our society is structured. Before the printing press, we didn't have much of a need for individual focus, but once reading books became a widespread activity, focus became a highly valued skill to cultivate.

Each time a new technology has changed how we think, it became impossible to fully understand what it was like before that new technology within a generation of its introduction. When technological change happens, it happens fast and essentially without the knowledge or consent of those that are changing. Most of us are not aware of how we are adapting because it is happening implicitly at a fundamental level within our brains. Computers and the Internet are quite possibly the most powerful technological change we have ever experienced because of how constantly accessible they are and how they have replaced or subsumed nearly every other intellectual technology we have.

We aren't just replacing older technologies with Internet-connected computers, either. We are so enamored of digital media that we are trying our best to stuff every experience with as many digital enhancements as we can. Movies get loaded with all sorts of special features and commentaries when released on DVD or Blu-ray. That's not so bad since you can still watch the original movie by itself, and presumably you've seen it at least once and are looking at special features for something extra. But now live performances like concerts and even symphonies are sending out tweets to the audience to have people interact with the show while it's going on. These interactions with your phone seem to me like they would be less immersive than focusing purely on the performance. Why do we feel the need to be distracted during a live performance, and why would the production company encourage it? Didn't we used to be irritated by distractions during live performances?

The worst of these digital media packed experiences is still the Internet itself. When web sites try to augment media of one type with others, it almost always is poorly done. Books have incorporated text and graphics from their inception to good effect, but those elements have common ground. They are both visual, and are usually related to each other in the context of the topic being covered. On the Internet the landscape is much more varied. Graphics may not be near the text they're related to. Other graphics and ads clutter up the text on many sites. Incessant animations draw your eyes away from the text you're trying to read. Audio and video interrupt the reader at any time. Hyper-links pull the reader away from the article they were reading, and they may never return to finish. Designing a smooth, flowing multimedia experience on the Web is not at all easy, and most sites don't even seem to try. The Internet is not designed for focused attention, though. It is designed to get you clicking and surfing as fast as you can. It is an environment designed for distraction:
What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work? No Doubt, this question will be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise. The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It's possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it's possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that's not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.
I agree that deep thinking on the Internet is possible, but it requires strong intent and intense focus. Otherwise our senses and our minds get overwhelmed with the flood of information. Our persistent belief that we can be more efficient by multitasking also needs to be tempered. Yes, we can improve at multitasking by training in the gauntlet of constant barrages of notifications, email alerts, and timeline updates, but we are trying to get better at something we are inherently bad at. Our brains have not evolved to multitask. They have evolved to focus on one goal at a time, and we can be exceptionally good at pursuing our goals. Attempting to become much better at multitasking doesn't just improve something we're not good at, it also diminishes our abilities in what we are already quite good at. We should develop and nurture our ability to focus. That's the way to make progress.

Another wrong-headed assumption with the Internet is that it can serve as a better replacement for our own memories while also allowing us to free up space for more memories of our own. The former assumption is not at all efficient, and the latter is not at all how the human brain works. If all you did was memorize where to find things on the Internet, or worse, completely rely on Google Search to look up everything you needed to know as you needed it, you would be woefully incapable of doing efficient work. Every professional career requires a certain amount of personal knowledge to do a high-quality job, and the more knowledge you can recall and use directly, the better you will be. The more library functions, design practices, and language syntax I can remember off the top of my head, the better I am able to write programs. Sure, I can look it all up, but that's a terrible waste of time if I can remember what I need instead. Besides, the human brain can remember a ton of stuff:
In contrast to working memory, with its constrained capacity, long-term memory expands and contracts with almost unlimited elasticity, thanks to the brain's ability to grow and prune synaptic terminals and continually adjust the strength of synaptic connections. … Evidence suggests, moreover, that as we build up our personal store of memories, our minds become sharper.
In other words, use it or lose it. If we think we're going to replace our long-term memory with the Internet, we may just end up losing the ability to effectively use our long-term memory altogether. Besides, working memory is simply too small and the latency between working memory and the Internet too great to be effective. Using the Internet as an extension of long-term memory, where we continue to learn and retain knowledge that is frequently valuable and look up the new stuff, is a much better approach than assuming we no longer have to remember anything because we're jacked into a huge data store.

We are even giving up our ability to solve complex problems to the computation engines on our desks and in our pockets. The constant drive of the last decade or two to reduce the amount of friction in peoples lives to zero—because that is what the best software is designed to do and what the customer wants—is leaving us mentally weak. More than one study that Carr presented showed that, "The more that people depended on explicit guidance from software programs, the less engaged they were in the task and the less they ended up learning." We shouldn't relinquish our ability to think to computers so easily. We learn through making mistakes and reasoning through difficult problems, and we should continue to do that lest we stagnate completely. Computers should enhance our thinking and augment our abilities, not make them atrophy. Such a relationship is certainly possible. All we need is sufficient desire and intent to achieve it.

Clearly, I thought The Shallows was an incredible read. It made me think deeply in a way that only the best books do. I also find it ironic that I happened to read this book on how the Internet is changing our minds the way that I did. I borrowed a hard cover copy from the local library, a library full of books, and even found myself reading it for a couple hours in another library. It was a most relaxing, enjoyable, and immersive experience. I highly recommend it, as I do this book.

Thinking, Fast and Slow


Thinking, Fast and Slow was not quite what I expected, but in retrospect, it makes sense. I had thought it would be a discussion about how more and more we are making quick decisions and only learning things superficially as the pace of life increases with technological advancement. Because of this we have to be more deliberate in what and how we learn in order to learn more deeply and enrich our experience.

That is not what this book was about. Instead, it was about how we tend to think and reach decisions as human beings through two different processes. Our decision making process can and has changed with our improved understanding of how the mind thinks and how the world around us works, but not for everyone. In an attempt to better educate us on how we can make more rational decisions that result in better outcomes on average, Daniel Kahneman presents the research he has been doing for most of his adult life, sometimes with startling results.

The basic framework that he uses is that the mind consists of two systems. These are not real, physical systems, only a way to think about how the mind operates when making decisions. System 1 is the fast system. It quickly recognizes patterns and makes intuitive decisions based on prior experience. Experts use System 1 when making the insightful deductions that seem so impressive to outside observers. According to Kahneman, "Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognize familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it." On the other hand, System 2 is slower and more serial. While System 1 is always active, System 2 requires our attention to operate fully, and it can adjust the automatic attention of System 1 if we so desire. For example, if you're looking for something specific in a scene, you are using System 1 to pattern match, but System 2 is controlling what System 1 is pattern matching for. What we normally think of as analytical thought, concentration, and calculation all involve System 2. (System 1 and System 2 would correspond to Andy Hunt's R-mode and L-mode thought processes in Pragmatic Thinking and Learning.)

When learning a new skill, System 2 is highly involved, but it requires a lot of energy to stay focused. We tend to resist using System 2 to its fullest extent for long periods of time because it's tiring, but as we become more practiced in a skill, System 1 becomes more and more trained and the ability to perform tasks with that skill take less effort. System 2 can still be involved as a moderating force on System 1, and in fact, people that utilize System 2 more in this fashion seem to be more rational and self-controlled than people that depend almost exclusively on System 1.

System 1 can get us into trouble—or at least unsuspectingly influence our decisions—in all sorts of ways generally referred to as biases. Most of the book is about all of the different ways this happens and how we can be more aware of these effects in our decision-making. For starters we are susceptible to priming. Priming happens when we are exposed to something, either positive or negative, that influences a related behavior or decision. Due to the automatic System 1 and our associative memories, the recent priming memory will nudge behavior one way or another so that voters are more likely to vote for a referendum to increase school funding if the voting precinct is held in a school, for example. People are not even aware of this priming effect because it all happens in the subconscious System 1.

We associate familiar experiences with feelings of safety, truth, and goodness regardless of whether they are objectively safe or good because of System 1. It takes surprisingly few repetitions of a new experience to start to believe that it's normal. We are also prone to associate intention and causality to events purely based on their proximity in time, which more often than not, is the wrong way to think about events that are likely independent and random. Going one step further, we will subconsciously extrapolate all kinds of beliefs from limited knowledge. For example, suppose:
You meet a woman named Joan at a party and find her personable and easy to talk to. Now her name comes up as someone who could be asked to contribute to charity. What do you know about Joan's generosity? The correct answer is that you know virtually nothing, because there is little reason to believe that people who are agreeable in social situations are also generous contributors to charities. But you like Joan and you will retrieve the feeling of liking her when you think of her. You also like generosity and generous people. By association, you are now predisposed to believe that Joan is generous. And now that you believe she is generous, you probably like Joan even better than you did earlier, because you have added generosity to her pleasant attributes.
This bias is known as the halo effect, and again, System 1 is responsible for it. A more general effect of System 1 that includes the halo effect is that System 1 will substitute an easier question for a harder question. Answering a question like, "Are you happy with your life?" is a complicated endeavor that should involve deep reflection and review of a lifetime of memories, but most people will answer such a question almost immediately based on their current mood. If something positive happened recently, they will be more likely to answer positively, and vice versa. With many hard questions, we only consider immediately available evidence because What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI). This concept comes up constantly throughout the book, and it is one of Kahneman's main points on how we subconsciously make decisions.

Priming is one example of WYSIATI. Instead of examining all of the evidence we can bring to bear on a subject, we search our memory for the most accessible item we can find and just use that. Anchors are a related example of WYSIATI. If you are given a difficult question to answer where you are estimating something for which you may not know a correct answer, and you are prompted with a number, possibly a random one, you are more likely to give an answer near that number. Anchors can pull an estimate towards themselves even if they are known to be far from the mark. For example, you are likely to donate much more to a cause that offers a suggested amount of $500 than to one that suggests a donation of $5. Anchors can come up in all kinds of situations, from health care to politics to economics, and their power to influence behavior is surprising.

The implications of WYSIATI can be even more alarming. Kahneman describes a study where he created a description of someone and then asked participants to guess what that person's occupation was from a list. He also told them that the description was unreliable and should not be trusted. Still, the participants were much more likely to pick an occupation that coincided with the description. He then gives a great explanation of the power of WYSIATI:
You surely understand in principle that worthless information should not be treated differently from a complete lack of information, but WYSIATI makes it very difficult to apply that principle. Unless you decide immediately to reject evidence (for example, by determining that you received it from a liar), your System 1 will automatically process the information available as if it were true.
This result is simply incredible to me. We are predisposed to believe things and use them as if they were true regardless of whether or not we've been told that that very thing is not credible. Is it because we decide to believe one claim over the other? That would still be strange in this case considering that the person conducting the study was the one who made up the description and explicitly told the participants that it was unreliable. It makes you think about how many times you mistakenly use other discredited information in real life.

Kahneman goes on to describe numerous other concepts related to decision making and drawing conclusions. The chapters are short—about ten pages each—and numerous. Each chapter focuses on one concept in detail. Most of the time his discussions are clear and precise, but sometimes it seems like he's drawing some of his own tenuous conclusions from vague studies. When he's describing how individual traders in the stock market perform worse when they trade stocks, he says that the study looked at trades and found that the original stock that was sold performed better by 3% a year later, on average, than the stock that was subsequently bought. That's all well and good, and it's a pretty well known fact that frequently trading stocks as an individual trader is highly risky, but it's not clear from his description that the stock that was later bought was actually held for a year. It also isn't clear what these stocks did during the course of the year. When dealing with stocks, it's not important how every stock is priced after one year, but what price points the stock was bought and sold at during that time. A stock could very well have spiked, and the trader sold for a bigger profit before it settled back down a year later. Of course, the opposite could also be true. The point is that none of this interim behavior is clear from the description of the study, and that's important when drawing conclusions.

It also seems to me that Kahneman is advocating not trading stocks at all, just buy and hold. While that may be a sound strategy for some, maybe even most folks, it's certainly not true for everyone. If everyone pursued that strategy, no stocks would ever be sold, so only new stock offerings or stocks from investors that are cashing out would be available for purchase. Because trading stocks determines how their prices change over time, not trading stocks would cause their prices to stagnate. The stock market would become illiquid. Part of what makes the whole system work is that investors are constantly trading stocks and establishing their current value based on the most current information. Granted, trading is certainly too high-frequency now, but only advising the complete opposite behavior shows some ambivalence for how the system actually works.

That same line of thinking shows up again when Kahneman is discussing how only about 35% of small businesses make it past five years, yet individuals do not think those statistics apply to them. Of course they don't think the statistics apply to them. Why would you start a business and invest all of that time and money into it if you thought it was pretty likely that it was going to fail? The statistic comes from past performance of small businesses, and it is only a prediction of future performance. If an unusually large number of people took that statistic to heart and didn't start small businesses that they otherwise would have, maybe the success rate would be higher because of less competition. Maybe it would be lower because the smarter people that were more likely to succeed were the ones that decided to opt out, and the only ones left were idiots with lame-brained schemes. It's hard to tell what would happen, but in the end it's probably better to encourage starting more small businesses because that increases the chances that more of them find genuinely innovative ideas and improve everyone's standard of living as they become big businesses. It's another example of focusing on individual behavior and not appreciating the larger system at work.

Barring these criticisms and a few other rough spots, the book was for the most part quite enlightening. Another major theme, besides WYSIATI, is prospect theory. This theory neatly describes the reason for much of our decision making behavior, and it encompasses three main points. First, we make evaluations based on reference points. Nothing is evaluated in a vacuum, so we pick a point of reference and decide if a course of action will be better or worse than the reference. Obviously, choosing the incorrect reference is a problem. Second, we have diminished sensitivity as we experience more of something, regardless of whether it's positive or negative. Getting $1000 is much better than getting $500, but getting $10,500 does not seem like as big of an increase from $10,000, even though the differences are equivalent. Last, we have an aversion to loss. Losing $1000 is much worse than gaining $1000 is good, so we try to avoid guaranteed loses but will take guaranteed gains even if it's less than taking a risk for more.

Prospect theory explains a surprising number of behaviors, and Kahneman presents quite a few of them. One such example is what happens when a reform is proposed for an existing entity, especially when that entity is part of the government:
As initially conceived, plans for reform almost always produce many winners and some losers while achieving an overall improvement. If the affected parties have any political influence, however, potential losers will be more active and determined than potential winners; the outcome will be biased in their favor and inevitably more expensive and less effective than initially planned.
This happens primarily because of loss aversion. It's a difficult thing to overcome, and it may be one of the main reasons why there is so much perceived waste in government. It's hard to purge special interest benefits because the special interests will fight tooth and nail to keep them.

Many more topics than these are covered in the book, and they're all fascinating views into why we think the way we do and how we can improve our decision making with a little more rationality. I didn't agree with it all, but that's a good thing. Conflict breeds deep thought and reflection, and this was definitely a book that made me think. I would highly recommend it to anyone curious about why we think the way we do.

Driven to Distraction


Going into this pair of books, I expected them to be much more related than they were, but that's okay. Sometimes I'm surprised, and I enjoy that about life. While The Shallows and Thinking, Fast and Slow may not have been directly related, they are certainly connected in some subtle ways. The Shallows deals primarily with how the Internet is changing the way we think, and Thinking, Fast and Slow describes how we have a fast, intuitive mode of thinking and a slow, rational mode of thinking. Because of the effect of the Internet and how it tends to cater to shorter attention spans and more frivolous thought, it pushes us more towards that System 1 side of our thought processes. We should beware of shutting out System 2 in favor of primarily System 1 thinking, lest we start sliding back into less rational ways of thinking about the world. All in all, each book compliments the other and helps develop a better overall picture of human behavior within or connected, fast-paced, high-tech world. I encourage you to pick them up and give them a read through. It will at least get you off of the Internet for a few hours, or more.