The Shallows

The Shallows Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Carr turns his attention here to the history of writing, or the original intellectual technology. The Sumerians were the first to use a writing medium, etching cuneiform into clay tablets. In 2500 BC, the Egyptians began making paper, but it was expensive. The wax tablet came about because it was a cheaper, reusable option. Even as writing technology advanced, Carr points out, it was shaped by the oral legacy. Silent reading was unknown in the ancient world and there were no word order conventions. The scribes used something called scriptura continua, or sentences without breaks between the words, imitating the uninterrupted flow of speech. Carr notes that, scientifically, the absence of these mores placed a far greater cognitive burden on readers. When you don’t know where one word ends and another begins, text becomes a puzzle. Ancient eyes had to move slowly and, Carr assumes, their entire frontal cortex would be plugging away, making reading laborious.
Carr describes how in the early days of writing—our original intellectual technology—great mental strain was placed on the frontal cortex of the reader. This specific fact––that reading was like decoding, and required problem-solving parts of the brain to be activated––provides historical evidence for Carr’s later scientific proposition that deeper thinking is inhibited by neural overactivity.
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After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the people of the Middle Ages started needing books for increasingly practical reasons. Written language finally changed to accommodate the eye rather than the ear. Rules about word order and placing spaces between words made silent and rapid reading much easier. As reading became less of a problem-solving exercise, what we know today as “deep reading” became possible. Readers became both more efficient––able to read and understand an increasing number of texts––and more attentive, as well.
This segment shows how language evolved to relieve cognitive strain. Word order, spaces between words, and silent reading all came about to make reading less laborious and open literacy up to a larger population.
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Carr pivots to focus on this new attentiveness created by reading. He writes that the human brain––like most other animal’s brains––is naturally in a state of distraction. We shift our gaze in a reflexive way to scan for danger. Reading, then, was unnatural at first in that it required sustained attention to a static or unmoving thing. Humans had to learn how to block out external stimuli. Different from other tasks that required focus––like hunting or craftsmanship––reading required concentration to decipher the written text as well as meditative interpretation of the text’s meaning. Reading created more than simply a literate brain; it created the literary brain.
Carr compares the sort of mind that reading requires to the constantly distracted state of primal man. This prepares the reader for the advent of what Carr calls the “literary brain.” The focus and meditation required to read were learned skills that altered people’s natural, distracted state and marked a watershed moment in the history of the human mind.
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Writers were liberated as well by the changes in language technology. Professional scribes were no longer as vital. The new possibility for anyone to write gave birth to infinitely more personal and adventurous works of literature. The increased ease of writing also made revision and editing possible. Paul Saenger, author of Space between Words, explains that self-conscious authorship arose because the writer could finally “see his manuscript as a whole and by means of cross-references develop internal relationships and eliminate the redundancies common to the dictated literature.”
As reviewing and reading over their work became easier, writers became increasingly self-conscious and started to edit and re-read their work. Carr shows once more that changes in technology lead to new phenomena in the internal life of the technology’s user.
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Works of writing soon contained more complex arguments, were being divided into paragraphs, and had increasingly individual styles. Library architecture also reflected the new direction. Private cloisters to accommodate vocal reading were replaced with reading tables complete with reference books like dictionaries. Reading, being an increasingly private act, enriched human senses of individuality. However, despite the fact that a small publishing industry was born, handwritten codices remained costly and books––and the literary mind they created––were not yet mainstream.
Carr continues to show how new developments in writing technology changed human life, inside and out. The change from an oral and “groupy” tradition to a silent and private practice placed increased emphasis on the development of individual identity.
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Carr goes on to focus on the publishing technologies that pushed the literary mind to the forefront. The primary invention was the Gutenberg publishing press, famously attributed to German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg. Gutenberg created adjustable molds for cast letters that could be moved, disassembled and reorganized. His masterpiece was the renowned Gutenberg Bible. After the press caught on, the cost of manufacturing books was steeply reduced. With an influx of cheaper paper from China, books flooded the market. Both demand and supply skyrocketed, creating a cycle that set the world on track to becoming populated by literary minds, no matter what social class you were born into.
Carr continues to show how new developments in writing technology changed society. The development of the Gutenberg press, a landmark event in world history, caused deep social change, as it allowed humans of any class or status to have easy access to books.
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Carr closes the chapter with an explanation of the chapter’s title, “The Deepening Page.” The kind of reading that accompanied the literary mind is very different than the kind we practice every day when we read signs, ads, and labels. As literacy expanded, writers felt the confidence to push the complexity of the form. This cycle encouraged the development of increasingly abstract ideas. The result of book reading and book writing was that human consciousness “deepened,” or became richer as authors strengthened the individual’s capacity to focus on complex ideas.
A feedback loop was put into place by increased literacy. The more writing we saw, the better we could read; and the better we could read, the more we wrote. The “deepening” of consciousness Carr refers to directly connects the advancement of writing technology to increased complexity of identity.
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Digression. Carr turns a spotlight on Lee de Forest, an engineer with a doctorate from Yale who invented a device in 1906 called the audion. The modest invention was a current amplifier consisting of three wires, and it would change the world. De Forest had “inaugurated the age of electronics” by inventing a device that could amplify radio transmissions, providing the foundation for transistor radios and numerous other electrical devices.
This segment, on Lee de Forest’s audion, serves as a transition into the following chapter on the Internet. The audion’s crucial relationship to electronics shows how a single invention can change the course of human history.
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