Chapter 4 – “The Deepening Page” & a digression

Chapter 4 of “The Shallows” The Deepening Page talks about the evolution of the written word – the way that we started to read symbols to the way that we started to read words. Carr also explains the concept of “deep reading” and also the idea that the Sumerians (who were the first to use a specialised medium for writing) “…had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another.”

Summary of devices

Cuneiform tablet receipt 2100 BCE for 6 lambs, on (goat) kid
Height 31mm, Width 29mm, Depth 13mm
Ur Dynasty, Sumer-Southern Mesopotamia (present day Iraq)
cuneiform tablet

Egyptian papyrus
1285 BCE
Judgment scene from the Book of the Dead.
In the three scenes from the Book of the Dead (version from ~1300 BCE) the dead man (Hunefer) is taken into the judgment hall by the jackal-headed Anubis. The next scene is the weighing of his heart, with Ammut awaiting the result and Thoth recording. Next, the triumphant Hunefer, having passed the test, is presented by the falcon-headed Horus to Osiris, seated in his shrine with Isis and Nephthys.
Judgment scene from the Book of the Dead

Wax tablet with Stylus
possibly 1 CE
wax tablet with stylus

The Vergilius Augusteus is a manuscript from late antiquity, containing the works of the Roman author Virgil, written probably around the 4th century.
Written in Roman Square Capitals
Only 7 leaves of manuscript survive
Vergilius Augusteus scriptoria continua

The octavo of Petrarch a portable book printed by the Italian printer Aldus Manutius.
Circa 1500’s CE
petrarch Octova page

The Dolphin and Anchor – that marked an Aldine book (printed by Aldus), a fashion other printers would employ afterwards.
anchor and dolphin of Aldus

Gutenberg Press
A page of moveable type is estimated to have taken 1/2 a day to set-up and Gutenberg’s workshop is estimated to have employed 25 craftsmen.
Gutenberg Press replica

Gutenberg Press Diagram (replica))

Gutenberg Bible c. 1455
Forty-eight integral copies survive, including eleven on vellum.

Project Gutenberg began in 1971 by Michael Hart (inventor of the electronic book or eBook in 1971) as a community project to make plain text versions of books available freely to all.
The collection includes:
The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot
On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin
Relativity : the Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein
Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

What was that over there?

Screen shot 2016-02-10 at 10.32.16 AM

This is a refrigerator lightbulb. According to “Brain Games” on the National Geographic Channel, our brains run on just 12 Watts of power. That’s only about a third of the amount of energy used by that refrigerator bulb.

Not as bright as you thought you were? With such limited resources we can really only concentrate on one thing at a time. According to David Strayer, a psychologist who conducts research on attention at the University of Utah, multitasking is merely an illusion. Instead of balancing the tasks at hand evenly, we simply switch from one activity to another, making us “serial processors”.

The brain has two kinds of attention. The first, called “top-down” is what you use when you choose to focus on a stimulus or task, this could be anything from choosing what to cook for dinner to reading this post. Top-down attention is controlled by the prefrontal cortex, where thinking and problem solving take place in the brain. Secondly, we use “bottom-up” attention when we quickly shift our focus to an unexpected stimulus, such as a mosquito or ringing phone. This thinking is more primitive, and Carr argues that like most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, the natural state of our brain is one of distractedness. Magicians trick you by occupying both forms of your attention; and switching from bottom-up to top-down is no easy task. “MIT neuroscientist Robert Desimone says “It takes a lot of your prefrontal brain power to force yourself not to process a strong (distracting) input” (Ear Plugs to Lasers: The Science of Concentration,” New York Times , May 5, 2009.). There’s a reason why it’s so hard to ignore a text when it flashes at us on our phones. We literally have to train our brain to ignore everything else going on around us in order to read.

If that’s the case, why is it so hard to find a spot in Starbucks around exam time?

Screen shot 2016-02-10 at 10.34.31 AM

Is it easier to drown out a constant stream of stimuli in your surroundings than a single persistent distraction? Would you choose a coffee shop as your workplace or a silent room with a leaky faucet or ticking clock? Researchers at the University of Chicago tested how ambient noise impacted creativity by playing soundtracks at various levels and then asking questions designed to assess creative thinking. They found that when ambient noise was set to 70 decibels (the same noise level found at an average coffee shop), participants performed about 35% better than those who worked in quieter settings. This doesn’t seem so surprising, after all J.K. Rowling wrote much of her early novels in a café (here),. However, the study didn’t measuring concentration, a key skill needed for reading.

Lily Dipping

Screen shot 2016-02-10 at 10.35.28 AM

In Carr’s original article Is Google Making Us Stupid he argues that online reading avoids the traditional sense of reading we have come to know through books. New forms emerge like the “power browse” and “F-pattern” reading. These forms not only require a different kind of reading, but a different kind of thinking entirely. One that favors efficiency and immediacy, why read the whole article when you can get a “quick win” (as Carr calls it) from the abstract in a fraction of the time. Web content producers are aware of this trend and tailor the content around it, go on any website (like this one: or this one:, or even this one: and chances are you’ll see slightly different versions of “The F Layout”.

Screen shot 2016-02-10 at 10.36.01 AM

Logos are almost always in the top left corner, right where the eye starts. Then the horizontal navigation bar draws the eye out, and catchy words or “sexy” headlines bring the eye back down and out to complete the “F” formation. Newspapers (and even grocery retailers creating their flyers) have always been concerned with “above the fold”, meaning that they wanted to have the catchiest headline or biggest sales above where the fold mark would be so that if it were sitting upright on a table someone would be tempted to pick it up and read the rest. Web designers are aware that most people only do a quick skim read before moving on, so they incorporate the most important information in the first two paragraphs. Wolf and Carr are both concerned that this kind of reading doesn’t allow for deep connections to be made, the reading equivalent of lily dipping.

They are not alone. Playwright Richard Foreman called Net-Gen-ers “pancake people link:”. He didn’t mean they’d go well with Aunt Jemima (link:, but rather that the connectedness that the Net provided was making their knowledge wide but shallow, spread thin. In other words, he believes those that are in the Internet generation are like a jack-of-all -trades, but master of none.

Class Poll: Who considers themselves a reader? What environment do you need to be in to read? Do you prefer digital or tangible methods of reading? Do you get distracted when you read?

There is the idea that we were not born to read. Reading is not natural and that our brain must rewire itself to read. This is according to Leading professor, researcher and author – Maryanne Wolf.

The fact that we are able to read, does not turn us into readers. So then you begin to ask yourself ‘What makes us readers?’ What mysterious force drives a person to spend hours and hours over the pages of a book without any apparent reward and most of the time without any clear objective? I believe that half of the reason of what makes people, “readers”, is passion. If you do not find pleasure in reading, then you aren’t going to read. The idea that we should all be able to “deep read” is preposterous. Deep reading isn’t just reading, deep reading goes beyond reading words from a page, deep reading is a skill that is obtained by practice, passion and determination – it is not automatic and it is not always applicable to everyone.

The idea that Carr is stating that our ability to deep read is being jeopardized because of the influence of the internet is arguable. In an article by The Guardian online [link here] it is argued that “The internet isn’t harming our love of ‘deep reading’, it’s cultivating it”. The internet will always be distracting, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is “harming” our ability for those who can deep read, to deep read. There is the idea that we are a generation of skimming and that our love and skill of reading has diminished, however that idea is refuted by sales of Young Adult blockbusters. Take the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series – there are plenty of young adults who will read those books until their hearts desire, but also will then spend hours on Facebook. The idea that you can’t have one with the other is nonsense.

There is the common misconception that reading is the highest creative skill for you to utilise, can be argued. Award winning writer, Lucy Prebble, said “playing video games requires more involvement and creative input than reading a book or watching a film – and also offers more opportunities to be active and sociable” [full article here]. She said gaming was similar to writing, in that both are private, creative activities very different to watching films or reading books, which involve less input. Video games require the user to make decisions, giving them the chance to influence the story and even in part design the world in which the game is played out, she added. We need to welcome the technological age into our society and accept that not having the ability to be able to deep read is not something that affects your representation in society. There are other creative outlets that we can channel our learning experiences into, a lot of which are linked to the internet.

Why it’s hard to read in the electronic age?

Are we losing the ability to read difficult books? Cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf says we need to develop a “bi-literate reading brain” so that we can switch back and forth between the deep reading of print and the skimming of electronic texts

Link to audio here
(from 0:09:13)

The Digression
Lee deForest the “Father of Radio” and his 1952 article Dawn of the Electronic Age (Jan, 1952) in full, in Popular Mechanics:

800px-Audion_tube prototype
The Audion – the inauguration of electronics
A 3 element vacuum tube used to detect or receive code /voice messages
His device was crude and unreliable until more capable scientists and engineers ( at A. T & T improved upon it.

deForest’s prediction that knowledge would be implanted into the minds of the reluctant brains of 22nd century pupils couldn’t be further from the reality of the world of today.

Technology is possibly/most likely/definitely preventing knowledge from implanting in our brains.


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