Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

The Internet Is Making You Smarter!

IT'LL END IN TEARSThere are a lot of panic-ridden books out there designed to maximize the terror in which many American readers apparently enjoy spending their leisure hours. Amazon returns over a hundred results for just the phrase "The Coming Crisis." The crises that are coming are to do with radical Islam, the rise of judicial power, agricultural disasters (var.), the collapse of the educational system, nuclear proliferation, water running out, government bankruptcies, and a swarm of aging boomers who are going to swoop down like locusts and devour what little is left. Evidently, all we have to hear is ack, we are getting dumber! We are going to get sick, be attacked and die, plus Muslims! The sky is falling! and ka-ching goes the cash register. Such is the paranoia of our times (and, I suspect, all times.)

Squarely in this tradition, Nicholas Carr's hand-wringing article in The Atlantic ("Is Google Making Us Stupid?" July, 2008) created such a promising frisson of fear that the author has expanded it into a book called The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Mr. Carr contends that the Internet, with all its too-readily-available information and hyperlinks and brightly flashing distractions, is ruining our ability to concentrate: the Internet, he says, is literally brain-damaging. Laura Miller had this to say about the book recently in Salon:

In the brief period between the writing of the original piece and the publication of "The Shallows," neuroscientists have performed and reviewed important studies on the effects of multitasking, hyperlinks, multimedia and other information-age innovations on human brain function, all of which add empirical heft to Carr's arguments.

The results are not cheering, and the two chapters in which Carr details them are, to my mind, the book's payload. This evidence — that even the microseconds of decision-making attention demanded by hyperlinks saps cognitive power from the reading process, that multiple sensory inputs severely degrade memory retention, that overloading the limited capacity of our short-term memory hampers our ability to lay down long-term memories — is enough to make you want to run right out and buy Internet-blocking software.

The original article was born of the author's realization that he can't concentrate like he used to. "[M]y concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages," he writes ominously. Anybody might be excused for supposing this decreased capacity to be the natural consequence of anxiety, age, boredom or exhaustion, but not this author. He can't concentrate, okay. I blame the Internet! he exclaims, out of the clear blue. Then he asks a bunch of his friends, who can't concentrate, either. Somehow, they all agree that the Internet is to blame. None of them seems to have heard of the famous caution, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, or to realize that this little malady could have any number of causes. It happens to me every time my mother comes over, I regret to say. Maybe they all have toxoplasmosis, did they ever think of that?

In any case, isn't it already pretty dodgy for Carr to admit that he can't concentrate, and then try to persuade us of anything whatsoever? Shouldn't he go take some fish oil capsules (oh wait! Those don't work!) and get his marbles back first?

The answer to that question is "yes," because Carr's original argument, as evidenced by the Atlantic article and by the more recent one, in the Wall Street Journal, is profoundly unconvincing.

Hyperlinks, the proliferation of which Mr. Carr largely blames for his mental infirmity, are in no way different from footnotes. Footnotes, too, demand "microseconds of decision-making attention." Just as a footnote does, a hyperlink beckons you away from the main text in order to examine tangentially-related but relevant material. Exactly like a hyperlink, a footnote often has the effect of sending you down a series of rabbit holes, from which you emerge hours later, armed with a dozen other books-that is, if you want to investigate the subject in fine detail. If you don't, then by all means, you can skip the footnotes.

So do footnotes also "sap cognitive power from the reading process"?

Heavily annotated works have been useful for centuries to students of every discipline we've got, and their distraction-potential, though clear, is completely eclipsed by the invaluable advantage of access to a ton of carefully-signposted material that can greatly ease the conduct of serious study. It's well worth the extra effort of concentration; if you want the goods, you'll put up with the cost.

Untrained and/or young readers commonly have trouble with densely annotated texts; they really are relatively difficult to navigate. Advanced readers, however, love them, and know how to use them. Practice at reading these complex texts makes you better and better at it, like practice in most things. And as it happens, modern technology also makes this sort of work a lot easier and considerably less distracting, for example via the "Open in New Tab" command on any browser. It is very nice not to have to lug a stack of books into a cubicle every time you want to know some stuff!

All this flies in the face of Carr's thesis; it's the sophisticated reader who most enjoys and can make use of the most densely "distracting" material. If the subject is of deep interest, a mature reader will patiently follow every reference out to its appointed end, a task which in itself, yes, demands extra effort, extra focus. Has any of this ever made anybody any dumber? I think not.

And does the extra concentration required for reading a scholarly text correspond to the kind of extra concentration required for reading online? Yes.

What Carr is saying is basically: TMI, and for whatever reason, he doesn't have the discipline to handle it all. But I really don't think that's true of everyone.

Carr explicitly disagrees that footnotes are equivalent to hyperlinks, by the bye. He mentions them just once in the Atlantic article:

Unlike footnotes, to which they're sometimes likened, hyperlinks don't merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.

The fogginess of this reasoning-what does this mean, ‘propel'?-is evident throughout the original essay. The means by which one navigates through text are consistent within the medium-you page through all the pages of a book, and you click through all the pages of a website. For some reason, "propulsion" is supposed to be bad for you and "pointing" isn't, but Carr doesn't even attempt to explain why. (I know-he can't concentrate! Was there ever a more dangerous admission to make at the outset of an argument?)

In order to make the case that our mental capacity can be damaged by using the Internet, Carr refers to scientific studies indicating that the brain can be altered by how we choose to use it. And that is really what puts the final nail in the coffin of his theory.

Miller wrote:

Above all, Carr points to the past 20-some years of neurological research indicating that the human brain is, in the words of one scientific pioneer, "massively plastic" — that is, much like our muscles, it can be substantially changed and developed by what we do with it.

Surely, if that is so, it militates directly against Carr's argument: our incredibly adaptable brains, armed with the colossal resources of humanity's pooled knowledge, will develop all kinds of new musculature. Far from being debilitating, the web is like an incomparable new exercise machine. Okay, you're going to get sore from using it for a while, but eventually you'll emerge with the brain-physique of a Superman. The Internet is making us all supremely better-informed and far more capable of serious study. If anything is making us dumber, I daresay it is this paranoid attitude toward the very tools that are leading us into all kinds of richer, more complex understanding.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

74 Comments / Post A Comment

Private Hangnail (#2,576)

I blame snack foods and masturbation.

saythatscool (#101)


Private Hangnail (#2,576)

Just let me just pick these last bits of Funyuns out of my pubic hair.

Abe Sauer (#148)


lurkystars (#3,581)

But I hate exercising.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Infinite Indigestion.

brent_cox (#40)

Now there's a book that definitely made me dumber and prone to neologisms and improbably long sentences.

scrooge (#2,697)

Or Tristram Shandy

NominaStultorum (#1,638)

I bet this all started for Carr when someone told him that clicking his mouse's middle button (or mouse-wheel) opens a link in a new tab. I know I've never recov OH WHAT'S THAT OVER THERE

mjfrombuffalo (#2,561)

oh great. you just HAD to share this trick, didn't you? there goes my afternoon.

Also, "the human brain" does not equal our own individual fucking brains. The brain is a muscle, we choose how to exercise it. We don't have collective leg muscles, which we as a society choose to exercise together (well, I guess we do- in marathons and bike-to-work days and whatever). Also, I am almost certain that I have toxoplasmosis. I am super neurotic, easily-distracted, and a bad at driving. Anyway, the point is that I like Maria.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

The Awlternet is making me snarker.

kneetoe (#1,881)

It is totally unfair for you to attack him here on the internets, and with hyperlinks to boot. You will totally propel him to distraction!

Art Yucko (#1,321)

This Banh Mi didn't merely point me to the related chips; it <a href="http://marketingpractice.blogspot.com/2006/04/lays-no-one-can-eat-just-one.htmlPROPELLED me to them!

Art Yucko (#1,321)

wah, HTMoof.

kneetoe (#1,881)

No more internet for you, Art Yucko!

Moff (#28)

No, hyperlinks are definitely different from footnotes.

A book is an enclosed medium. You might glance down at a footnote, and sure, you might go out and get another book or books the footnote refers you to — but more than likely, first you're going to look back up and at least finish the chapter you're on. Whereas, tabbed browser or not, when you click a link, there's a far stronger compulsion — or propulsion — to immediately set about absorbing the new information it provides.

Further, there's the increased likelihood that the information provided by a link is going to be more trivial than that provided by a footnote — this is just built into the medium. You don't have the space considerations online that you do with a book; your material is much less likely to have been edited.

This is not to say that links really do make one more stupid than footnotes — one hopes (or at least, I hope) that one thing the internet will teach us is to get away from thinking in binaries ("This makes you smart; this makes you stupid"), and to be suspicious of words' capacity for meaning (Bill and Hillary Clinton are certainly smart, but the 2008 Democratic primary showed that they were also very stupid, when it came to trying to win a Democratic primary in 2008).

But it is to say that different media have different effects on us. Western culture is largely founded on a paradigm that says information is best conveyed and absorbed in a linear fashion. Yeah, that has its downsides, but also its advantages. Presumably, the best strategy is not to be so immediately and glibly dismissive of ideas like Carr's (the book did just come out today!), but to concede that maybe, just possibly, this technology that has had some of the most profound effects on humanity in history could carry with it unpredictable repercussions, and that not all of them will be beneficial.

Moff (#28)

Also: Along with all those panic-ridden books, there are a lot (maybe even more?) of those books and articles cheerleading for the wonderful new world the internet is supposedly in the process of introducing us to. Such is the heedless technological optimism of our times (and, I suspect — or know, rather — all times).

Miles Klee (#3,657)

co-sign. i really don't understand why this debate is always all-or-nothing, transhumanfuturists v. hand-wringing-that's-been-done-for-centuries. can't it be finally acknowledged that all technology is a trade-off?

Moff (#28)

@Miles: Except for fire. Fire was a fucking win all around.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Moff: Salient points, all. Was just being flippant regarding the dichotomy of "smarter" and "dumber" which really, I do agree that that is so silly.

I disagree though that there is an increased likelihood of links being more trivial than footnotes. This depends entirely on the document in question; there are a lot of very rigorously prepared documents online, and a lot of very sloppily annotated books.

Not dismissing Carr's ideas at all; I just don't think they are very well thought-out, or supported by credible evidence, despite the fact that the original essay has been kicking around for years.

Moff (#28)

@barnhouse: Dude! You have two links in the middle of the post that are trivial! Unless toxoplasmosis and fish oil are genuinely germane to your argument? Which is not to rag on you for including them — I realize you did just because they're amusing and interesting and you could.

But that's the point: People use technologies to do things just because they can. And this sounds weird, but it's true: Links are much easier to use, and much more available to be used by people than are footnotes. I mean, you have to write a paper or a book to use a footnote, and if there aren't already more blogs and web pages being written than papers or books, there will be soon! Because of that, there are just going to be far more trivial links out there than trivial footnotes.

And again, the main point is not the triviality, but the way we use links. Even if a footnote is trivial, you're insulated from the triviality by the fact that it takes work to locate the referred material — a lot more work than it takes to click a link, even if you happen to have the necessary book handy. And sure, you can say that it's all about the discipline of the reader, that the reader needs to be mature — but take the long-term view: If people who grew up reading books are having trouble concentrating on them now (and I sure am!), how's it gonna be for the kids who are doing most of their reading online right now?

Anyway, not to rag, sorry; the post just did read as if you were dismissing his ideas (at least, to me it did), and, you know, whether he's right or wrong, I think this shit is a lot more important than most people give it credit for. So thank you for writing about it.

LondonLee (#922)

What Moff said. A footnote in a book has never made me put it down before I've finished and rush out the door to buy another book.

@moff: While I certainly agree with you that the smarter/dumber dichotomy is a silly one, I'm not sure I can get on board with the difference you posit between footnotes and links. I mean, you can hover over a link to see how trivial (or not!) the sourced material is.

Furthermore — and purely anecdotally, to be sure — I've often been in the position of researching something online, and finding myself with umpteen unopened tabs where I know I can easily turn to continue, if I so choose. And I'm also old enough to remember having to go to the library to do the same thing. There, though, by the time I've located a relevant footnote, gone to the card catalog to figure out where the sourced material can be found, and then actually gone to get that material? Well, I know I've definitely spent entire afternoons to obtain the same information that I could pretty easily access in a few minutes online.

And that's really the main difference — to me, at least — between the old- and the new-fangled. Time! (In further anecdotes,) I was just discussing this very thing with The Honey's parents, a high-school English teacher and a college religion professor. They agreed that the most crucial skill they're trying to impart to their students in this Age of the Interwebs remain the same reasoning that allows one to separate the actually reliable sources from the trivial links.

Moff (#28)

@Mantooth: You can hover, but I think the practical effect is that most people aren't thinking about the triviality or not — they think, "Oh! That looks interesting!" and click over. And the result I think Carr is concerned about isn't that web users are being exposed to information that's only trivially related to what they started reading, but that we're becoming psychologically acclimated to interrupting ourselves.

I mean, it's a weird phenomenon: You're reading a blog post that you've chosen to read as a distraction from doing real work, and then in the middle of it, you get distracted. It's like going to a baseball game and turning on a basketball game on your iPhone in the second inning. Or maybe like when I used to get high at work and then found myself impatient to get home…so that I could get high.

Time is the most obvious difference, but the technologies we use indoctrinate us in pretty subtle ways. (Like: "Boston is four hours from New York City." That statement, which seems totally innocuous to us, only makes sense to people in a car-driven society — there's a whole host of implications inherent in it, and in the fact that we think of Boston as being four hours from New York.) You and the Honey's rentals are absolutely right, though, about crap-detecting being the most crucial skill we can develop these days. I think the challenge is that if Carr is right, how do you get people to focus enough to learn it? Maybe you don't need to focus that long! Maybe it's about something like pattern recognition. I dunno.

HiredGoons (#603)

Four hours? Remind me never to ride in your car.

Mar (#2,357)

@Moff: Anybody can learn to be a more sophisticated reader. People learn to do things when they need to learn them. Perhaps if our culture didn't have such a reverent attitude towards stupidity, "innocence," and ignorance, Young People Today would quit being so illiterate. A little shame can be a great motivator.

@moff: See, I think being able to turn a basketball game on during a baseball game is a luxury! (Especially if both games are football games.)

And, yeah. Certainly all of the technological advances over the recent decades (though I'm loath to put it this way) do signal a crucial paradigm shift in the way we all interact with information. Truly, our crap-detection skills, simply because we're inundated with ever more crap on a daily basis, still hinge entirely on our own reasoning abilities and our will to parse. (For old time's sake: Learn to parse!)

@Goons: I dunno whether that means you think moff drives like a maniac or like your grandma!

Moff (#28)

@Mar: Actually, one could argue pretty persuasively, I think, that human history serves as an object lesson that most people don't learn to do things when they need to. Some people do, and the rest figure it out after the painful fact.

But anyway: Sure! Individuals can learn a lot if they put their minds to it. Cultures, as you note, tend to be shaped by less thoughtful forces.

propertius (#361)

One difference I've noticed between hyperlinks and footnotes: I have sometimes followed a hyperlink and forgotten about the referring material, which has yet to happen with footnotes!

kneetoe (#1,881)

A little more time, propertius, and it will.

AmyGee (#2,788)


vespavirgin (#1,422)

Maybe this is the reason the last season of LOST was so bad. IT'S KEYBOARD CAT'S FAULT.

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

I think the main difference between footnotes and hyperlinks, as between digital and print cultures, is simply the speed at which you can move between materials (Carr implies as much with that "propels"). Will that have some ramifying effects on modes of cognition? Sure. But these will be much less radical than everyone assumes in these bouts of hysteria because the emergence of digital media and technology is not a fundamental break with older forms of media and tech so much as an extension of certain processes already underway. For example, experimental psychology has been obsessed with reaction time and the effects of different machines (industrial equipment, cars, film, etc.) on the brain since the late 19th century. In the Victorian period, everyone thought novel-reading was ruining people's ability to concentrate. Now the ability to read novels is held up as a standard of mental focus.

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

All that is just to say that the problem with arguments like these is that they have no sense of historical perspective. Everything before Windows 95 is implicitly held up as a golden age of optimum brain function, as if we were all living in peasant communes before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs laid a colossal mind fuck on us.

Moff (#28)

I dunno. Yeah, it's silly to suggest that the contraction of the human attention span to novel-size chunks was a worrisome development, but it's not that far-fetched to imagine that it could get small enough to become jeopardous; degree does matter. For one thing, a lot of our existing infrastructure needs maintenance, and maintaining it requires a certain level of focus. For another thing, there might be psychological or emotional ramifications. Prayer and meditation are tied rather inextricably to an ability to concentrate, and I'd venture that a decrease in that ability is connected to a proportional decrease in the mental well-being associated with those activities.

And then, of course, there's the whole issue of just slowing down and thinking things through. Which probably we don't need to get any worse at.

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

That's fair. I wouldn't say that there's no place for concerns about the impact of changing forms of media on the brain and cognition. My complaint is just how little attention Carr and a lot of other writers pay to how we got to this moment. Part of that involves ignoring earlier attempts to think about very similar issues. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that paying attention to essays like Georg Simmel's "The Metropolis and Mental Life," for example, would broaden the topic to the point where instead of focusing on the internet, you'd be discussing modernity, and I imagine that's a much harder sell to publishers.

Moff (#28)

Yeah, that would be a tough book to market. The other thing is that, at least according to A.V. Club review, Carr is working off of Marshall McLuhan. And McLuhan was well aware of everything that led up to its rise, but saw electric technology as qualitatively different from what preceded it, simply because it meant operating at light speed. And I think I agree with him about that, simply because no matter how fast mechanical technology gets, it's still several orders of magnitude slower than 186,000 miles per second!

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

That's funny, because I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here…

Moff (#28)


barnhouse (#1,326)

@Jim D. You've made me sneeze my tea.

Mar (#2,357)

But what about novelistic television? Doesn't the ability to follow labyrinthine programs like "Deadwood" and "The Wire" indicate an ability to concentrate? Also, by their very form, novels encourage concentration because they're constantly dangling narrative hooks and creating anticipatory tension. The bulk of online writing is non-fiction, and while it might use some fiction techniques, it mostly retains the attention through either the value of the information presented or the use of humor.

I don't know about you, but when I buy a non-fiction book, like a collection of travel essays or food writing or pop science (akin to the very pop science tome being discussed above!), I don't tend to read it from cover to cover. Instead, I skim, or jump to interesting chapters, or check out the index. In other words, I interact with the book in the same way that people interact with most websites–like a magpie looking for shiny objects, instead of a caterpillar patiently munching a leaf from end to end. This isn't the way that I'd read long-form journalism, like "Under the Banner of Heaven," but I think it's a reasonable way to interact with a lot of non-fiction. I'm a little more linear with non-fiction humor writing, but only if I know that a given set of pieces must be read in order if the intended effect is to be experienced.

Mar (#2,357)

So, my point is, maybe people just get bored by non-fiction?

Moff (#28)

@Mar: Well, yeah, I think there's something to that, but I wonder if it isn't just that there's so much writing online, and it's all available so cheaply, that there's no consequence to clicking away from an article in mid-read. (And then it's merely coincidental that most of the writing online is nonfiction, and a function of Sturgeon's law that most of it isn't that compelling. I suspect that if there were a lot of fiction online too — and there is a fair amount — people would still click away from it if it contained links. But fiction tends not to contain links unless it's explicitly experimental or some shit. Still, I've certainly stopped reading a short story online, even at an exciting part, because my Gmail inbox suddenly shows a (1) in the tab.) Anyway, my anecdotal experience is that I used to either finish a magazine article in more or less one fell swoop or just gave up on it; but I rarely got pulled away in the middle of it — much less rarely than I do online.

I think the ability to follow long-form TV is a form of concentration, but it's different from the "old" kind of concentration. Maybe most important, your concentration is being held not just by the story, but by the actors, the music, the colors on the screen; your brain itself is arguably doing a lot less work than if you read a novel.

Moff (#28)

I would also add that long-form fiction makes up a small fraction of the TV that's produced, and that the best examples of it (like The Wire and Deadwood) were written by people with very literary sensibilities. Whereas the most popular example, Lost, would have been critically reviled, and rightly so, if it had appeared as a novel — the finale, and much of the last season, only had any effect because of the emotional cues provided by the video and audio.

Mar (#2,357)

Maybe the drive to click away is some sort of hunter-gatherer impulse? Like, when you go blackberry-picking, you go after every berry you can see. Maybe hyperlinks are like that–we feel a greed to grab all the potential information we come across. We want to acquire as much information as we can gather, because some of it might be vital. You might be about to get an email from God, telling you that you're now rich and perfect.

But also, maybe it's not the fault of the tool, but the fault of the builders. The media works hard to keep everybody as fearful and overstimulated as possible, so that we need all kinds of cool products just to function. Jittery and paranoid, we seek to distract ourselves by any means at hand. Desperate to increase their page ranks, sites on every level stud their posts with hyperlinks, videos, and other bells and whistles. Blah, blah guns don't kill people, people kill people.

I agree that television watching takes a different kind of concentration than reading, but not that it's less work. Some programs don't require a lot of audience work, like "CSI" or "According to Jim". But keeping track of the 50 or so new characters we got on each season of "The Wire", or remembering the complex mythology on shows like "BSG" and "Twin Peaks," or understanding why anybody is doing anything on "Brideshead Revisited" takes work–it's the mental equivalent of bucking bales, sometimes. And yes, there are a lot of elements to follow on a television show–story, actors, mise en scene, direction, etc.–but following these sometimes takes more concentration, not less. In any given scene of "Treme," I'm thinking about the story, but I'm also looking at the framing of shots, or trying to figure out if the music is diegetic or not (and if so, why), and secretly checking to see if the foley is emphasizing anything in particular, because if fumbling sounds or clinking sounds or whatever are high in the mix, then there's a reason for that, because every single person who works on a given ten minutes of show has made a series of thoughtful choices. From this perspective, any show can be thought-provoking. "Hanna Montana" can be interesting if you start paying attention to the colors that each character wears, and trying to connect these palette shifts both to the set, the action and their relationships with other characters.

Moff (#28)

Of course it's the fault of the builders; the tools didn't come from space. These things are just extensions of us. But is the problem that the news media works hard to keep everybody fearful — which I don't believe; I don't think there's a vast conspiracy, even when it comes to Fox News — or that when you build a tool, it demands to be used, and the easiest way to use television is to recycle the same information over and over, and to do everything possible to maintain a certain number of viewers, so that you can afford to keep using it?

As for the rest: Again, sure, individuals can find something interesting in just about anything, if they're interested in doing so. But the bulk of TV and the internet don't offer much that impels thoughtful, rather than superficial, consumption (and most audiences certainly aren't getting any instruction in thoughtful consumption).

Anyway, none of this is to say that TV or the internet is "bad" — just that whether they amplify potentially unhealthy habits in an audience that already isn't that capable of sustained thought might not be worth considering.

Moff (#28)

And I'd say you're right about the hunter-gatherer impulse, except that when you're a hunter-gatherer, you don't eat half a blackberry, drop it, and move on to the next blackberry. The bit about the email from God, though — yeah, I think new media definitely feed into our natural desire to have our ego stroked. It's telling that this technology that puts us in touch with more other humans than ever before largely, instinctively gets used as a soapbox, or as a platform to garner attention for ourselves.

@moff: That's just 'cause you know your emails are way better than whatever else you're reading.

Mar (#2,357)

I was just trying to make the point that television and the Internet aren't "bad" in and of themselves, which we seem to agree on. And that we do have control over how we interact with media–the question isn't whether the Internet is making us smarter or dumber, it's whether we are using the Internet in healthy, thoughtful ways. You can always wait until the end of the article to check out the hyperlinks.

I don't think that the "heads of the media" (whoever those are) have midnight meetings in dank dungeons where they plot to freak people out. And I wasn't implying that merely the news media works consciously to make people feel fearful–I was actually thinking more about commercials and weird viral email campaigns and the national obsession with procedural shows about murder and disease. There's not a purposeful movement to encourage paranoia, but there is a consciousness that sex'n'death content makes good linkbait, "must-see" TV, and "grabby" news segments. The cumulative effect of so many working so hard to grab a sliver of our attention must do something to our minds–even as we're filtering thousands of messages, advertisements, Facebook updates and so on without really noticing we're doing so. As you've pointed out, these are shrill times.

Mar (#2,357)

And are normal people really using the Internet as a soapbox, or is it mostly "creative" types? The creatives I know are always using the Internet to promote their band/reading/blog/art show/publication, but regular people seem to use the Internet mostly to do social networking, perform professional networking, and to share old kitty videos. The Internet might feel like a vast conglomeration of attention seekers, but most users belong to the silent majority of "Cute Overload" fans and MSN readers.

Moff (#28)

@Mantooth: TRUE.

@Mar: Gotcha on the lack of a media conspiracy. And yeah — it's cumulative effect! We were already probably suffering from information glut before the internet came along, and now it makes it so easy to get so much more information so much faster — we just get accustomed to doling out our attention in little slices, rather than sustaining focus.

As far as the soapbox stuff goes, I'm thinking of all the insane commenters you find on any newspaper website and the like — people who really don't have anything to add to the conversation, and who are making the same point as the article or that a ton of other commenters have already made, but who go ahead and post it anyway. I mean, we've all been guilty of that, but for me at least, it takes more of an effort not to contribute when I've got nothing to say than to just comment heedlessly.

@moff: I think you're really getting at what I meant by parsing the digital age. (I did say that, right?) As much as any of us have been guilty of writing some stupid comment just because we can, I think it's equally correct to say that we know not to go to newspaper site comments for any valid ("valid") criticism.

And, where we came to that realization perhaps gradually, the Kids Today who are growing up with the web I feel are coming to that knowledge almost innately. And so, sure, we as fellow parsers who have encountered the dankest recesses of The 'Net and have survived to tell the tale necessarily feel protective over the youths who we fear might not have the mental resources to deal with what to us is an almost incomprehensible sensory overload of data. But when it's all that a, let's say 16-year-old?, has ever known? How does that 16-year-old even fathom not having constant access to all this data?

Mar (#2,357)

@Moff: Yes, the comments on local newspaper pages, Salon, or Craigslist tend to be pretty insane. There's something I like about them though–for one thing, there's the occasional gem of pure insanity. For another, I can't help but think that there's something positive about so many people being inspired to write and express themselves, even if what they're writing is pure racist trash. There's something about the act of committing words to the (web) page that clarifies thought. We learn how to think by manifesting our thoughts via speaking or writing. Eventually, shouldn't the act of forming one's reactions into words lead to an increase in one's capacity for critical thought? Even compost heaps can suddenly sprout volunteer onions and potato plants.

Moff (#28)

@Mantooth: We're a terrible sample, though, because we're awesome and most people aren't. No, seriously, though, I think it's totally possible that the kids will become fine parsers without much help. But the other side of the question about the hypothetical 16-year-old is: What does it do to someone to grow up with near-constant access to all that data? I read somewhere a couple days ago (here, maybe?) that studies show our hypothalami might be shrinking from reliance on technologies like GPS. People tend to use tools whenever they can; it takes a deliberate effort not to. So they may learn to parse, but is there any danger in their growing accustomed to having parsable data at the tips of the fingers, instantly, at all times? Because we already live in a much more abstracted world than our parents and grandparents did. (I'm thinking of the average farmer of a couple generations ago, who lacked formal education but understood more about soil science than most college grads today do. Or kids who built rockets for fun instead of playing Modern Warfare 2 all the time.)

@Mar: Maybe! And certainly there are gems. But I'm less confident that critical thought tends to arise spontaneously; I think it usually has to be nurtured at least a little, and there's probably not a lot of nurturing going on in those comment sections. I think it's at least equally possible that what the internet is mostly doing to people is helping them clump together in groups where they share basically the same points of view, which then just reinforces their beliefs. I mean, political blogs are an obvious example, but I think the same sort of thing has happened over here at the Awl, too! (Although I think one of the beliefs this group holds, or at least aspires to, is that people shouldn't all hold the same beliefs — which is a saving grace.)

I don't know. I really don't! Carr might be totally wrong, and I may be more concerned about this stuff than is necessary. (And what do you do to stop the internet anyway?) But I think it's worth thinking about these tools that so many of us are sort of strapped to eight hours a day or more.

Mar (#2,357)

@Moff: I think you're correct to be worried about the Internet. But, I don't think it's inevitable that the Internet is going to make everybody dumb; I think that people can steer and control their Internet use in ways that preserve their attention spans. I also think that a lot of the "dumbing down" of America that we like to blame on the Internet can be equally blamed on other cultural forces. Cultural values, which set the tone for how cultural forces are interpreted, play perhaps the most important role–if it is considered "shameful" for people to have poor attention spans, then people will get longer attention spans. One has to wonder if there is the same concern that the Internet is making people dumber in Chinese or Indian social circles; it certainly hasn't prevented Chinese or Indian teens from murdering American teens academically.

Moff (#28)

@Mar: My one concern about your optimism (which I want, I want to share) is that it seems to hinge inordinately on people choosing the path of more resistance. People are just not that different from subatomic particles.

Moff (#28)

@Mar: (Actually, I think it's viable. But I am afraid of what it will take to get us there. Also, I am drunk.)

spostaby (#1,081)

The thing about reading on the internet is I rarely go more than a few paragraphs without switching tabs. I don't grab a new book every time I read a footnote; I'd have to go find the book, and I'm lazy. So the internet got me used to reading discontinuously, and now when I read a few pages of a book I actually get the urge to switch to a new tab. Even though there are no tabs. So I satisfy my brain by putting down the book and visiting the land of tabs, which of course leads to more and more tabs and about twenty books I've been meaning to finish at some point, but oh well.

myfanwy (#1,124)

I'm damaged! I'm damaged! By gaw, someone's gonna pay for this. Who do I sue?

Sue CERN for allowing the web to be created. But hurry! Because they're moving on to the search for the God particle and may create a black hole in the process.

HiredGoons (#603)

Surely any negative effects of the Internet are offset by its increasing the availability of pornography.

myfanwy (#1,124)

Well, er, this may count as a downside in some people's books. On the upside, that means Judgement Day is coming that much sooner, and I really cannot afford my lifestyle much longer.

erikonymous (#3,231)

. . . and then the Awl stole my user icon.

It can happen here, people!

Aloysius (#1,808)

Look at the wikipedia entry for "Printing Press." Notice language like "democratization of knowledge" and "unrestricted circulation of information." Then notice how its invention is characterized as "the most influential event in the second millennium AD."

The internet is one advancement on a continuum of information spreading technologies. Based on the history of such technologies, the idea it would serve to make us less intelligent or informed or able to process information is basically ludicrous.

Moff (#28)

Except that:

(1) Technologies don't exist on a continuum — they're an ecology. One pervasive new medium can potentially serve to eliminate, for all practical purposes, many that have come before.

(2) Our whole idea of what it means to be "intelligent" is largely based on a definition that comes from centuries of acclimation to linear, alphabetic technologies.

(3) We've never encountered a technology like the internet before, which renders history sort of inadequate when it comes to estimating its effects. It's easy to say, "Oh, it's just the same our old technologies, except much faster. But it's so much faster — exponentially, exponentially faster — than they were. And you don't get that much speed without repercussions.

(4) We automatically become dependent on technologies. I mean, look at cars: Even if everyone wanted desperately to start living in walkable neighborhoods, it would take a massive amount of thought and planning and deliberate effort to reshape most American cities, because they were built on the implicit notion that we'd always use cars to get around them. The internet is kinda scary in this regard, because it's so pervasive. Right now, we're in a transitional period, so it's hard to see, because we have access to so much old media; but in a future where people counted on it for all their information, what happens if their access is somehow cut off? Probably it's not doomsday, but it's highly inconvenient. Look at what happens now when email goes down at any office.

Stacy (#5,384)

One argument on behalf of the Internet is that the comments for this post are about 10x smarter than the post itself. The differences between links and footnotes seem glaringly obvious to me, but the brain-change studies do kinda freak me out, if you take the trouble to actually look into them. The thing is, to read them (or any other scientific paper) you'd have to be able to follow a linear chain of thought for more than a page. To stick with the original poster's metaphor, if your long-haul reading/thinking muscles have atrophied while you've been beefing up your flitting-around, tab-management skills, then you, too, can totally miss the point and conclude it's all for the best in the best of all possible worlds. I'm not saying Carr's right, but I think to refute him you actually have to be able to grasp what he's saying in the first place. There's some wicked irony in the fact that this poster thinks she's used his own argument against him, when in reality she's providing more evidence that the ability to think analytically for any extended period of time may be withering away.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Oh gosh, I am sorry I wasn't clearer about this. Footnotes and hyperlinks are exactly equivalent as regards a miniature interruption in the flow of reading. They are both signposts, to be followed or not, and the author points to studies claiming that repeated interruptions in the flow of thought while reading impede cognitive ability. That is why Laura Miller, in her Salon review placed all the links at the end of her piece, and that's the main topic around which much of the discussion of the book has revolved.

Naturally, the experience is somewhat different once we choose to follow.

atlasfugged (#4,481)

@Maria: I agree with Stacy in that you've erred in chosing to focus on one aspect of Carr's argument – that hyperlinked reading is inherently distractive and tends to disrupt the reader's ability to process what he/she is reading – in order to refute his entire claim that the Internet is making us dumber (which, btw, is not precisely what he was claiming).

The basis of Carr's and the other hand-wringer's claims is that, when we plug into the Internet in search for information, we are bombarded with multiple streams of information, some relevant, most of it not. Scientific evidence has shown that the typical human brain is incapable of focusing on and processing more than one stream of information at a time. However, when we are confronted with this multitude of disconnected information, we feel compelled to process all of that information simultaneously anyway. This futile attempt at multi-tasking and parallel processing is inevitably disruptive. No information stream is processed to the best of our cognitive ability. What's more is that we become conditioned to interacting with information in this manner, despite the aforesaid limitations in our cognition. I think this aspect of the hand-wringer's argument is worthy of study and worthy of some, well, hand-wringing. If it isn't already, the Internet is fast becoming the standard tool for interacting with information. It has and will continue to displace other modes of learning and communication. Is the human brain even capable of exploiting all it has to offer? If not, how does this affect future generations who must rely on it to learn and to interact with an
ever-growing expanse of information?

LafeEric (#5,395)

I'd say this article reveals there are two kinds of people – the Propelled, and the propelling.
You know who you are.

Gregg DesElms (#5,396)

I've given lots of thought over the years to Carr's way of thinking, and I'm afraid he's right; and Ms Bustillos, godbless'er, is wrong.
Footnotes in printed text are only superficially analogous to hyperlinks; and the devil is in that superficiality. One looks only longingly at footnotes, wishing, perhaps, that one had the footnoted work in hand with which to distract oneself. A hyperlink, on the other hand, makes the distraction real with the help of technology simply not present in a footnote on the printed page… and therein lies the critical difference which destroys the analogy.
The problem, here, too, may be generational. I don't know, of course, but I'll bet that Mr. Carr is considerably older than Ms Bustillos; and that perhaps Ms Bustillos is either part of, or barely older than the current generation of young people who seem so capable of multi-tasking as to make spin the heads of those much older, such as I. And so for such as her, perhaps, the distraction is not so distracting as for such as Mr. Carr and myself.
That said, studies show that such distractions, while perhaps more tolerable, from acclimation, to the young, are nevertheless just as actually distracting to them, after all, as they are to the old; and so now is being created an entire generation of future leaders who think better broadly than deeply.
And that's sad.

Gregg L. DesElms
Napa California, USA
gregg at greggdeselms dot com

scrooge (#2,697)

Looks like Harvard professor of psychology comes down on Maria's side:


PS Gregg of the Elms, according to this Pinker the vaunted multi-tasking ability is a myth.

evodevo (#5,772)

Right on, LafeEric.

The Internet has been a godsend to people like me who live 40-60 miles from the nearest library near enough to actually do any research. If I had to go through the trouble of looking up every footnote/bib reference that interested me, I'd still be reading the first book ten years after. With the internet, it can be done in a second or two. And I look up A LOT. I teach genetics and evolution by correspondence for a university and only get into town once a week or so. With the Net, I can look up an article and send the reference to a student instantaneously. The internet and rural broadband have immeasurably improved my teaching and interactions with students. I would dread having to go back to the "old" way.

Ryan P (#7,939)

Everything we experience repeatedly affects the structure of our brain, and so far I haven't seen anything to persuade me that the effect of the Net on the brain is either overwhelmingly positive or negative. Like most media, it probably depends upon the way the individual person uses it. I have ruts where I use the Net in the way Carr seems to think everybody uses it, and it really does whack my ability to focus. Then again when I'm feeling healthy I use the Net for a lot of research and in-depth reading, so . . . I dunno. I think it's more a matter of habit.

And I don't think there's any doubt the Net can make you smarter if you get involved with a really good forum or blog where the conversation is thoughtful and in-depth. Improves one's verbal ability!

However, I do think that, like TV, there aren't enough built-in cultural safeguards against the less healthy uses of the Net. Instead "Does the Net make us dumb/smart," the conversation should be "What are the most beneficial uses of the net? What uses might reinforce negative mental habits? How can I use the Net to become healthier, or more thoughtful, or more informed?–Or less stressed/depressed?" I find that amateur pornography and youtube videos of cute kittens are ideal when it comes to that last Q.

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