If you haven’t heard, information technology iconoclast Nicholas Carr has a new book coming up called The Shallows. The basic case he makes is this: the Internet is altering our brains and making our thinking wider but more shallow.
Carr makes a compelling case, and it’s time for web professionals to start thinking about how we can fix the problem.
The WSJ is also running Clay Shirkey’s response to Carr – or actually, they may have just asked him whether the Internet was making us stupid, because Shirkey’s piece doesn’t seem to specifically address Carr’s arguments and it doesn’t mention Carr at all.
I haven’t read Carr’s book yet, so I’m having to go on reviews and Carr’s Wired and WSJ pieces. But I haven’t seen any critic of Carr’s yet make substantial argument that Carr is wrong about what’s happening to us. Lehrer compares Carr’s concerns about the Internet to Socrates’s concerns about writing. But Socrates didn’t have the sort of evidence Carr does. Nor was Socrates making quite the same sort of argument Carr is.
Weirdly, Lehrer points to two studies that show that video games may improve certain cognitive functions, such as sustained attention. Carr mentions these studies himself in his WSJ article. But the web is not a video game. I spend tens of hours per week on the web. I rarely play video games (maybe I should start). And the effects of the web, and of multitasking, are what Carr is talking about.
Shirkey is right to point out that the public at large never did read much, or spend much time on the sort of intellectual endeavors Carr is concerned with. They spent most of their time watching TV. YouTube comments aren’t evidence that people are becoming more stupid, YouTube just provides stupid people a platform they’d never been afforded before. And the Internet gives many people something more to do with their “cognitive surplus” than watch TV. Not that public libraries weren’t there before, and not that self-publishing and zine-making weren’t around before, but the Internet makes a lot of tools and information more accessible and appealing.
But what about the minority of us who do want to read longer works of text and think deeply about them? Are better understanding, deeper thinking, and sustained attention worthy pursuits? I think so, and Carr makes a compelling argument, backed up by scientific research, that our abilities to do these things are being diminished.
One argument I’ve seen made at different times, starting with Douglas Rushkoff’s Playing the Future, is that our shorter attention spans and tendency to multitask are actually cognitive evolutions – improvements in our ability to scan information. But we’re not getting better at multitasking – we’re actually getting worse. Carr cites a study that showed frequent multitaskers were actually worse at multitasking than infrequent multitaskers. I’m reminded of a study that made the blog rounds in 2005 that showed that multitasking was worse than marijuana on people’s job performance.
There are some questions we can ask and problems we can start working on right now:
What strategies, short of complete dis-engagement from the Internet (which I don’t think Carr advocates) can we adopt to preserve our attention spans? Periodic disengagement? Deliberate, daily monotasking? Zazen? More disciplined web surfing strategies? People in the “lifehacking” community have been working on things like this for years.
What can those of us involved in creating the web – as writers, designers, developers, publishers, etc. do to improve the experience of reading online. Can we makes sites and write content that actually help people focus?
For example, Carr suggested putting links at the bottom of articles instead of inline. I think that’s an over simplistic solution, but I think we can be more strategic, more mindful of how we integrate links into our texts (for this article, I put background info at the top, and added in the occasional additional link as necessary, and will include a few things at the end). I don’t know yet what the best solution will be, but I do believe that we ignore Carr’s research at our own peril.
Readify a browser plugin that can “Carr-ify” web pages, among other things.
In a Science article published in early 2009, prominent developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield reviewed more than 40 studies of the effects of various types of media on intelligence and learning ability. She concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies, she wrote, has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” But those gains go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacity for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”
We know that the human brain is highly plastic; neurons and synapses change as circumstances change. When we adapt to a new cultural phenomenon, including the use of a new medium, we end up with a different brain, says Michael Merzenich, a pioneer of the field of neuroplasticity. That means our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.
As I said during my interview with Ashley Crawford (Pay attention here! Don’t click that link yet!), I’m that reading off more limited mobile devices like my Blackberry and my iPod touch is helping me concentrate on reading longer, more substantive material. Reading on my computer, with its tabbed browser, has a tendency to destroy my attention span.
I’m trying to discipline myself to browse first, read later – find stuff of interest by scanning through feeds, Twitter etc, and then go over the stuff I’ve flagged to read before I go back and find more stuff.
Do you have any strategies for navigating the web without destroying your attention span, or do you think that the transformation of our brains could actually be a good thing?