Internet = Short Attention Spans

Arun Jiwa @ 23-06-2008

hardwired io9’s Michael Reilly linked to an article in The Atlantic, written by Nicholas Carr on how the Internet is changing our reading habits. Michael summed it up in the following line:

The internet is giving us a form of ADHD when it comes to reading, and we should be scared of that.

Ok, Carr does mention the first half of Michael’s point in his article:

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive 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. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

But the second half of Michael’s point is more or less implied by his view of Carr’s article.  Carr doesn’t try to inject this opinion into the piece, IMHO, but looks at the question from different angles to patch together a picture of how we’re changing in response to new forms of media.  He mentions anecdotes, and expresses professional opinions of sociologists, media mavens, bloggers, and neuroscientists.  

Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

This article is well worth a read, if not for Carr’s anecdotes, then for the interesting behavioral points addressed by Carr.  Speaking from experience, I don’t find that the Internet has affected my ability to read for pleasure.  Reading long dry books has always been hard for me, and of course the Internet can be a distraction (so what else is new?). What about Futurismic readers, do you find it hard to read longer works because you’ve gotten used to reading short short text bits on the Internet?  Or, are you like me, the type who can balance reading weighty novels with a daily diet of RSS feeds?

[image by twenty_questions]

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7 Responses to “Internet = Short Attention Spans”

  1. Ian Sales says:

    I could make some ironic comment here but –

  2. Matt says:

    I think it was the Greeks who freaked out over the proliferation of the written word – you see, without complex oral histories and with the ability, gasp, read things up whenever they liked – it was feared that a generation of mindless, memory-less zombies would be created.

    It should be pointed out that this was more than two millennia ago.

  3. docduke says:

    Point very well taken, Matt! I believe the problem is more in psychology and motivation than the specific tools we choose. The internet is liberating because it provides a web of links to related subjects of potential interest. It is limiting because there are so many links, we cannot follow them all, and we may misjudge their relative merits.

    The challenge is to exercise the self-discipline to learn what we can, and retain it, without being distracted by the minutia. It has always been so.

    Futurismic is part of the high-value web, not the detritia. Thanks for it!

  4. Carnadine says:

    I follow numerous feeds on a daily basis. I read and write blogs. I skim, condense and rush through news items in order to absorb the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount of time.

    According to Carr, I should be incapable of reading, absorbing or enjoying anything longer than three paragraphs. But I also read long (as in Neil-Stephenson-long or Robert-Jordan-long) epic novels and non-fiction books and I can’t say my enjoyment of either is in any way impaired.

    In my opinion, dealing with the problems Carr mentions is just a matter of 1. learning how to enjoy full-sized works to begin with and 2. learning how to switch gears between skimming and actually reading.

    Okay, maybe not “just”. But using Google (and the rest of the internet) isn’t going to magically make us stupid and unable to read. We just need to keep practicing the skills we want to keep.

  5. Kian says:

    Honestly its more of a computer based thing in general for me. If provided with a novel I can happily while away the hours reading through it, however if you were to place it on a computer I suddenly begin to find it harder to concentrate for prolonged periods of time. Any large amounts of text that I am required to read I tend to print off rather than read it online, otherwise I just begin to become impatient.

    I think at least from my own experiance it is similar to what was stated in the blog “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it:”, while if I sit down with a book I have deliberatly devoted time to read and enjoy it.

  6. Stephanie says:

    Reading a longer novel is such a different experience than reading stuff online that I don’t think one will have much of an effect on the other. The tactile sensations of holding a book, feeling it’s heft in your hands, and turning the pages are as much a part of taking in the story as what your eyes experience. Reading online is en entirely different sensory experience, like watching a movie is. I think that those who stop reading novels in print in preference to reading things online will do it because that online experience is one they enjoy, and reading novels in print is not.

  7. kevin says:

    while searching on the net, we just limit our results to the maximum of two pages. We may not be able to get to depth of the query as we do not devote much time on searching.