Rewiring the mind

“The medium is the mind,” I write toward the end of The Big Switch, arguing, as others have before, that the tools we use to gather, store, and analyze information inevitably exert a strong influence over the way we think. As the internet becomes our universal medium – what the director of the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future terms “a comprehensive tool that Americans are using to touch the world” – its technical characteristics also begin to shape, slowly but inexorably, the workings of our memory and our other cognitive processes.

Because the Net is relatively new, we don’t yet have solid research, in the form of long-term “longitudinal” studies of web users, on its effects on cognition. But the British Library, working with researchers at University College London, this week published the results of what it calls a “virtual longitudinal study” that combines a review of “published literature on the information behaviour and preferences of young people over the past thirty years” and an extensive analysis, conducted over five years, of the logs of a British Library website, as well as a second popular research site, that serves to document people’s behavior in finding and reading information online. According to the researchers, “This is the first time that anyone has actually profiled on any real scale the information seeking behaviour of the virtual scholar by age.” (The full study, in pdf format, is available here.)

The study’s findings will not be surprising to anyone who’s been watching how people use the web. The research documents a “new form of information seeking behaviour” that “can be characterised as being horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature. Users are promiscuous, diverse and volatile.” The researchers summarize the new style of human information-processing by listing its salient qualities:

Horizontal information seeking. A form of skimming activity, where people view just one or two pages from an academic site and then `bounce’ out, perhaps never to return. The figures are instructive: around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65 per cent) never return.

Navigation. People in virtual libraries spend a lot of time simply finding their way around: in fact they spend as much time finding their bearings as actually viewing what they find.

Viewers. The average times that users spend on e-book and e-journal sites are very short: typically four and eight minutes respectively. It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense, indeed there are signs that new forms of `reading’ are emerging as users `power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Squirreling behaviour. Academic users have strong consumer instincts and research shows that they will squirrel away content in the form of downloads, especially when there are free offers. In spite of this behaviour and the very short session times that we witness, there is no evidence as to the extent to which these downloads are actually read.

Checking information seekers. Users assess authority and trust for themselves in a matter of seconds by dipping and cross-checking across different sites and by relying on favoured brands (e.g. Google).

By breaking the linear print model that has dominated the transmission of information for the past five centuries, the hyperlinked web seems to be instilling a hyperactive approach to gathering and digesting information, an approach that emphasizes speed, scanning, and skimming. In one sense, the process of information retrieval seems to have become more important than the information retrieved. We store lots of information, but like distracted squirrels we rarely go back to examine it in depth. We want more acorns.

The authors note that this kind of behavior is not restricted to the young. It characterizes web users of all ages. It does not, therefore, appear to be a pattern that people will outgrow as they get older. Rather, it seems to represent the new way of of processing information that our new universal medium has imposed upon us – and not against our will. The researchers write that the log studies reveal “that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, `flicking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down.”

You may take issue with the “dumbing down” characterization, though it does seem warranted when you view the trend from a historical perspective. But even if you argue that this is just the next stage in the ongoing shaping and reshaping of human consciousness and cognition, it’s hard to argue that the Net isn’t messing with our brains

12 thoughts on “Rewiring the mind

  1. Jim McDonnell

    i am reminded of the English Fox Hunt. It really isn’t about what yu do once you’ve caught the fox – it is about the thrill of the hunt.

    information is aquired by hunting and/or gathering. i think you will find that parallel behaviors will emerge between our primitive information hunting and primitive animal hunting performed by humans.

    as the tools of the web become more refined, it may be so easy to find information that we challenge ourselves by using ‘old’ technologies like google, lexus nexus, etc.

    at some point, information will be packaged and displayed like ground beef in virtual supermarkets, competing for our attention.

  2. Shane Schick

    It would be interesting to contrast this study with some of the approaches to information gathering profiled in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

    No wonder we’ve failed to come up with a better term for visiting Web sites than “surfing.” In some ways it makes sense that a culture that promotes (and rewards) multitasking would develop multithinking.

  3. Ivo Quartiroli

    I’m glad to read that somebody cared to research into the way people use information and the consequences.

    Split, fast, compulsive and fragmentary attention has become the rule for online activities, and this procedure is gradually being exported offline. When we only give partial attention, which shifts constantly from one thing to the next, in reality we are never truly anywhere. The mind cannot give its attention to more than one thing at once; multitasking means, as it means for computer processors, to jump from one activity to the next. But, as opposed to a computer processor, which can really jump from one activity to the next in milliseconds, biological times are much slower.

    When we find ourselves online lost in various activities, after a while we feel as if we had achieved nothing because nothing has delved in as deeply as an inner experience, everything has remained on the superficial plane of mental chit-chat. (from my article on “Metabolizing Information”)

    When I started to write on the impact of technology on our psyche I thought to find tons of people interested and tons of studies. Nope. I was surprised to see how little our society know and care about what really happens in our psyche.

    It is said that in the ancient tantric traditions, some practitioners used to test their awareness by taking intoxicants or being bitten by poisonous snakes while they still kept their whole consciousness.

    One of the tantric practices of our information society could be to be aware of ourselves while we are connected to the Internet and tend to lose ourselves in the objects on the screen competing for our attention.

  4. Anthony Cowley

    This is a fascinating topic, but I think phrases like, “Society is dumbing down,” rather give the game away.

    The statistics presented do not tell the whole story. So what if “around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages”? During the course of research, I come across orders of magnitude more papers than a researcher working a few decades ago. Without knowing how many papers are read in acceptable depth, or what such statistics were like in the past, one can not draw many conclusions. If we assume that past researchers read more than three pages of every paper they came across, then maybe I would accept the conclusion that modern researchers evaluate the relevance of sources faster.

    What is most disappointing is that this is a real issue, and I do suspect that we are losing something by not focusing on fewer references. However, to suggest that researchers presented with immediate access to millions of documents is dumber by virtue of their rapid processing of individual sources seems like a troll to me.

  5. Bob

    To me the interesting question is the implications of the way we absorb information on the web for the way we think. The case has been fairly persuasively made that with the advent of the printing press we have been conditioned to reason and solve problems in a linear way. We have collected and analyzed information using linear logic, and communicated our conclusions in writing in the same way.

    The question is whether we will continue to use that same linear logical framework as we come to rely on the web for gathering information. When one considers that much of the information we gather through this medium is visual and aural rather than written, it would seem logical (in the old fashioned, linear way of thinking) that people may begin to use a different form of logical framework to process that information in solving problems as well as in communicating answers.

  6. Tom Lord

    Yeah, I take issue with “dumbing down”.

    My counter could be sloganized as “in 15 seconds, we will all be executives.”

    I am a serious, hard-core power-browser. I fit their metrics. But what’s really going on?

    Skim broadly. Dive selectively.


    For acceptable form, a lot of formal publications tend to be horribly, horribly verbose and redundant. And this is good because that’s essential to how they pass peer review — lots of issues and misreadings are anticipated and tediously dealt with. But … if you aren’t trying to verify somebody’s work but just to find out what people are talking about… skimming (and non-linear reading) are often excellent strategies.

    Literature is an exception.


  7. pedrobeltrao

    I would say that the difference in the comfort of reading on screen versus offline is a strong factor determining these behaviors. I am a researcher and I read online blog posts and manuscript abstracts but for anything longer than this I print it to read.

    Those behaviors listed above fit exactly the actions required when researching a field. Most of time is spent searching for the manuscripts of interest and downloading them to read later on.

  8. Julia

    I am here, now writing this because I visited a favourite website at lunchtime ( ABC radio national) was intrigued by the ‘All in the Mind’ show starting a blog: browsed there, wandered off to the Edge (been there before) and ended up here writing a comment after an hour of reading. Now in that hour what was occurring inside of my mind and how was my attention being directed? Well, I was following clear and longterm interests of mine about the effect of technology on the mind, the potential time frame of evolutionary psychology, my concern over my undergraduate students failing to read their assigned texts and my own awareness that what I attend to changes both myself and what it is that I am attending to at the physical level. So it therefore makes complete sense to me that skipping horizontally thru information via the web is changing at the cellular level the way my brain works and my ability to focus and attend to ideas and to the world.But it is not the amount of skipping around or gathering of info or hunting of info or squirreling away of info that I think is important it is the lack of time spent cooking the info. As one of the thinkers on Edge suggests it was the cooking of food that made us human ( sorry I forgot to squirel away his name!) a reflection I remember Levi-Strauss also pointed to back in the 60’s using a different source of evidence. So perhaps what we need to pay attention is the ‘Slow-Thinking Movement'(or to create one) to create richer, jucier, more pungent creations, and remember that the best food uses the finest ingredients, so we need to source our information like we source our herbs.

  9. Mr. Gunn

    I wonder to what degree this shallow reading online has replaced watching TV or other even less educating behaviors?

    Like Pedro, I’m also a researcher. I store my papers “in the cloud”, bookmarking them with Connotea because the desktop software is positively medieval. Because of this, I often return to a article after I’ve read it to refresh my memory of some detail. This probably looks just like the shallow skimming behavior you mention.

  10. BrianSJ

    Just to respond to Julia’s very thoughtful post. Guy Claxton started something like a slow thinking movement with ‘Hare Brain Tortoise Mind’.

  11. 'son

    It is a happy coincidence that I read this post just after writing a related essay on my blog. My post was about the reverse-chronological ordering of blogs (and how the Korean dish called kimchi inspired my thoughts on the subject). I argued the pros and cons of this approach. One thing that I didn’t write about (though I alluded to it) is how our though habits might be changed if we become accustomed to reverse-ordering of things. Might reverse order replace forward? Will we always want to read the punch line before we hear the joke? I am actually mildly concerned that the ordering of blog posts could cause a deterioration in our logical thinking. With logic, you begin with context (i.e., premises, assumptions, etc.), then you make certain assertions based on that context. People who are not good at logic tend to omit context. They fail to declare the assumptions upon which their logic stands. Rhetorical opponents can easily get a quick punch in by pointing out this failure. If we become so accustomed to last before first, will our logic crumble? Will blogs make us dumber? (I apologize for the last question. I do think that writing and discussion of any nature is a better pursuit than television, so I don’t wish to steer anyone away from reading or writing blogs.)

  12. Mark Deuze

    Claims about how our brains or “minds” are changing over the course of one generation are, from an evolutionary perspective, indeed mythical. Our brains still have not adapted to the printed word (hence we stil have to teach people how to read, not how to watch).

    That said, it is undeniable that in a digital culture, the various ways in which we gather, manage, and distribute information are intensifying, accelerating.

    The suggestion, that all of this leads to continuous partial attention disorder, to a dumbing down, or to a general lack of reflectivity (as exemplified by intrinsically superficial terms like “surfing”), is problematic, however.

    I’m not sure that consuming (and producing!) lots of small bits of information ncecessirly leads to lesser understanding or diminished capacity of thought. This would assume that ANYTHING that takes a LONG time is, well, just BETTER.

    This is maybe so for elitist notions of expertise (such as star athletes and college professors that need a long time to train and cultivate their skillset), but why impose those kinds of demands on hardworking people who try to make ends meet, help their kids do well in school, and want to see a nice movie over the weekend?

    Perhaps we would do better to investigate how people develop strategies and tactics to navigate the wondeful world of ubiquitous media and information – and if we do, we may want to focus not so much on how people consume (to which we generally add normative and empirical evidence-lacking concepts like “information overload”), but rather on how they (co-) produce.

    We all produce increasing amounts of public information (that is: “reality”), but I wonder to what extent we’re aware of what kind of reality we thus are constituting.

Comments are closed.