Pages and “pages”

In reading some of the comments posted online about my Atlantic piece, I kept coming across references to the article being “four pages long.” At first I wondered, “Can’t these people count? The article is six pages long!” (OK, five pages if you exclude the illustration and titling.) Then I realized – duh! – that people were referring to the online version of the article, which indeed is divided into four “pages.” (Of course, a page of text on the web is an arbitrary construct, so knowing the number of web pages doesn’t actually tell you much about the length of a piece, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, it would be interesting to do a study of how the experience of reading a particular piece of writing varies depending on whether a person reads it in print or online. A couple of people have pointed to the inclusion of hyperlinks in the web version of my article as showing the superiority of the web as a medium for writing. I don’t buy that (even though I’m well aware of the value of links). These days, I share Jon Udell’s sense of relief in reading text without links. Jon writes: “Nick Carr’s essay in the current Atlantic Monthly crystallizes a lot of what I’ve been feeling for a couple of years about how our use of the Net is changing us. Not co-incidentally I read the essay in the printed magazine whose non-hypertextuality I experienced as a feature, not a bug.” Hyperlinks have a lot of utility, but they’re distractions as well, scattering concentration and, often, getting in the way of deep reading.

Now go click on that link and read the rest of Udell’s post.

8 thoughts on “Pages and “pages”

  1. alan

    Two comments to Jon’s Piece, the use of a secondary immersion, Pod-cast or other medium, whilst riding or walking takes one back to the question of diversionary or disrupted participation. Why not focus on one or the other for a more complete and meaningful experience?

    The tradition of oral storytelling can hardly be equated with an electronic version.


  2. Chris K

    I’ve often wondered if (or when) there would be a backlash against “technology” but I’ve hesitated in making that prediction because the definition of technology is constantly shifting and as a society, we find ways to absorb it and change it as we’re absorbing it.

    I agree that it would be useful to study online vs offline reading. As a parent of children educated in Waldorf schools through 8th grade, I’ve heard general comments regarding negative effects of television and computer monitors on the brain, but never followed it up or dug deeper since my children seem to experience a healthy mix of activities. (Waldorf teachers and administrators encourage the shunning of TV and computers in the household and do not introduce computers in the classroom until high school.)

    In the case of reading on- or offline, I’ve found that for me there’s a laziness that comes along for the ride when I cruise around on the internet, and it’s hard to lash back at the seductiveness of being lazy. On the internet, the information is a) always there (so no need to remember or to use a quaint notion, write anything down) and b) neverending in its production (so why get invested too much if there’s going to be a new shiny object in a second or two).

    BTW, I’ve developed a habit of reading first and then if I’m still interested, I’ll go back and look for hyperlinks to pursue. It’s easier to pretend to control the infoflood that way. And when I need to think, out comes the paper and pencil. Old dogs, etc.

  3. pedrobeltrao

    Who here still remembers phone numbers ? Is it a problem that most people don’t remember them anymore ?

    I have been reading this series of posts as well as some related articles that have been popping up recently and as you mentioned towards the end of your article I am skeptical of your skepticism.

    As a researcher a lot of my work consist of filtering different sources of information (science journals) to dig out a few pieces of information (articles) that are relevant for my work. Each article has only a small drop of knew knowledge but the closer they are in topic to what I do the more details I want to take from them. So I required to in skim through a lot of noisy information and I am forced to once in a while really look into detail to a select sub-section. I could not work if I was not able to go back in forth between these two modes of reading.( As a side note I speed read online and print to read in detail. Maybe this was the way I adapted to switch between modes.)

    There was an interesting experiment done a few years ago where they placed a few electrodes inside a monkey’s brain and used the information from patters of neurons firing to command a robotic arm. At first the robotic arm was commanded primarily by a joystick moved by the monkey but the researchers slowly moved the control from the joystick to the a neural network processing information from the monkeys’ brain. The neat thing was that the monkeys brain actually adapted to use the computer interface and learned to it better. Bottom line, brains adapt very very quickly .

    So I see nothing very different from how a master of its physical trade, say for example a great musician, feels like the tools of the trade are an extension of his/her brain and this change people are experiencing with online search and retrieval of information.

    There are some concepts that we have to learn (what is phone number and how to get it) and others that we don’t need to have memorized (the actual numbers).

  4. Scott Karp

    OK, Nick, I have to give you a hard time about this. Here’s an alternative theory. The medium is not the problem. The existence of links is not responsible for your inability to read and not click on them. I mean seriously, have you lost all self control? Is reading something on paper really the only way you can concentrate?

    Sure, let’s remove the access to additional information, because we’re all just a bunch of children who can’t control our impulses. Whoops, look, I clicked on the link. Sorry, Mommy, I’ll try harder next time just to keep reading.

    To argue that a piece of content without access to source material is superior to the same piece of content with access to source material simply because it lacks the “temptation” to access those sources — I’m sorry, it’s just absurd.

    Do you know my blog is getting flooded with traffic by people searching Google for “Scott Karp blog” because you didn’t name my blog and didn’t link to it. But that spike actually began over the weekend which means… it was people reading it in print who actually weren’t satisfied with what they found on paper.

    Of course, if had linked to the post you quoted, readers, in their uncontrollable impulse to click links, might have read the rest of the context of what I said, and not just the sound bite offered in the article. They might have discovered that I actually disagree with the entire premise of the piece:

    “What I’d be most curious to know is whether online reading actually has a positive impact on cognition — through ways that we perhaps cannot measure or even understand yet, particularly if we look at it with a bias towards linear thought.”

    But why go to the effort to seek the context for each sound bite quote in an article? It’s so much easier for the lazy mind just to take each quote the author feeds them at face value.

    Maybe we’ve lost our ability to concentrate because we’ve realized that most 6 page articles and 200 page books are just too damn long, and they could have made the same points, with as much nuance, in half the words or less. Maybe it’s print publishing that makes us undisciplined because we don’t know when to stop writing — we’ve got to fill the page, fill the news hole, get that page count up to justify the advance.

    Really, if we’re going to glorify link-less content, why not get rid of all those footnotes from the end of books? Why have the distraction? Let’s put ourselves completely in a bubble and shut out any connectedness, any reference. Let’s pretend every idea is an island — matter that springs forth from nothing.

    The whole notion just deconstructs itself (paging Derrida!)

    Every piece of writing owes its existence to dozens or hundreds of other pieces — it’s all connected. The web just makes it easier to see the connections.

    Maybe what we’re coming to terms with is not being dumber, but with how hard it is to be smarter, and how much easier it was to be dumber, back when we could ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.

    To put it plainly — do you prefer the article with out links because it’s better, or because it’s EASIER?

    Maybe Google is making us less lazy, and we’re just feeling exhausted from the effort.

    I could go on (and on and ON), but you get the point — this whole argument can be so easily turned on its head.

    Do you buy any of this? Not sure if I buy all the arguments, but it was fun to write. I made the comment long, without links, to increase the chances that you’ll read it.

    Ok, wow, I feel much better now. I can go back and concentrate on what I was doing (whatever that was).

    Thanks for making me think, as always — even if I did get here via a link.

  5. electronicrocket

    I think the temptation to jump from link to link may come from the fact that many written pieces on the web are short in length. Most blog posts, especially, are not very long, and if a link or links are included, one may assume that the linked content needs to be viewed in order to get the most possible enjoyment out of the piece.

    On a separate note, I actually find it very easy to do deep reading, as long as I know what I’m getting into. For example, The Atlantic, as you mentioned, had broken up your article into 4 “pages.” I’ve grown to hate the fact that content producers do this; I realize that it’s a strategy to increase page views and force the reader to cycle through advertisements, but it certainly doesn’t add to my experience (some articles on Newsweek are broken up into 13 or 14 “pages”!). So what I’ve begun to do is to simply read the “print version” of articles, which gives me an entire piece in one simple, easy-to-read page. When I can visually see how long a piece is, I can make a reasoned guess as to how much time and energy I’ll need to spend to read it properly. It’s the same process I go through when reading a chapter of a book, a newspaper article, or a printed essay; the only thing that’s different is the medium. And, when I’m committed to read something, I read it, period.

    So I guess what I’m saying here kind of straddles your argument and that of Mr. Karp’s above. The wireless, souped-up, globalized world that we’ve created can, as you suggest, make it extremely difficult to devote focus and thought to our endeavors. However, as Mr. Karp suggests, perhaps we need to take a step back and further evaluate our options; if a human-created machine like Google is “making us stupid,” it probably has less to do with The Big G than ourselves.

  6. Kendall Brookfeld

    One of the great things about the browser I use, iRider, is that it lets you avoid being distracted by links in an article. You just queue them up, and when you’re done with the article, the Next button takes you to them, already downloaded. It’s like opening into a new tab, but much smarter and more refined.

  7. zlayde

    Another often overlooked downside of reading online is that it is straining. On paper, we cast enough light to read the pages. On laptops and monitors, we stare into light and most likely read our text on white. It’s a straining endeavor – which I think also lends itself to hunt-and-peck habits. Nobody would read a book on a laptop.

  8. timswan

    I may not be the typical web reader. For example, I copied the text of your article from the Atlantic site and pasted into Pages. I then reformatted it so that it was in three columns, and set the text in Minion 11/14.5. It was only then that I could read it and concentrate without distraction. Proper line length and leading; no hyperlinks; no advertising.

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