Gains and losses
June 14, 2008
In a column about my Atlantic article in the Sunday Times (London), Andrew Sullivan draws on his personal experience as a prolific blogger to describe what the Web has given and what it has taken away:
In researching a topic [online], or just browsing through the blogosphere, the mind leaps and jumps and vaults from one source to another. The mental multitasking – a factoid here, a YouTube there, a link over there, an e-mail, an instant message, a new PDF – is both mind-boggling when you look at it from a distance and yet perfectly natural when you’re in mid-blog.
When it comes to sitting down and actually reading a multiple-page print-out, or even, God help us, a book, however, my mind seizes for a moment. After a paragraph, I’m ready for a new link. But the prose in front of my nose stretches on.
I get antsy. I skim the footnotes for the quick info high that I’m used to. No good. I scan the acknowledgments, hoping for a name I recognise. I start again.
A few paragraphs later, I reach for the laptop. It’s not that I cannot find the time for real reading, for a leisurely absorption of argument or narrative. It’s more that my mind has been conditioned to resist it.
Is this a new way of thinking? And will it affect the way we read and write? If blogging is corrosive, the same could be said for Grand Theft Auto, texting and Facebook messaging, on which a younger generation is currently being reared. But the answer is surely yes – and in ways we do not yet fully understand. What we may be losing is quietness and depth in our literary and intellectual and spiritual lives.
I'm glad Andrew Sullivan is saying that! I thought it was just me who had adopted some sort of attention deficit disorder in my reading. It's been a long time since I've managed to finish reading a book, there's too much media out there, and increasingly through my RSS reader.
I have a largely un-read Buckminster Fuller tome beside me that I know is a fascinating read, but instead I surf blogs for hours and hours...
Posted by: William Stewart at June 15, 2008 01:55 AM
The massive presence of media in our life brings us to give attention mainly to external stimuli and in a continuous way, filling continuously an addicted hungry mind. The stimuli don’t allow any silence, needed for inner attention and for letting the external inputs sink deeper. Out psyche is fed mainly by our awareness, not only by external information. Click by click we lose our inner attention and we let go our deeper human potential.
Posted by: Ivo at June 15, 2008 03:02 AM
I'd be interested in the origins of the Nietsche quote from the Atlantic article -. This is from an undated article by a Hungarian writer Nyiri: "When one of Wittgenstein's favourite authors, Friedrich Nietzsche, started to use a typewriter and sent some rhymes he produced on it to a friend, the latter - a composer - commented upon the robust language. "Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom", the friend wrote; "with me at any rate this could happen; I do not deny that my 'thoughts' in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper". To which Nietzsche replied: "You are right - our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts."
Nyiri traces these insights (into changes in communications and their imapct on thought) to an 18th century essay on the Genius of Homer.
The idea that the web would change the way we think should be a given. Of course it will. The assumption that it makes us stupider or less attentive is though a really curious judgement. Writing didn't make us stupider though it made memory tasks less important. Writing was credited by some as the necessary precondition of abstract analytical reasoning, putting thoughts at a distance away from the brain-possessing repetition and rythms of mnemonic poetry.
Printing provided the kind of uniformity and replicability that was a precondition for scientific experimentation - and so on and so froth.
The commenter who pointed out that while some people read less, others write more is surely onto something more significant.
What we're really trying to deal with underneath all this are several competing trends: what is the shape of democracies where a substantial body of the population are educated and articulate enough to want a say in the considerable flux of thought and expression that forms public discourse; what at the same time is the impact of banal creativity.
What is the impact of the loss of memory as a social construct? Can collective memory be a socially useful subversise activity when everything can be accurately recalled - in other words how can democracies function when we can no longer lie to ourselves?
How do we reconcile religious fundamentalism with poor ethics?
I think there are probably a dozen such questions that set a positive context for what is happening to hwo we think.
The question: Are we becoming more stupid or attention deficit doesn't quite cut through to the chase though. What is the great gain in these epochal changes might be the one to ask.
Posted by: haydn at June 15, 2008 05:41 AM
Haydn, Yes, the Hungarian philosophy scholar Kristóf (J.C.) Nyíri's 1993 essay "Thinking with a Word Processor" was a source for the Nietzsche quotes. Nyíri's source for the correspondence was Nietzsche Briefwechsel (1981). The story also appears in Kittler's fascinating Gramophone, Film, Typewriter and, briefly, in Wershler-Henry's history of typewriting, The Iron Whim (a nice title).
Here's a short, apposite extract from Nyíri's essay:
The question I am here asking is: In what ways, if any, are our thoughts affected by the shift from the pen or the typewriter to a word processor? My question is not whether thinking about computers changes the image we have of ourselves; nor indeed whether computers do or do not think. What I do ask is: With the word processor becoming our writing instrument, what changes do there occur, if any, in the ways and content of our thinking? In particular, what changes can there be discerned, or expected, in terms of the organization of our ideas; in terms of the organization of our memory - our access to, and summary view of, the ideas available to us; in terms of our concept of time; and in terms of the perception we have of the place and role of our thoughts in relation to the thoughts of others. The notion that thinking - both how we think and what we think - is not independent of the concrete linguistic medium in which it unfolds is of course very much in accordance with Wittgenstein's position. Not only does Wittgenstein say: "When I think in language, there aren't 'meanings' going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought", and not only does he point out that what we are concerned with is "the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language", but he also repeatedly stresses, and indeed this is one of his central insights, that the meaning of a linguistic sign depends on the circumstances, the spatial and temporal surroundings in which it occurs; that intention depends on context. However, Wittgenstein does not seem to have been alert to the fact that contexts change with the medium; that "thinking by writing" creates linguistic surroundings radically different from those created by "thinking by speaking."
More on how word processing impacts our thinking can be found on Michael Heim book "The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality". Chapter 4, "Thought processing"
Posted by: Ivo at June 15, 2008 10:14 AM
"what changes do there occur, if any, in the ways and content of our thinking?".... What Havelock and the oral/literate transition theorists got right was the impact of language changes on memory. It's the infinite adaptability of the memory that's important because it has a social dimension and it is where we share the outputs of literature and art - in an electronically unconnected world we connected through commemoration. In the past we were also content to forget some elements of political dishonesty and were able to invoke versions of the truth - my worry is we are not able to lie properly any longer - what google does is establishes one record. Right now I think art and literature is standing pretty impotent in front of these types of changes. Anyway there are many more questions to ask about the positive impact of millions of people expressing themselves.
Posted by: haydn at June 15, 2008 11:34 AM
Has anybody ever stopped to think that perhaps time spent on the internet has not shortened our attention spans but rather has made us less tolerant of mediocre points of view?
I would suggest that if you're having trouble getting through a book it's not so much because your brain has been re-wired by the internet, but because the book you are reading might just suck. I drop off books all the time... because the author isn't grabbing me. It happens a lot more often now because the internet offers something that books have never had to compete with before... an endless supply of alternative information.
I also finish a lot of books because the author has written something compelling and I just can't put it down. No matter what the medium, no matter what the length, if it's interesting you will finish it. It's that simple.
Posted by: mturro at June 15, 2008 12:31 PM
I am going to start to tie your essays together. There is no surprise that the medium changes the way we think - whether it is the color pallet of the Lascaux cave painter or Google. The question is: which is closer to the way our brains really work? Does anyone think our brains are organized like the Encyclopedia Britannica? I don't know if Google is any closer, I do know we are meant to perform more than one task at once. Maybe we are even wired to change the way we think depending on the circumstances. What if there was something that transmitted information that didn't change the way we think (or changed the way it transmitted information depending on our needs)? - I would call that Artificial Intelligence It would be truly natural (OK imprecise word choice - but you know what I mean.) Just to put out there an example of a tool that seamlessly does its job - 'contact lenses'. They correct the vision without altering the visual process in almost all circumstances.
I haven't noticed this effect myself yet, but I did have a period a few years ago when I found it difficult to read. Then I began to make a little more effort, I organized my unread books as a queue so I wouldn't be overwhelmed by too many open books at one time, and I stopped forcing myself to finish books I didn't like. Now I'm back up to one or two books a week. So maybe it's only a matter of making a little effort, simply deciding that you want to be a book reader and then just doing it? If so, this effect will disappear once people notice it, which apparently they are now.
Posted by: Bjørn Stærk at June 16, 2008 11:00 AM
Your Atlantic article prompted me to write something completely unconnected but worth it for the title.
Posted by: Charles Frith at June 16, 2008 11:42 PM
I keep thinking of what Mike Figgis, the film director, said about montage (rapid cutting) spoiling audiences and shortening attention spans. You end up watching a highlight reel of life, not life. It's one reason he made "Timecode," a movie made up of four 90-minute continuous takes, each showing one thread of a story without a single cut, with the four threads playing simultaneously in quadrants of the frame. The interesting thing is that the audience's attention has some freedom to flit between the threads, but there isn't any cutting. Only the audio level alternately emphasizing different threads directs the audience's attention to crucial dialogue.
Watching even a twenty- or thirty-year-old movie can surprise one now with its slow pacing. I'm certain that modern audiences have less ability to perceive subtleties and absorb details. "2001" is probably unwatchably slow for most people under thirty. Classical music is probably beyond the ability of most youngin's to ever enjoy.
“Watching even a twenty- or thirty-year-old movie can surprise one now with its slow pacing.”
Isn’t it interesting Kendall to go back and observe the pace of an unfolding story line in oldies!
It is not only about attention and ability to perceive detail though. With the need to be connected to the contemporary rush of life, mostly for economic reasons I believe, much more than cognitive ability is atrophied.
Traditional family time, eating meals together, community, and personal time is hard to carve out for most of us. Contemplation, the door too many insights and ultimately good health on many levels, is being wedged shut by the myriad forces of media, particularly visual media.
Old Codger’s like me might shrug it off but for the much younger individual the onslaught of media, technology and the push to be connected leaves a very deep imprint that becomes the lens the world is viewed through and ultimately who we become.
We are what we eat might be the simplest way to express the formula that applies to the material and our inner world.
Nicks original Google essay points to one symptom; the emperor might or might not be wearing new cloths depending upon the lens being used! His essay asks the question, can we find balance?
Reading online is as much about hunting for what's going to grab you as it is reading what's currently under your eyes.
The switching to the next thing, the next link, is a periodic reward system: every once in a while you switch and find something really valuable. It trains you to skip, skim and switch sources looking for that pleasure.
We've become that mouse or monkey hitting the lever for the pellet. There's no "lever" in a book, but the behavior continues anyway.
Also: some of the blame can be put on the quality of online writing. Mostly disposable. Not the ideas but the style. So we train ourselves again to skim and skip just to get past the lame writing.
When we hit well-written prose in a book there's a conflict between our skimming and skipping training and our recognition that the prose is better. Guilt ensues.
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