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More food for thought

June 17, 2008

Reactions to my Atlantic essay continue to roll in. In today’s Globe and Mail, columnist Margaret Wente becomes the latest writer to fess up to an evaporating ability to read long works of prose:

Google has done wondrous things for my stock of general knowledge. It also seems to have destroyed my attention span. Like a flea with ADD, I jump back and forth from the Drudge Report to gardening sites that list the growing time of Green Zebras …

Thanks to Google, we're all turning into mental fast-food junkies. Google has taught us to be skimmers, grabbing for news and insights on the fly. I skim books now too, even good ones. Once I think I've got the gist, I'll skip to the next chapter or the next book. Forget the background, the history, the logical progression of an argument. Just give me the takeaway.

Meanwhile, on the BBC News site, Bill Thompson takes the discussion in an interesting new direction:

The Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget described two processes that he believed lay behind the development of knowledge in children. The first is assimilation, where new knowledge fits into existing conceptual frameworks. More challenging is accommodation, where the framework itself is modified to include the new information.

The current generation of 'search engines' seem to encourage a model of exploration that is disposed towards assimilative learning, finding sources, references and documents which can be slotted into existing frameworks, rather than providing material for deeper contemplation of the sort that could provoke accommodation and the extension, revision or even abandonment of views, opinions or even whole belief systems.

Perhaps the real danger posed by screen-based technologies is not that they are rewiring our brains but that the collection of search engines, news feeds and social tools encourages us to link to, follow and read only that which we can easily assimilate.

Another interesting (and possibly related) psychological theory that I came across in researching the Atlantic article (but didn’t pursue) is that there are two very different modes of thought: exploration (finding new information) and exploitation (reflecting on or synthesizing information in order to come up with fresh ideas). It may be that the Net is increasing our incentives for exploration while decreasing our incentives for exploitation.

UPDATE: Also see Christine Rosen's The Myth of Multitasking in the new issue of The New Atlantis.

Comments

When we crave for quick answers we miss the empty stage needed for true discovery. This emptiness have been suggested by meditation teachers, now even neurophysiology discovered that new knowledge can't be reached if our minds don't pass through the "not-knowing" stages.

The eureka effect has been documented by Tufts University researchers, coordinated by Sal Soraci, using an electroencephalograph which registered the moment when the fog surrounding a problem melts and shows the passage toward insight. Researchers presented sentences to subjects that at first glance made no sense.

Subjects became mute and a bit confused. After a few seconds the researchers gave them a cue, as for instance, “The girl spilled her popcorn because the lock broke” and then the cue “lion cage” which activated the eureka effect. About 400 milliseconds after the key word is read, revealing the meaning of the sentence, electrodes on the scalp pick up a pulse, called an N400.

In another experiment, Soraci showed subjects a blurred object and, while slowly bringing it into focus, the brain was attempting to interpret the image (for instance, “Is that a doughnut? A wheel?” until, instead, a watch emerged in the picture). The researcher said that the wrong assumptions could create the base for a better memory and learning process and that this discovery could bring about a different method of teaching in schools. His hypothesis is that the more the brain attempts to figure out a concept, the better it remembers it.

If this is the case, then the immediate answers we look for in Google actually are going to inhibit the search, removing us prematurely from the inner search field and from struggle, from the connection, even spiritual, with the universal source of knowledge. Then our brains becomes accustomed to fast, immediate and pill-size solutions.

Posted by: Ivo [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 17, 2008 11:40 AM

Lets take a look from a different view point, really a simplified version but for a broad look it should do.

What is information.
Information = Data in Context
Context = Organized related data

So the brain first and foremost tries to put data in context to figure out what is going on.
The step of organizing related data requires a lot more effort, since data is organized in different models.

So we have a tendency to skip part two as soon as we satisfied with an answer we found in one of the data models, and move on. Call it the flight or fight decision.
It also means we learn context, only if we have a similar background. Culture whatever, do we share the same Information. Otherwise we might get a little confused by what people mean.

Google wants to organize the worlds information, but doesn't know what information is. Hence the junk pages, or 100M results found. Only if we search and look at the results becomes it information, since we make the decision if the returned data fits into our context.

So does this make us really dumber? Don't know. Might be an age thing, if we have already a lot of context build up. It might be ok. For a child it may not be. Specially if you don't get to the step to build different models of the same data, which might lead to tunnel view onto data.

Posted by: laht [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 17, 2008 02:03 PM

I think I enjoyed "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" but I only got about a third through it. I also got a large part of a rabbit stew recipe.

Posted by: Jaybro [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 17, 2008 02:23 PM

I had noticed around me the effects of reading (i) hypertext (ii) on a computer screen on the "evaporating ability to read long works of prose", on the diminishing ability to concentrate uninterruptedly on a task or on a conversation. I had also noticed how writing on a computer seems to affect the general flow and structure of text (novels, essays, whatever): it seems there is a window sliding all along the text in which it is more coherent than in the large.

But luckily, it does not seem to affect my reading skills and interests, in spite of the fact that I spend an inordinate amount of time on the Web, both as a reader and a writer, both for professional and personal reasons. Maybe it is due to the fact that I started reading "real" books at a very early age and never stopped: a couple of weeks ago, during a free day at home, I read two classical Greek tragedies and three 19th cent. plays; a while ago, I read a 600-page book in a few hours (as an adolescent, I had read War and Peace in one - long - sitting...). This is reading which leaves deep traces, in spite of its apparent speed, not just the memory of "events", but meaning (that is, the one I happen to find while I read).

As to hypertext, it exists for the reader of "physical" material as well in many ways. For one, literature (and music and art in general) is rife with associations, explicit or implicit citations, allusions, transformations and mashups of other works: the well-read will notice them without having to click, because they are in his active memory. This is where we create the links (to use a computer term) about the material we have read: they are much richer than HTML links, as they are perpetually shifting in an ever-enriched "map" - enriched not only by what we read, but by what we forget.

I think that the ability to "ingest" in much better ways a "physical" book than an online one is primarily due to the fact that one reads not only with the eyes, but with the whole body: memorization, internalization, understanding, meaning - and the capacity of recall and to analyze - depend, for me at least, on the place where I read a book, on its shape, on its weight and thickness, on the kind of paper on which the words are written, even on the place where the book is stored in my personal library (which is quite large). This is also true for music: seeing and touching its material holder (a CD, a tape...) helps fixing it in the body, as if it were (not to speak of the accompanying documentation).

The fact that I "still" read books may also be due to the fact I started working with computers over 40 years ago (in 1966) and with the internet (then Arpanet) in 1979, while the Web emerged "only" 14 years or so ago: it was too late to affect my reading techniques and tastes, yet didn't prevent me from developing additional online reading (or should I say skimming) skills.

But it may also be due to the fact that I was trained first as a mathematician and only (not much) later as a computer scientist, and that the keyboard I had started with as a child was a piano's rather than a computer's. This may explain my stable and long-lasting relation to books which have not been displaced by my acquired expertise in the design and use of online information systems.

Posted by: Miklos [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 17, 2008 02:36 PM

Christian Rosen ends with, “culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.”

I suspect that as well as wisdom being one element that appears to be on the decline common sense is certainly another that results directly from the process of disenchantment.

All new technology is a double edged sword. From experimentation with new spearhead designs in ancient days to the “Think Fast” argument today, these isolated examples should not cloud the issue; with just a “little” common sense balance brings relief!

Alan

Posted by: alan [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 17, 2008 03:06 PM

A lot of this is competitive. In places like London/NY, knowing the latest "thing" is an advantage. You can see people trying to skim along with thinner and thinner knowledge of what they're talking about. (This is different from taking a long broad brush view like Nick C.)

When I was a teenager (not very long ago!), someone being able to define "meme" implied they'd likely read The Selfish Gene and took an interest in modern sociology. Now they probably just saw a few self-referential references on some marketing blogs...

Skimming and regurgitating is not understanding, but it can look like it. Which is why it's so dangerous and so seductive...

Posted by: Thomas [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 17, 2008 08:28 PM

This reminds me of a Max Headroom episode called Whacketts in which a digital narcotic embedded in a video addicted viewers to Big Time TV. Maybe Google provides a quick fix to the craving for information?

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 17, 2008 10:34 PM

Very prescient. Of course, there's no stopping this slow, froggy, boil. Ah well. S'what happens when you take your analogies with no chaser. Mistaking particulars for universals and vice-versa. You start taking the joke seriously and not only ruin the joke, but the serious as well. So once again the tired, old story of the god bowing down to the statue of a god re-plays, howbeit in neo-Greek, golly-gee-whiz, utopian, computer-as-messiah speak. All the while the Sky, Sun, Moon, and the us inside observe with wearied curiosity. You can remodel the house in a myriad of configurations, with all kinds of materials, but the way foundations are built remain the same.

Posted by: Josefus77 [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 18, 2008 11:39 AM

A comment on the "Google making us stupid" article.
You approach Taylor in an intelligent and constructive way. I am thinking hard currently on Taylor since I think we are seeing an other form of what I would call "Nettaylorism".
Amazon Mechanical turk is nothing else than a new taylorism.
Having doctors in India screening Xrays from American patients is an other form.
Having call centre operators working from home as if they would be in a large call center still an other form.
What Taylor did was to cut industrial jobs into pieces for two reasons: simplification of job so that any body could do nearly any of the simple tasks, therefore accelerating the productivity gain; replacement of high end specialized jobs by a series of low end standardized jobs in order to compensate for the talent scarcity of the time.

The parallel is striking. Today we enter into a talent scarcity era. Today's mechanical turks help to alleviate talent scarcity and to reduce cost to the lowest denominator of those able to perform it from anywhere in the world.Here the Taylorism combines with the labor cost arbitrage potential.
Taylor is very much contemporary but with a different, and additional view, to what you have described. The implications on the World Of Work, my core activity of research, are tremendous.
Best regards

Posted by: dorcq [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 19, 2008 06:21 PM

Let us not forget Marshall Mcluhan - the medium is the message - from wikipedia

"A movie is thus said by McLuhan to be "hot", intensifying one single sense "high definition", demanding a viewer's attention, and a comic book to be "cool" and "low definition", requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value"

Posted by: ERoss [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 20, 2008 01:06 PM

Your 'Atlantic Monthly' article was a trip back-in-time for me. I smiled in affirmation to the experience that you describe. Because as an MBA student 'way back then'.....the information and data that we had to digest during a continuose daily stream for those 2 years and cramming to ensure great grades, well, just left me and my CPU maxed out for a while. And when I tested to see if this sideaffect was unique to me [omg - I'm fizzing out !] most of my classmates felt a little braindead.

I was a voracious reader all my life, but after those 2 years and a pair of glasses later, I went to work for corporate america and didn't touch a book for probably a decade. I slowly returned to nromal but prefered the USA-Today type of articles; I could handle short stories and poetry, but was totally turned off to the novel and tomes of non-fiction. To the point of aversion. The internet and the availability to
data through a single click didn't come until a decade after all this.

So maybe this processing of data that we go through, digesting the bits/bites at the speed of light, day in and day out, was happening and affecting some humans before the internet
came along. [the brain specialists can lend some insights here I think]. Its akin to losing your appetite for certain foods, because of an unsavory experience with it.

But the good news is that I am recovering reader and discovering authors both from the classics and
current literature to throw myself into. I am not sure what to attribute this return to
'deeper' reading to..... did my brain re-learn something that I used to love dearly and allow
me to dust off old circuitry ?

For you Nick....I hope that your brain and neurons start being receptive to those reading signals that will bring you back to those tomes on your 'must read list' you left unread.

Posted by: mooshka [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 20, 2008 02:03 PM

I'd recommend the article about "Rhizomatic Education" that deals with related debates to this one.

The name rhizomatic comes, as the article define from:

A rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat


You can find it at: http://tinyurl.com/6axkez

Posted by: Luis-tic616 [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2008 11:22 AM

Your article inspired me to write a post of my own, at which I counted the number of netvibes feeds I have coming into my page every day...I make it 112. While I know more, the avalanche of information may well lead to me understanding less.

Posted by: Dirk Singer [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 26, 2008 04:21 PM

Using the internet requires a strong sense of focus and discipline when using it as a tool to acquire information. I was told by a friend a long time ago (in internet time) that the web was actually feeding us less information, which I refused to believe at the time. But as the years have progressed, it has become all too clear to me that he was absolutely correct, and Carr's article expresses this very clearly and eloquently.

The user should know well the services available that provide the information they are searching for, and I am not talking about Google here. I think that users in general provide too much trust in the "sources" they find on the internet to use in reports, essays and arguments as well as to further support their "existing conceptual frameworks." Use sites you trust as you would a library in looking for the information you need. For example, if I need to search for information on, say, Middle East history, I go to Encyclopedia Britannica (www.britannica.com), which I know has many years of trusted information that could help me in my search for what I need. A site such as Wikipedia is more often than not built by the very users Carr describes in his Atlantic essay, people who most likely obtain the information for their essay by bouncing from site to site to jump-start an article on Wikipedia.

If I don't have a list of trusted sites that I know provide the information related to that subject area, I become the very user Carr describes. One needs to have discipline and simply read through an entire article to get what they need. As a professor of mine once said in college, to succeed in school, one needs to press the flesh in the chair and simply do the work. I think the same applies to the internet to use it as an effective tool of learning.

Posted by: egon [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 29, 2008 03:36 AM

Using the internet requires a strong sense of focus and discipline when using it as a tool to acquire information. I was told by a friend a long time ago (in internet time) that the web was actually feeding us less information, which I refused to believe at the time. But as the years have progressed, it has become all too clear to me that he was absolutely correct, and Carr's article expresses this very clearly and eloquently.

The user should know well the services available that provide the information they are searching for, and I am not talking about Google here. I think that users in general provide too much trust in the "sources" they find on the internet to use in reports, essays and arguments as well as to further support their "existing conceptual frameworks." Use sites you trust as you would a library in looking for the information you need. For example, if I need to search for information on, say, Middle East history, I go to Encyclopedia Britannica (www.britannica.com), which I know has many years of trusted information that could help me in my search for what I need. A site such as Wikipedia is more often than not built by the very users Carr describes in his Atlantic essay, people who most likely obtain the information for their essay by bouncing from site to site to jump-start an article on Wikipedia.

If I don't have a list of trusted sites that I know provide the information related to that subject area, I become the very user Carr describes. One needs to have discipline and simply read through an entire article to get what they need. As a professor of mine once said in college, to succeed in school, one needs to press the flesh in the chair and simply do the work. I think the same applies to the internet to use it as an effective tool of learning.

Posted by: egon [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 29, 2008 03:37 AM

Is there no enjoyment left in the process of reading ... just a fierce driving to the product?

I enjoy reading as an activity, and I hope that does not change.

Posted by: John Koetsier [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 8, 2008 03:32 PM

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