July 19, 2008

Losing our inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance

PowerPoint makes organizations stupid. That's not a newsflash. It's a fact.

Is Google making all of us stupid too - in much the same way that three bullet points of no more than 18 words is genuinely accepted as a valid, compelling, convincing and sustained business briefing, regardless of how profound or far reaching the consequences of the slide pack - has Google convinced us that our thoughts have been nourished and deepened, our knowledge and wisdom enriched by a quick squiz and a skim read of 65 words about metaphysics?

Probably, is my thought.

Certainly it's true for the newer generations who have been denied a proper eduction and have never learned the discipline and skills required to indulge in sustained concentration and thought; who have never been required to apply or demonstrate logic or proof of anything, since one person's opinion is as good as the next, so they've learned that you can talk shit and no one will ever challenge it. They're not embedded, immersed in a philosophy, discipline or set of closely examined personal values that will see them through the decades.

On the other hand, while we oldies find it easy to pick up and abuse technology with the rest of them, chucking off the habits of a lifetime so as to become a flibbertigibbet doesn't come entirely naturally.

Or maybe not so much. Maybe my thought is merely a firefly hope, as Nicolas Carr explains it:
"I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

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.

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it."

Is Google making us stupid?


  1. Very neat and timely piece Caz. Attention spans, attention spans: what’s to become of them??

    Must admit that there are times when I suffer similarly; not a lot but occasionally. Generally it’s when something is playing on the mind and attention wanders from the book in hand. Personally, reading voraciously has been near a life habit. Still is.

    As is known, I have a deep interest in history and the writing of such demands that one reads the source material: statements need to be based in fact and the arguments defensible along the lines of the source material. I have a veritable mini Library of Congress covering a period of some twelve hundred years from about 1,000 BCE! In fact I’m about to ensconce myself on the Rectory front lawn with a tome of source material covering the period 323-301 BCE. This for a book I’m attempting to write - a process akin to threading a needle, suffering hypermetropia, without your glasses. So reading – to me – comes relatively easy.

    I’d agree with the hypothesis that “Googling” and the net have destroyed, in large part, the interest in reading. One needs also to be very careful of the provenance of many a website; the Cambridge Ancient History many are not. I wonder how many individuals actually check just from what source their “information” is coming??

    Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

    To quote Denny Crane: “I love it!”

    I find it most difficult to read online – it annoys the tripe out of me. Very often I will print the material and sit in a comfy chair and read. I can’t stand “E-books”; give me – a recidivist old book collector – the bound paper every time. Some of these books set me back $120-160. There is, though, just something about that timeless resource sitting upon a shelf that can be read, re-read and – better still – thumbed.

    Long live the book!

  2. The interwebs doesn't pose much risk to your cognitive abilities Father, well, none at all would be my best guess.

    While there's a preoccupation with debating / voicing concern over, - and expensive studies undertaken into - people spending time (read: "too much of it") playing games on the web, there is little to nothing about what spending our days staring at a screen does to the rest of us - let's not forget that millions of us undertake almost every bit of our paid employment at a computer screen, all bar the joyous time spent in meetings (or "ideas shower" time, as I had last week - twice, no less).

    Years ago I read of studies that measured reading and comprehension with a screen versus the same for hard copy material. Since that time, I haven't read of any short or long term studies being done. Either no one cares or they haven't figured out that this matters more and affects more people than computer games, and is in dire need of academic attention. But, back to the studies.

    It won't come as any surprise to you Father that the results showed between a 30 to 40% reduction in both speed of reading and comprehension when people are reading from a screen.

    Now, that's a massive difference, and one that any vaguely intelligent person would know from personal experience, and also one that any vaguely intelligent person should be alert and alarmed about, particularly if they have children.

    (Gee, thanks Kev, a laptop for every kiddie, great stuff.)

    Even at the most trivial level the results of these studies from some years ago are born out every single day. The simplest, shortest, most unambiguous email will be misconstrued by any number of people, or a crucial question and a required action won't even be noticed, an entirely unrelated and useless tangent will overtake basic work duties. And this is repeated in every office around the world, by millions of people.

    Communications in business - phhrrfff. Drivel. Thanks to email, thanks to PowerPoint, thanks to people saving paper by reading even the lengthiest of documents on screen, thereby ensuring they don't "see" glaring errors, gapping structural deficiencies, holes the size of a crater.

    Reading on screen takes longer, people read at least 30% slower on screen.

    No wonder we flit and flight around the web, it's too much work to look at a huge chunk of text, let alone read it, so we pursue the color and movement, the new, the glib, the vapid. A fact here, a joke there, it's why blogs mostly work so well with the medium. Blog templates are even formatted for brevity: a single long skinny column making anything more than a couple of hundred words look like a daunting novella, so bloggers the world over slash and burn words, lest they look as though they're trying to suck the life out of their visitors, or trying to force a level of commitment that is foreign to any of us who dwell in the metaverse.

    People comprehend up to 40% more poorly when reading on a screen.

    It's a disaster in the making. Well, it already is a million small disasters across the business world every single day (or on blogs, where even short comments or posts are miscomprehended and all hell breaks loose).

    Stick to your history Father, for the future has no narrative. None.

  3. Oh dear, this is a problem I have. I thought it was just because of the way I work. Alas, it's the way I play too.

  4. Anonymous10:27 AM

    Thank you for this most interesting discussion.

  5. Anonymous5:02 PM

    Geoff's was the only post I read. The others were too bloody long.

  6. Then Geoff's job here is done Justin.

    Nails - yeah, you're pretty much screwed, like the rest of us; you can't even pretend to be unique now that the cat is out of the bag. Maybe you could have your eyelids pieced as a point of differentiation.

  7. Unique doesn't worry me, the inability to concentrate does.

  8. Buy an egg timer Nails, aim for a personal best of three minutes uninterrupted focus, even if it's only on the grains of sand.

  9. Anonymous6:13 PM

    Interesting post, Caz. Though I would do probably 75% of my reading on the screen (for work purposes, anyway) I find it much easier to edit and proof-read paper copies of my own work. I don't know what explains this but I have a feeling that I see things differently on paper than on the screen. Hard to explain, just a 'feeling'.

  10. Dylan - not just a feeling, a fact.

    I've yet to meet the startling individual who can edit and proof read online to a suitable standard, and definitely not to the standard possible when undertaking the tasks with a hardcopy.

    People don't notice missing words, incorrect spelling, typo's, wrong punctuation, etc, when checking a softcopy.

    I know it can take me no time at all to read / edit / proof a 50 page hardcopy doco. The same task online seems to take forever, and I still miss heaps of "obvious" things. I always, always do a final edit / proof with hardcopy (and may along the way, if an important or long doco).

    These tasks could easily be measured and quality checked, and there's probably a neuro-scientist somewhere who could scan our brains to find out which parts are NOT firing when we work online versus off-line. I'm guessing it has something to do with the way we scan online versus off-line, the lighting of a screen, layout, etc.

  11. Anonymous12:17 PM

    There was one other thing I meant to say. For those of us over 50. Don't overlook the effect aging has on the

  12. I was sure Geoff said something interesting earlier today, or was it last year?