Has the internet made us stupid, a recent article in the Atlantic asks. The author, blogger Nicolas Carr, frets about the effect the internet has had on his thinking processes, on the way it has rewired his brains’ very circuitry.
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.
I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets–reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link.
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.
I have the same problem and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I haven’t read a book in its entirety in ages, even though I keep buying them. I have piles of books at my bedside table which, when I got them, I knew I would devour in one reading. Months, even years after, I haven’t gone beyond a few chapters, at best. I stop and start and finally give up at some point, distracted by the flickering text and images on my monitor.
No doubt, the internet has turbo-charged the information revolution. We are all grateful for the way it has made masses of material available on every conceivable subject. It has democratized access to data and empowered millions, as a medium for reaching the world at large and self-expression. But being plugged-in has a price. The Law of Unintended Consequences at work.
The internet has altered our cognitive processes. For one thing our attention span has shortened dramatically. According to a BBC item, the addictive nature of web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds – the same as a goldfish. This isn’t much of an exaggeration.
“Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things,” says Ted Selker, an expert in the online equivalent of body language at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
“If we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating,” he told the BBC programme Go Digital.
The sheer volume of available info has also forced us to skim over all the material coming our way, and trained us to go for efficiency and wider coverage, at the expense of depth of understanding. We bounce from one site to another, never fully comprehending what we are reading before we move on to next hyperlinked article or video clip.
I miss the times when I could lose myself in a book. What to do ?
Jessica Zafra has a simple solution. She takes time off from the digital age – one whole day without cellphone, email, internet, text, nothing — to read an old-fashioned printed book.
I think this is an excellent idea. I have to relearn how to read deeply and with a meaningful grasp of what it is I’m staring at. To read with knowing.
Now, if I can only summon the will to shut down my P.C.