August 25, 2010
The Shallows 4: The Net Effect
The Net distracts. But not all distractions are bad. As I’ve written here before, taking a break from a problem and letting your brain do something totally different can provide an opportunity for fresh ideas to emerge. The problem is that the constantly distracting state of the Net, contends Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, changes the way we read and think. (You can find the first in my series on this book here.)
“The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively” (p. 119). “The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeting sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information” (p. 122).
So while we are gaining new skills, we are losing others. Something is gained and something is lost.
Carr goes on to explain the partnership of how information in our short-term memories is transferred to our long-term memories, which brain scientists see as the seat of understanding. The slow drip of information we get in reading a book facilitates this transfer. The fire hose of the Net is difficult to absorb.
Studies show that those who were presented with electronic hypertext documents retained and understood less than those presented with the same documents in print form. The more the links, the less the comprehension. The medium obscured the message.
When the brain shifts from one task to another, it takes time and effort to reorient itself to the new activity. That’s time taken from the ability to remember and understand.
Even the physical way our eyes move when reading hypertext is different from reading print. Eye-tracking studies show they eye skips down a page in a pattern tracing the letter F—reading a few lines at the top, skipping down, reading halfway across a few more lines, and then running down the rest of the page.
So to my supposition that more reading was happening since the advent of the Web, Carr says no. People don’t read on the web. They distractedly scan. Welcome to the age of “power browsing.”
Carr reminds us that there’s nothing wrong with scanning. I take great pride in my ability to effectively scan hundreds of pages of text in a few minutes, a skill I have honed over decades of pawing through potential manuscripts. The problem is that browsing is the dominant type of reading we do, and deep reading is disappearing.
Next Installment: The Shallows 5: Google’s Narrow Vision