Just read a great article by Rita Carter in the Spring edition of The Author. It’s not available online, but it makes reference to, and explores many of the same issues as, this Atlantic article by Nicholas Carr. The basic issue, hinted at in the title: reading on the internet is different from reading a book. In fact, the way we think may be different. Less sustained, more scattered. Faster but more superficial. We skim, click around, get interrupted, start again, follow a tangent. We learn quickly, but in an unfocused way.
The article title is a little provocative – neither author really argues that Google is making us stupid. But they do raise real concerns about whether our brains are being “re-wired” by online reading. Unfortunately there’s not much scientific research to draw on yet, so the conclusions are mixed. In fact, Carter points out the positive side of online reading – the active, “search-and-find” rather than “sit-back-and-receive” state. So, she concludes, “perhaps the cerebral tinkering that alarms Nick Carr and others is actually a kind of neural upgrade which will allow old brains to function better in the future.”
I am definitely aware of a big difference in how I think, read and behave online as opposed to, say, a library. I’ve always been a quick reader, and at university when I had hundreds of books on a reading list for a term, I frequently skimmed them, for example just reading the first chapter and last, and the first and last paragraphs of each chapter in-between. But that was the exception. In general, I always read quickly but methodically, from beginning to end.
Online, it’s a different story. I go on to check a fact for my book, and an hour later I have eight tabs open in my browser, have replied to a load of emails and am chatting with someone on Facebook while skipping between an article on child slavery in Cote d-Ivoire and a blog post on Gordon Brown, while simultaneously checking the football scores. What did I go online for again? No idea, so I close down, go back to my writing, and find there was a fact I was supposed to look up a while ago.
I have now recognised that I am simply unable to write while the internet is on. But more worryingly, I am also unable to write AFTER I’ve been on the internet. Even if I switch off my wireless card and have nothing open but Microsoft Word, I find my mind is less focused. It’s as if, having been foraging all over the internet for a million pieces of information, doing ten or twenty things at once, my brain doesn’t want to be tied down to the slower, more prosaic, isolated, demanding but decidedly one-track task of writing a novel.
So I’ve made a rule. On writing days, the internet stays off until I’ve done my writing for the day. If I need to look something up, I write it down and look it up later. It’s the only way I can function.
Does anyone else feel that they read or think differently online? Can you read long, serious articles online, or do you have to print them out? Can you stop and think deeply about something online, or do you find yourself engaging in a kind of “staccato” thought process? Do you think our brains are being re-wired? If so, is it for better or for worse?
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I also find the amount of fragmented information I have to process through daunting and anxiety inducing. It is ridiculously easy to devolve into an online ADD ennui. Augmenting this issue is the ease with which others can impose their information load onto you – say through email or Facebook – and I find simply deciding that something someone has sent me unbidden isn’t worth investigating takes inordinate spats of time, if you add it all up at the end of any given week. It is alarming how often I have left an online session after having merely triaged a set of information.
Glad I’m not the only one! Triage is a good way of putting it 🙂 And the thing is, there’s never an end to it. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I just unplugged my internet connection and never read another email. Of course I’d lose out in lots of ways, but possibly I’d make some unexpected gains…
…and then you add in all of the media – movies, books, magazines, television (both good and bad) – one needs to consume to keep abreast of popular culture trends. It’s perfectly exhausting. Life can easy become detached from any immediate context, spiraling into this pseudo meta reality. Dad, can we go to the pool now? Hold on, just let me finish this article on [fill in the blank here]. Personally I am trying to formulate some simulacra of a strategy to deal with this phenomenon; if I come up with anything I’ll let you know.