Monday, June 07, 2010

Clicking Aimlessly

The Internet is supposed to make us smarter. Where have I heard that before? Oh, it's the tagline of this blog which, by the way, is a quip I borrowed from comedian Lewis Black.

The truthiness of that supposition, though, seems to be a hot topic this week.

Clay Shirky, who teaches New Media as an associate professor at NYU, talks about the media revolution in his article Does the Internet Make You Smarter:
Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid. This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type.
He makes a good case that increased freedom to create gives us all kinds of silly, time-wasting distractions. For example cute cat videos, Farmville and the House Republicans' web site. But we also get revolutionary tools like Wikipedia which, according to Shirky, is becoming the most important English reference work since its creation in 2001.

But even the "good stuff" can distract me as I demonstrated in my Six Degrees of Wikipedia post last year.

Obviously there's a massive amount of informative, interesting stuff out there. I load a program called Trillian, which manages all my chat accounts, plus my Facebook and Twitter streams, and I'm instantly inundated with all kinds of witty comments and links to interesting news articles. I want to click each and every one because now I'm aware that there is something I don't know! Now I'm aware that there's new information I'm not aware of!

And knowing that there's something I don't know doesn't make me feel smart. It gives me an urgent feeling that I'm falling behind all those other smart people out there. So I read as much as I can, yet I can't commit it all to my long-term memory. Damn it.

I know I'm a total multitasker because the New York Times told me so. I scored 100% on both their Test How Fast You Juggle Tasks quiz and their Test Your Focus quiz.

But I'm not sure what those results really mean. In fact, asking whether the Internet makes us smart or dumb might be the wrong question. A better question is "What kind of brain is the web giving us?"

I think the most alarming part of this NYT story about a guy hooked on gadgets was the theory that heavy technology use diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another.

There's further evidence that the web is turning us into shallower thinkers with weak reading comprehension:
Navigating linked documents, it turned out, entails a lot of mental calisthenics—evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats—that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension. A 1989 study showed that readers tended just to click around aimlessly when reading something that included hypertext links to other selected pieces of information. A 1990 experiment revealed that some “could not remember what they had and had not read.”

Even though the World Wide Web has made hypertext ubiquitous and presumably less startling and unfamiliar, the cognitive problems remain. Research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.
Well, that's discouraging. Here I am trying to inform and entertain, and yet, hyperlink by hyperlink, I'm slowly turning my audience into uncaring, scatter-brained introverts. That should be my new tagline.

1 comment:

Trung said...

i like the new tagline :P