Thursday, April 20, 2006

Nicholas Carr at Rough Type has two posts on the cognitive effect the internet may be having on thinking. In his first post " A beautiful mindlessness " Carr observes:

"Like me, you've probably sensed the same thing, in yourself and in others - the way the constant collection of information becomes an easy substitute for trying to achieve any kind of true understanding. It seems a form of laziness as much as anything else, a laziness that the internet both encourages and justifies. The web is "a hall of mirrors" that provides the illusion of thinking, Michael Gorman, the president of the American Library Association, tells Orlowski. "No one would tell you a student using Google today is producing work as good as they were 20 years ago using printed sources. Despite these amazing technical breakthroughs, these technologies haven't added to human wellbeing."

In his follow up post, Carr argues the following:

"The more we suck in information from the blogosphere or the web in general, the more we tune our minds to brief bursts of input. It becomes harder to muster the concentration required to read books or lengthy articles - or to follow the flow of dense or complex arguments in general. Haven't you, dear blog reader, noticed that, too?"


There is probably something to Carr's second post because he is referencing the creation of a psychological habit. The Buddhist maxim " What we think we become" can also very easily be expressed as " How we think we become". Short attentions spans are also natural to human beings - intense powers of concentration are usually acquired by practicing activities that are predicated on that skill-set, like learning a musical instrument, martial arts, meditation, mathematical problem-solving, various complex athletic activities and so on. Moreover, reading on the web tends to " reward" our brains in a more stimulating way than do books not only in terms of speed but with more frequent, non-textual, imagery. And that's assuming that we don't wander away and engage in less constructive but more amusing pursuits !

A friend of mine, a serious scholar who speaks many languages and reads more, disconnected his internet at home for a time because it was too tempting a presence and was interfering with his tackling more challenging books. It was too easy to put off the intellectual heavy lifting in favor of intellectual entetainment. He's since returned to the online world, but now is more disciplined about his use of time there. As much as I enjoy the blogosphere and certain listervs and forums, they don't replace the experience of serious reading with a good book. I like marking up my books and scrawling, at times furiously, in the margins. Many great historical figures were voracious readers, from John Adams to Joseph Stalin, they revealed much of themselves in the marginalia found in the books of their private libraries.

That being said, Carr is also proffering a very old argument, one that is renewed with each new revolution in communication. Marshal McLuhan was not incorrect in his philosophy but he was correct up to a point; substantive content still retains a deeper influence than does presentation - though some forms of presentation are more equal than others. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address will resound through the ages as an epitome of prose, but it can also be reformatted and it will then be understood by some for whom the meaning may have previously been elusive. This doesn't mean the new format is better but that it has utility.

There is also, I humbly suggest, a self-referential quality at work here. Some of the people complaining about the internet distracting them from reading today were the ones who were vegging in front of the tube yesterday instead of picking up that copy of War and Peace. Tomorrow these folks may be complaining about the computer chips in their heads or some other innovation. Mediums of communication are means and not ends; they are not dictating that we make poor choices with the use of our time.

The road you take is oftentimes less important than your wilingness to get up and take it.
I recall standing in front of a Xerox machine copying journal articles and wishing there were some way to wire that copying into my head. I also wondered if I was copying those articles instead of getting that information into my head.

But it was much more convenient to work with those articles in my office or at home, and I managed to use them as I needed to. Yes, there were many that wasted toner and paper on and were never used. Some probably still sit in boxes in my garage.

I've always enjoyed opinion, other people's and my own. I've read Letters to the Editor before the rest of the newspaper. So the internet is a real treat. Plus there's real information that would be unlikely to show up on the normally suspect outlets.

Can it be a distraction? As I've tried to settle down to compiling some of my posts into a paper this week, I've realized that the modern equivalent of sharpening pencils is the compulsive rechecking of certain blogs to see if I've received a response to my comment. But the paper took off yesterday, and I'll just make my usual rounds this morning before settling back into some very satisfying deleting, moving paragraphs, and rewriting.

We'll always find ways to distract ourselves. Blogging is hardly the worst.

Excellent observations Cheryl, I agree.

"I've realized that the modern equivalent of sharpening pencils is the compulsive rechecking of certain blogs to see if I've received a response to my comment"

That made me laugh and is worthy of a post on its own. Our need for social affirmation/attention even exists in a disembodied forum. Sometimes it is even stronger because it comes without the baggage of face to face interaction.
Thanks, Mark.

Just thought I'd walk down to the water cooler.

The paper is going well; this is just a little break.

hmmm.. my post disappeared from that blog, so I'll post here.

Breaking apart knowledge is like breaking apart a software program, a company, or any other complex construct. It exposes each piece to more competition, and thus makes them more fit.

In the case of ideas, it prohibits unfit memes in a book from free-riding on the fit memes.
Interesting that you should have written this just now. I have been thinking on why I can't write on my blog but maybe once a week lately. This explains much. Every now and then, data overload overtakes my little brain with the concommitant brain freeze and loss of focus - central or peripheral.

I read actual books frequently - fiction at bedtime and non-fiction during the day. I have read books from "Star Wars" to "Crime and Punishment" while awaiting Mr. Sandman. The Internet has opened an incredible cornucopia of knowledge, that I am now addicted to it and television. Sometimes I think heroin would be easier.
Dan wrote:
"In the case of ideas, it prohibits unfit memes in a book from free-riding on the fit memes."

yup - except when the actual value comes from the synergy between two otherwise unremarkable or unfit memes that can explain a phenomenon for which no, neat, clean, stand alone meme yet represents.

Indigo wrote:

"Every now and then, data overload overtakes my little brain with the concommitant brain freeze and loss of focus - central or peripheral."

Making " Further adventures" rather difficult ;o)

Yes, I think that means the material has yet to gell. try changing gears, do something completely new/novel and see if an idea doesn't subsequently " pop"
Though perhaps, by making the memes more fit (what Barnett calls "reproducible"), and thus increasing the number of memes hitting a person over a time interview (accelerating the velocity of memes), it leads to more knowledge and more self-created connections.

Hi Dan,


But...the two statements are not mutually exclusive. Possibly, one begets the other.
Mark and Dan,

The concept of an unfit meme is really intriguing to me, and is a concept I am uniquely qualified to comment on. While I don’t consider myself a meme, I do consider myself unfit to comment on most issues finding its way into the world of blogging. At least it seems to me that all I have to do is comment and most discussions stop.

I know I should try to find the example you guys are talking about but I think I’ll just wing it. An unfit meme must be one without followers. If the meme were not being truthful, trustworthy or accurate it would not be a meme. If the truth was not verifiable, if the meme was a person of faith, it would still me a “fit” meme because it was being truthful, trustworthy and accurate in its own partisan context. So, really, what you guys must be talking about is a meme without followers.

But a meme doesn’t need followers. A meme could have leaders. As an example, my engineering instructor said Jesus Christ lead from behind. He pushed his “followers” forward, which by definition, it would seem to me, they are no longer followers, but leaders. So by your definition an unfit meme would be a meme without followers, only leaders. In this way, both types of memes are mirror images of each other, the same, but exact opposites. Both memes would be accurate, but a meme without followers would be a meme of trust, while a meme with followers would be a meme of truth. As I said, both memes would be accurate, accuracy being the mirror image of precision.
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