21 June 2011

Distracted from Distraction by Distraction

Is the internet rewiring our brains towards power browsing and away from deep processing of information that "underpins inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination and reflection?" This is the argument made by Nicholas Carr in his book, "The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember".

As someone who routinely did his school homework in front of the TV and still likes to write with music blaring in the background, you would not think I would worry much about this. And after reading this book, I'm still not sure if I do.

The book's premise is:

1. reading deeply=thinking deeply

2. the internet is designed to "seize our attention, only to scatter it" and is "by design, an interruption system"

3. due to the neurophysiological plasticity of our brain, it is being shaped by the internet into making us good at being "hunter-gatherers in the electronic forest" rather than "cultivators of personal knowledge" and

4. this is undermining our ability to "make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, and fostering our own ideas".

The book is rather dense (I know, you're thinking I have lost my capacity for "deep processing"--if I ever had it) but it is authoritative, introducing the reader to a lot of behavioural psychology research about how we read web pages (in F-shapes, scanning the first couple of rows of text, dropping down and scanning half a row and then dropping down some more lines only to lose interest) and the impact of longer online stories on our attention spans (on average, for every 100 extra words published we only read 18 of them).

To me, it all seems about balance. I enjoy the hunter gatherer aspects of the net. Yes, I have to be aware of the costs of increased efficiency of searching (e.g. the tendency to be directed to what everyone else is directed to), but there are many areas in which I have no deep personal knowledge but for which I want to get a quick sense of what people I trust are thinking, and the net is invaluable for this. But perhaps I am comfortable with this because I do have areas in which I have deeper personal knowledge--hunger, malnutrition, agriculture, food policy, statistical methods etc. I spent many years pounding through texts and papers while learning my trade in order to do this.

For me, as a father, the most worrying aspect of the internet is the effect it is having on the knowledge aquisition habits of the school students of today. Will they have the opportunities to develop deep personal knowledge of a field? Or will they be consigned to being merely a cadre of superbrowsers?

For those of us in development, this book again brings me back to the need to experiment with and evaluate how research is framed, communicated and used; how we define research quality; whether knowledge that is co-constructed can avoid the trap of being fractured and how the internet can be used to diversify knowledge sources rather than promote bandwaggoning of the research idea du jour.

All in all an interesting read, but one that requires you to turn off your emails and RSS feeds (but not the one for this site).


JamesM said...

Great stuff, Lawrence! Now I have to remember what I was supposed to do before your feed came in....

Anonymous said...

For the best research on children and the Internet, the UK experts are:

Sonia Livingstone


David Buckingham http://www.ioe.ac.uk/study/LKLB_7.html

Thought you might be interested given what you said about your interest in
Carr¹s work.

Lawrence said...

James, I know, ironic, isn't it

Anonymous, many thanks for these links