Saturday, June 21, 2008

Does The Internet Flatten Your Mind?

If you are reading this, you must spend at least some time on the Internet, and possibly many hours a day. If you're older than 30 or so, you can remember a time before the Internet when "reading" and "holding a piece of paper in your hands" were generally synonymous. And if you're younger than that, believe me, there was such a time and people actually managed to live under such conditions.

The question for today is: does using the Internet make us less able to do certain important mental feats that we may miss after they're gone? More specifically, does it take from us the ability to give sustained attention to a long, complex piece of reading that requires deep thought?

I am moved to this inquiry by a couple of things. In a recent column, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. says "amen" to an article in the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" In the Atlantic article, author Nicholas Carr argues that people who use the Internet routinely tend to zip from info-nugget to ad to email to YouTube to . . . well, you get the idea, all without thinking thoughts any deeper than a puddle on a sidewalk. Both he and Pitts find that since adapting to the Internet, they find it much harder to sit still with a book that makes a complex, sustained argument over many chapters. They end up getting restless or sleepy. And they wonder if the instant-gratification style of thinking that Google and the rest of the Internet services encourage, militates against the deep, contemplative, often temporarily aimless and associative, but sometimes very productive type of thinking that reading at length encourages.

There is some quantitative evidence that this suspicion is true. Carr cites a study that found most Internet users do not read more than a few paragraphs of any resource they find, even if it is many pages long. In the technology and society journal The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen cites numerous studies that show the kind of work style known as multitasking actually decreases efficiency rather than otherwise. And the Internet makes multitasking so easy—just open three or four windows on your email, a favorite blog, a video news feed, and go to it.

I must admit that the Internet has profoundly changed the way I do what I used to call library research. My professional research is eclectic in that I often find myself working in fields that I do not have much educational background in. Suppose (as recently happened) that I want to find out about an arcane subject such as astronomical spectrophotometry. (For those who just have to know, it means measuring the light output of stars at various wavelengths.) In the pre-Internet days, this would have meant a trip to the library (preferably the multi-million-volume University of Texas library system), perhaps talking with a reference librarian, hauling six or eight books to a study carrel, writing down references to papers, going back to the shelves and looking up the papers in big heavy volumes of bound journals, and so on. It would have taken a whole day if done properly, and I might have ended up with two or three photocopied papers, some notes, and a whole lot more questions than answers.

Contrast that to what I managed to do yesterday. I Googled the topic, found a few papers online, got more confused than anything else, and ended up going to the library anyway (the local Texas State library, not Austin). I found two books that addressed the subject, but from an insider's point of view. Fortunately, one of them listed some references for introductory works—most of them were books, but one was an online source. Turns out that a professor at Oklahoma University has written an introductory text that he posts online for free. It turned out to be exactly what I needed.

That's a fairly typical story for any of my ventures into new fields. The online stuff helps some (especially Wikipedia, which seems to have very good articles about the basics of technical topics). But at some point I usually end up going to books, sometimes old books. It's unusual that I can find everything I need to know online, especially if I want an overall picture of a field as an introduction.

Now Google and company are working hard to change that by putting all the world's books online. And yes, they may succeed. But once that happens, somehow I don't think people will write new books the same way they used to write old books. Why put a 300-page book on line if nobody reads past the first three or four pages anyway?

It takes a certain kind of personality to write a good book. A psychological test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator alleges to measure a dichotomy between two distinct lifestyles which are termed "judging" versus "perceiving." One author summarized the difference between the two poles of the dichotomy this way. People who rate high on the "judging" end of the scale are "job-oriented jumpers" who like to size up a task, do it, get it out of their way, wipe their hands, and go on to the next thing. Perceiving types, on the other hand, tend to be "pendulous postponers" who can always think of one more touch to add to their creation, or one more aspect of looking at a subject.

Many college professors turn out to be pendulous postponers, delving endlessly into the infinite ramifications of a specialized topic. And since they will stick with a subject longer than anyone else does, they often find things that nobody else has found. The supreme example of this type that I can think of is the cultural historian Jacques Barzun, who turned 100 last November. A few years ago he wrote From Dawn To Decadence, a history of Western culture over the last five centuries, in which he summed up a long lifetime of learning that made connections and associations of ideas that even historical duffers like me could understand.

My mind doesn't work that way. I am a "judging" type, which is one reason I write a blog on a different topic each week, rather than using the same time to write a book or two a year (much as I'd like to write a book!). But the world needs both kinds of thinkers. It's pretty clear that the Internet encourages the superficial, the list-of-numbers kind of judging thinking, over the long-term study, contemplation, pondering, and sustained attention needed for the perceiving kind of thinking. It would be tragic if the Internet wipes out any future hope of having more of the Jacques Barzun type of personality arise in the intellectual world of the future. As long as we don't get doctrinaire about banning books in favor of the Internet or something, I don't think we have much to worry about. But the same end may be achieved by other means, and possibly even by accident rather than design.

Sources: The Atlantic Monthly article appears at Christine Rosen's article "The Myth of Multitasking" appears in the Spring 2008 issue of The New Atlantis.

1 comment:

  1. If I may quote from your blog: "Now Google and company are working hard to change that by putting all the world's books online." Here's my 2 cents worth: If Google succeeds, they sure have more in the way of human resources than my mind can fathom. Unless I'm missing something, it appears that the human resource aspect is completely voluntary. Am I wrong? If you're more in the loop than I am, I would appreciate seeing some comments.