Saturday, June 14, 2008

The internet causes "staccato" attention spans?

Yesterday a friend sent me a fascinating article by Nicholas Carr of The Atlantic entitled, Is Google Making Us Stupid?  It's a great article that's definitely worth reading.  I think it brings up some good topics worth discussing, but Carr's insightful discussion is unfortunately lead astray by some common myths about the internet.  Here's my take on the article:

At first it seems he's saying we don't have the ability to process information.  All of his admittedly unscientific stories at the beginning are about an inability to process information, mostly focused on a reduced attention span.  While he's right that the internet is helping to reduce our attention span, the idea that this impedes our ability to process is total bullshit.  It's bullshit because the internet encourages us to respond - blogging, twitter, email, facebook - the entire sharing and commenting on content encourages us to process information.  Our short attention spans require that we pack every sentence of that response with information, and the need for brevity requires even more processing.  It's also bullshit because the study he sites focuses on research students.  No one likes spending time researching information they don't need, so with the ability to quickly search articles of course research students read less.  This highlights a failure of the academic institution's idea of "research" far more than any problem on the internet.  Lastly, it's bullshit because he flat out contradicts this later in the article, around the time when he gets to google.

The real problem with the way we think post-internet is something he barely touches on - it's our inability to remember details.  He's certainly right that the internet changes the way we think and makes us more like computers, and he hits the nail on the head when he calls us processing units.  The real problem here isn't just the internet either - it's the technology that's sprung up around it. Our technology, from our laptops to iphones, encourage us to forget details like names, places, addresses, phone numbers, and rely on our machines.  The availability of information storage and rapid retrieval encourages us to forget, but it actually makes us process BETTER.  This should be his point - not that we can't bother to really read any more, but that we remember so little of the information we're basing our lives around.

There are ways to work against this within the confines of the internet.  First, forcing ourselves to respond, even in a short blog article, encourages us to remember.  Second, keeping a healthy balance on information is essential.  Third, we limit our use of the features that make us forget - there are some numbers in my cell phone I always dial because I want to ensure that I'll remember them if I lose my phone.  I loved the author's point at the end - that we ought to be skeptical of our own skepticism - and loved and agreed with every point he made about the way we criticize technological progress.  This bit was really refreshing - I haven't heard a good criticism of criticism in an anti-internet article in...forever.

Whether the internet, techonology, and computers make our lives better is certainly something worth debating.  You all know where I stand on this issue - I love the internet and I love technology - but I'll admit that it has some detrimental effects on my life.  Case in point: right now, I'm reading and responding to this article in my living room.  It's dinner time, and my wife has interrupted me at least three times to ask me questions I have to stop reading / writing and think about.  It's annoying to me, but it's my fault.  If this laptop and the ability to communicate and process and retrieve information were bound to my study, or if conversations like this were limited to times when we were all together in real life, I'd certainly be a more focused, sane, and probably happier person.  But that's not really the internet's fault - that's mine.  I need to use this tool wisely, and know when and how to limit myself.

On that note, I look forward to your thoughts on the article. :)  Post 'em in the comments, if you please.

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