Posted by: Clive | June 26, 2008

Google – driving us to distraction

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post (Reading or scanning) that reported research on the nature of screen reading and particularly the limited attention span we all seem to be suffering from in an age of information deluge.

This month’s Atlantic Monthly follows the theme and offers more polemic with an article by Nicholas Carr entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? The argument is that the nature of hyperlinks together with a technology that is increasingly personalising, distributing and delivering information discourages from ever leaving a kind of partial-attention which flits from link to link without absorbing anything in depth. And of course that suits commercial interests which are now driving the internet through click-though advertising. So far so good. But isn’t this really just an extension of what’s been happening with mainstream media for the past 50 years? Commercial television’s objective is not programming/producing content: it measures its success on aggregating an audience for its advertising. Tabloid’s have for years encouraged the flick-and-look rather than deep reading and reflection – again to maximise advertising revenue. To believe that the internet could somehow remain aloof from the cultural zeitgeist is wildly naive. It did in the early days only because it was the province of an elite (university researchers). When it became a part of the wider media ecology it became governed by the same forces that have always driven that ecology.

Carr goes further than this though. He suggests that we are being fundamentally changed by all this. A new sense of self is being created. We are becoming significantly different. But the evidence? Again, there’s something intuitively persuasive about all this but under scrutiny it is still very flimsy. Hence the need for research.

One of the things I like about the article and why I think you should read it is that he does encourage us to ponder the value of ‘deep reading’ through reading the printed page – something that Neil, Eric and I are constantly discussing.

…The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the  knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, ndistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

I’d certainly second that.


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