Thursday, August 28, 2008

An interesting article about ... oo look, a monkey!

Earlier this week, a friend on Facebook shared a link to a really interesting article. The premise of the article is that the computer and internet have done more than provide a new means of accessing information - they have also changed the way we approach information and, potentially, the ways in which we process it.

"Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore."

Those few lines really hit me. I read a lot. A book a week is not unusual for me, but I've also noticed that I tend to have a harder and harder time sticking with longer pieces. When I was younger, people I knew would casually complain about trying to read before bed but falling asleep - I could never understand this. I was amazed that anyone could fall asleep reading, especially because I always had the opposite reaction - more than once, I've stayed up several hours too late, trying to finish a particularly riveting story. I typically read two or three books at a time, with fiction making up the majority of it.

The problem I have with Google and with Wikipedia and so many other online treats is I use them to waste time - time that a few years ago, I would have spent on the couch with a book. I don't know why - I don't know what makes it all so addictive, but when I find myself with a free thirty minutes, I sit down at the computer and start scanning various articles and blog posts. I read quite a bit but, as the author mentioned, I'm not reading deeply - I skim.

A classic example would be an online forum/news site that Mr K and I both love. When browsing this site, I have a bad habit of reading headlines, maybe skimming the related article, and then immediately going to the comments section to see what a bunch of random internet strangers have to say about the article. This has a way of making time go by, but I'm not sure I'm getting anything else out of it. I find myself very familiar with the headlines of what's going on in the world, but knowing next to no details about any specific event. Additionally and even more embarrassingly, I know way more about a selection of stupid celebrities than I should. I like to tell myself that this improves my Jeopardy game and my crossword abilities and that it's important to stay in touch with popular culture even if you don't like it, but basically it's just a big nasty gossip mill.

“What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

This thought, shared with the author by another blogger, bothers me as well. Some days I feel like my brain is so sluggish and thick. My eyes slide over enough text to fill a novella, but all those words just leave the slightest traces in my mind. Books tend to stick better and I've found when I really want to take information in - like I did with this article - I'm better off printing a hardcopy to read. I used to think it was just a love affair with paper, but now I'm starting to wonder...

What do you think?


niamh said...

i actually do print off things to read them. Meh, I feel I get the info better that way.Its to easy to get distracted with the buttons.

Miz K said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one!

Ars said...

I'm not sure I ever had an attention span in the first place. I'd like to think, though, that my reading as actually improved during the transition from MTV and cartoons to Wikipedia, Slashdot, and Fark.

Sally Carter said...

I know exactly what you mean. I currently have a bet on that I can resolve my addiction to one of Britain's trashiest online newspaper websites between now and Christmas, and I must say that this abstention, inextricably linked to my decision to rid myself of a big Diet Coke habit, has left me feeling purer and strangely lighter in mind and body than I have done in years!!

Miz K said...

Good luck with the trashy website addiction! I miss the Big Diet Cokes we used to get from McDonalds in the US - ah, the good old days. ;-)