How the Internet is Shaping our Thoughts

In a thought-provoking article in the Atlantic, Nicholas Carr argues the information consumption patterns pervading the Internet are altering our brains. He notes that long-form articles are rare online, and are becoming rarer in print. Citing several pieces of anecdotal evidence, he makes a case that we are becoming accustomed to short-form content and are, in fact, becoming unable to read long pieces without giving up and moving on. One person quoted says he finds it difficult to get beyond three or four paragraphs, another that they find it impossible to read books any more.

Late in the article Carr makes an especially insightful remark when he notes that

“The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.”

We have an interesting case on two fronts. Firstly, there is Carr’s direct point that the Internet is paid for by encouraging page-views and swift jumps from page to page. Secondly, the Internet was created by computer scientists, a group notorious for their short attention spans and hyperactive, jumpy mental processes. Google is powered by such people, and, increasingly, surfers find their information through Google, Yahoo! and other similarly information-snippet driven portals. We search for specific pieces of information and spend less time browsing the Internet as we would a newspaper or magazine.

That the Internet is created and maintained by those with a short attention span, and large parts of it funded by a page-view-driven business model, means the short information-bite is becoming a common entity; comment, especially in blog entries, is often reduced to short accompanying sentences one would hardly call an article. A notable exception to this is newspapers, who are beginning to see comment as one of their value-adding features.

From the minds of computer scientists spill ever more ways to consume more information in a shorter period of time. Automatic summaries squash an article into a few lines, leading one’s attention hither and thither as one scans them, encouraging a staccato pattern of thought. We ignore that others may have different desires for their learning than a purely information-consumption approach; digesting streams of data in bite sized portions as they parade past in a never ending torrent.

Longer prose forces one to lay points out in a logical manner, leading the reader through a complex argument or constructing evocative prose to excite the readers interest. This interest leads to the time to make connections between information, construct our own opinions on a piece before moving on and increases the likeliness we will remember what we have read.

Perhaps, in light of this, we should be concentrating not on getting a sheer volume of information across, but more on focusing our attention; rather than having a hundred feeds in our feed readers having but ten carefully chosen ones which bring other thought-provoking articles to prevent the decaying of the ability of deep thought to produce original ideas, to de-acclimatise our minds’ fixation upon short bursts of thought.

Pervading business models work against this, as does the tendency for computer scientists to see the world in terms of quantities of data pushed through machines. We talk about available bandwidth in our attentions, making the implicit assumption that increasing bandwidth is as desirable for attention as it is for pushing YouTube videos through the cables under the Atlantic. YouTube’s old ten minute limit on uploads was obstinately for bandwidth and copyright purposes, yet reinforces the snippet-based attention span.

What can we learn from this? That it is important to take qualitative measures into account rather than merely quantitative. To think more deeply about what we create and to break from the march towards an information glut. To slow down a little and take time to think. As computer scientists, to stop thinking of information purely in the mathematical sense and to take a more human view of the benefits and costs of the bite-size economy of thought we are encouraging.