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August 13, 2009 5:56 AM   Subscribe

The brain's plasticity has some neuroscientists worried about what the internet will do to reading - and to humanity.

But teenagers - the very demographic you would expect to suffer most from the google-induced inability to focus and critique - are in fact reading more than ever.

Or are they? Young adult fiction might be selling, but who's doing the reading?
posted by smoke (64 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Look. Reading is not a natural thing you find in the world. People invented reading because it was better than what went before. It solved real problems that people had.

If reading still solves those problems, people will continue to do it. If it doesn't, or if something else solves those problems better, they will stop. That's what people do.

Complaining about "kids today" not reading and therefore...what? What exactly is the fear? Anyway, complaining about that is like complaining about how wearing clothes is leaving us unprepared to face harsh weather conditions while naked.
posted by DU at 6:08 AM on August 13, 2009 [23 favorites]


tl;dr
posted by jzed at 6:10 AM on August 13, 2009 [14 favorites]


It seems that this article makes a fairly arbitrary distinction about material that's read on the internet. Sure, there are plenty of facile and superficial treatments on pages out there in the cyber-world, but there are just as many examples of "shallow" things to read in books, magazine and newspapers available in print today.

The task seems to be not to eliminate or reduce the act of computer-reading but rather to better the quality of reading material available, both online and in print. It looks to me that the internet holds at least as much promise of benefit as it does threat of harm in this regard.
posted by MultiplyDrafted at 6:13 AM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


OH YE GODS WHAT HATH THE TEENAGERS WROUGHT!?!
posted by odinsdream at 6:14 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


teal deer. (comments too)
posted by the cuban at 6:17 AM on August 13, 2009


We have no way of telling at this point whether the change will be permanent.

Thanks, Lamark, now tell me how giraffes got such long necks
posted by kathrineg at 6:22 AM on August 13, 2009 [7 favorites]


Wait- wasn't TV supposed to be the thing that shortened attention spans and killed brain cells? You mean there's yet another generation that's doing something different from its parents?
posted by Shohn at 6:29 AM on August 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


From the first link: And the generation the UCL study focuses on may have never needed or wanted to train their mental faculties on the task of processing lengthy swaths of text.

This is something I've been worrying about for a while. It's increasingly common to see people -- especially people who seem to be teenagers -- just replying to medium-length posts with "tl;dr" and the like. Increasingly, the nature of articles online seems to be to deliver short, coarse points in as few words as possible; the guiding assumption is that readers simply don't have the attention span/stamina to read background to a point, or a nuanced analysis. Worse, the accusation "tl;dr" often makes it obvious where they think the blame lies: it's very much "Your post requires too much of my sustained attentention" rather than "I don't have the patience/stamina to follow your reasoning".

I suspect the difference between fiction and web articles is to do with the payoff betwen effort and reward. Concentration and focus takes effort, especially if you're not practiced at sustaining it. In a novel this effort is rewarded by a consistently interesting plot, with frequent "rewards" for engagement like jokes, dramatic moments, etc. With most web articles , especially when you're reading for research, that regular payoff simply isn't there, so one's attention tends to wander, seeking something more entertaining/rewarding.

I also wonder whether the medium might play a contributing factor to this. I find that I'm much more prone to skimming text when I'm reading from a screen than from a printout. Most of my colleagues are the same: despite being comfortable enough with computer screens to stare at them all day manipulating data, when we need to read a complex journal article practically everyone hits "print" so they can read and digest the text more comfortably. I'm not sure why this is; there just seems to be something about holding a physical copy that makes it easier to focus. Maybe because it breaks the association between computer screens and instant entertainment, so we're not being primed to seek instant gratification instead of focusing on the dry, difficult text?

I think the third link makes a very valid point too. Young Adult books are selling well and it does seem to be the case that more teenagers are reading, largely thanks to the hype around Harry Potter and Twilight. [A relative of mine is a primary school teacher, who managed to widen kids' interest from HP to other books, and sustain their interest in reading when HP was no longer avialable]. But we certainly shouldn't kid ourselves that the sales of YA books actually reflect the number of YAs reading. In my (female-dominated) workplace, something like 15% of the women have bought at least on of the Twilight books, and far more have bought the Harry Potter books. My relative who's a teacher also says that, since persuading her pupils' parents to read HP with their kids, a lot of the parents are buying and reading more YA fiction for themselves. I'm biased to think that getting more people reading for pleasure is an unambiguously good thing, but it does distort the picture of how many teens are actually reading.

(This reply hasa become monstrous, and I fully expect someone to reply with a completely justified tl;dr, thus invalidating my whole point. Ho hum.)
posted by metaBugs at 6:33 AM on August 13, 2009 [12 favorites]


There are a lot of incredibly good stories being published - if people don't read they are missing out. The steady flow of book-to-film adaptations is just a hint to the non-reader what they may be missing. I'm not too concerned for reading, it's just too good a medium. It's also the most egalitarian, anyone can write and publish without much capital costs, unlike making movies and video games and other forms of storytelling which are limited who can participate.

tl;dr
posted by jzed at 9:10 AM


This joke has become so predictable and banal it needs some sort of snarky counter-response so we can put it to rest (nothing personal jzed, it was obligatory).
posted by stbalbach at 6:34 AM on August 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


What worries me more is people stunting their senses and their connections to the natural world. I worry about doing this myself. Every morning, I get up, get online and then get ready for work. On the subway, I read (yes, I read) or listen to my iPod. At work, I'm on the computer all day. At night, I'm often online or watching a movie. Or I'm reading.

Sometimes I draw picture. I keep telling myself I should spend some time with real paint or pastels or crayons. But in the end, I open up Photoshop.

I'm an intellectual guy, so it's not like I'm reading and watching crap all day. I'm reading complex fiction and non-fiction; I'm programming; I'm watching thought-provoking movies, etc.

But what I'm NOT doing is climbing a tree, cooking (I eat out and get prepared food way too often), swimming, playing an instrument, building sand castles, etc. When I force myself to get out -- just to walk in the park -- it's like a sensual explosion. It's awesome and I feel like a fog is lifting from my mind and body. And I tell myself I should ENGAGE like this every day. Or at least once a week. But I get busy and lazy and lured into virtual worlds -- and I don't.

Recently, I decided that I was spending too many evenings online. So I've cut back. Instead, I read. Which is great. But it still feels like trading one virtual world for another.

But who cares about me. I'm a guy in his 40s. I worry about kids. I like to live in a literate culture, but that's just me being selfish and wanting to be around my kind of people. For their own sake, I'm not terribly worried about whether kids read or not. I AM worried that they play XBoxes instead of baseball. (And I say that as someone with a lifelong aversion to sports.) I'm worried that when they do experiments, the do all of them via programming and physical simulations, and none of them by taking apart clock-radios or pouring chemicals together.

When I was a kid, I couldn't talk to my friends online, so I had to go over to their houses. Just the few blocks I had to walk forced me out into the world. I got hooked into computer networks when I was in junior high. Pretty much all of my sensual memories come from before that. When I conjure up the smell of a summer say, I have to think back before I got online.
posted by grumblebee at 6:39 AM on August 13, 2009 [21 favorites]


If it doesn't, or if something else solves those problems better, they will stop.

I never understand the hostility that Metafilter has towards issues of the internet and its effects on the brain or literacy. Saying that certain types of reading are just some adaptive response to problems is to ignore the massive influences that novels or epic poetry had on society before hand - these weren't simply forms embodying a solution to problems of information retrieval, they had very real affects on ordering interior subjectivity and/or relating individuals to society. Treating them as just another "problem" in an evolutionary chain is to reduce humans to the most abject level of organism - as if there is nothing else at stake other than survival and is in fact part of the problem that the author talks about in the article. The break down of institutional distinctions that we took for granted in (implicitly) evaluating different types of information - from shitty bill posters stuck on the bus stop, to ancient liturgical text - disappears once everything is turned into information.

It seems that this article makes a fairly arbitrary distinction about material that's read on the internet.

Similarly I have no idea how you can call the internet/print distinction "arbitrary", the medium is the message.

Here's another article on the subject.
posted by doobiedoo at 6:40 AM on August 13, 2009 [13 favorites]


This joke has become so predictable and banal it needs some sort of snarky counter-response so we ca

'sup dawg
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:40 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


*trust my writing to contradict myself

The break down of institutional distinctions that we took for granted in (implicitly) evaluating different types of information - from shitty bill posters stuck on the bus stop, to ancient liturgical text - is the result of flattening everything into information.
posted by doobiedoo at 6:42 AM on August 13, 2009


Damn teenagers and their harpsichords.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:43 AM on August 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


Meh. As usual with articles like this, the unquestioned assumption seems to be that back in the pre-internet days, anyone reading a book or article would read it cover-to-cover and pay full attention. Of course, that's simply not true -- it's nowhere near true. Before the internet, people would more often skim, read fragments, or read without fully absorbing, than reading in the ideal way. Yet the author of this article, as well as people like Nicholas Carr (whom the article discusses gushingly), act like these quirks are exclusive to the internet.

How many times have you heard someone say, "Gee, I just read a whole page of this book without absorbing what it's saying?" How many times have you had to stop yourself (while read something in print) and say, "Wait a minute, I'm fooling myself if I think I'm understanding what I'm reading." This happens all. the. time.

In fact, it's really important to skim, read fragments, and even zone out from time to time. Many books and articles are severely over-written and can (and should) be grasped in much less time than a full-fledged cover-to-cover reading would take. (Professional authors who insist otherwise are subtly flattering themselves.)

I've seen many articles like this before, and I'm sure there will be many to come. They keep using the same lazy habits and biases without giving any hint that they're aware of these weaknesses.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:44 AM on August 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


Doobie, i wasn't saying that the simple internet/print distinction is arbitrary, i was saying that the suggestion that the internet has some huge overabundance of drivel that isn't shared by the print world is. It simply isn't necessarily so that what appears on the internet is silly and what appears in print is serious, which seems to be a fundamental assumption of the central claims of the article.
posted by MultiplyDrafted at 6:45 AM on August 13, 2009


...what appears on the internet is silly and what appears in print is serious, which seems to be a fundamental assumption of the central claims of the article.

Really? I don't read that assumption anywhere, it seems like the author is saying that constant available and access to a huge amount of information is making it harder for people to decide what to read and how to asses it.
posted by doobiedoo at 6:49 AM on August 13, 2009


It always seems to me that the people saying the cognitive sky is falling in regards to the internet and literacy are ignoring the fact that books have always existed in an ecosystem that included signage, technical documentation, decorative calligraphy, graffiti, written correspondence, and business receipts. Some tantalizing new finds suggest that the Egyptian middle- and working-class may have been much more literate than previously assumed, with the discovery of both worker's marks on stonework and trash heaps of ephemeral texts. What had once been claimed to be an early example of sacred musical notation from the Fertile Crescent turned out to be, on further examination, a written receipt for livestock.

Once upon a time, the novel was considered to be lowbrow and common literature. The rise of the novel coincided with the 18th century medical hysteria regarding masturbation, and critics warned of books that "women read with one hand." Critics of the internet are on dubious historical ground when they treat the novel as the barometer for evaluating literacy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:52 AM on August 13, 2009 [8 favorites]


I can only speak for myself, but I think the Internet probably causes me to do far more reading in an average day than I otherwise would. In large part, that's what my day consists of—reading things on a computer screen. Someone in my line of work (or a substantially similar line of work) even a decade or two ago would probably have been doing most of their reading on paper, but I doubt the overall amount of words read per day would be as high. They probably wouldn't have email as the dominant communication medium, for instance.

If anything, the existence of and reliance upon the Internet—which is still predominantly a text-based medium, YouTube be damned—has made reading a far more important skill to many more people than it ever was in the past.

The crux of the "internet bad; books good" argument seems to be:
Carr postulated that reading online is a more shallow experience, in terms of the reader’s comprehension, than traditional reading in print. The more we become accustomed to clicking on links, following snippets of text, and quickly deciphering the presumed meaning behind ambiguous messages merely a few words in length (I’m looking at you, Twitter), the less information many of us retain.
And I'm just not sure I buy that. I don't think there's really that much more "skimming" involved in reading online than in print. Quite possibly there's less, because the act of searching for something on a computer generally only requires typing words into a search box and pressing "Search," while a similar query in paper files requires skimming or glancing over hundreds of pages.

When someone sends me an email, I'm going to read it—not skim it. Sure, there are parts—signature boilerplate, quoted replies, attachments that I'm saving for later review—that I might only glance over, but the bulk of the text is going to get read the same way it would if it was a paper memo dropped by a mail clerk into a traditional Inbox.

So the whole conclusion, insofar as it's based on that premise, seems specious.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:52 AM on August 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


It’s possible that the more we reinforce the new pathways formed in our brains by spending ever-increasing amounts of time online, albeit while decreasing our actual engagement with text, the more other areas of the brain become weakened
I don't even know what this means. What areas? How? Crititical thinking areas? Are they suggesting that the inability of people to think about their material has to do with their brain becoming weaker at linking concepts? I'm sorry, but this is complete b.s. Yes, your brain gets better at doing things with repetition, be it sports or math, but to suggest that people are now less able to read deep and think critically because of all the quick and easy links on the internet is ludicrous. Why not say that because of all the quick and easy links on the internet it's now easier than ever to see how easy it is to distract people from their tasks? This is not neuroscience, it's folk-psychology masquerading as real science.
posted by scrutiny at 6:57 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


This joke has become so predictable and banal it needs some sort of snarky counter-response so we can put it to rest

td;dt ?

Too dumb; didn't think?
posted by Pragmatica at 6:58 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes, I know. Internet rots the brain. TV rots the brain. Rock and roll rots the brain. Comic books rot the brain. Radio dramas rot the brain. Saturday maintee serials rot the brain. Pulp novels rot the brain. Moving pictures rot the brain. Jazz music rots the brain. Penny dreadfulls rot the brain. It's all a terrible threat to the children! It's a scientific fact!

Meh. It will all even out - this technology stuff requires pretty intelligent people to design, build and maintain. If we make ourselves too stupid, we'll have to go back to old-style media, where the children must read sparkly vampire novels on paper for their wholesome delight, which will increase brain function, so we can again worry about making ourselves stupid with the interwebs.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:58 AM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


teal deer

I've always read it as "tull durrr." But maybe I wasn't paying very close attention.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:00 AM on August 13, 2009


Look. Reading is not a natural thing you find in the world. People invented reading because it was better than what went before. It solved real problems that people had.

If reading still solves those problems, people will continue to do it. If it doesn't, or if something else solves those problems better, they will stop. That's what people do.


Looking at it as problem-solving is reductive. It's one way of absorbing information and having an aesthetic experience, and the medium and practice has certain effects. Reading on the internet is another way of absorbing, and has different effects. Worth noticing. You can't easily make the argument that online reading is the end of thoughtful information evaluation, but you also can't easily say it's a purely Chicken Little situation to notice the changes. Real change happens. History is rife with examples of cultures that have faltered intellectually and died. There's no reason to imagine that ours would be immune to that outcome, so the question is not whether internet reading is changing our cognitive skills - it is -, but in what ways, and to what effects? Being able to properly evaluate a piece for quality and reliability, something the article mentions, is much more difficult online where there are so few of the visual and physical cues which have been excellent benchmarks in the past.

I've noticed this in my own life, particularly recently. I've always been a voracious reader of anything in print, and I still am, but since I read so much online I'm reading less in book and magazine form. I do find that my eye is no longer trained to comfortably slide across a page left to right and top to bottom - it has developed a habit of skipping around, looking for keywords and hypertext links. It takes an extended reading session to calm this habit down. Also, reading online is physically unpleasant - so though there are certainly long-form books, novels, articles, and scholarly pieces online, I don't want to have to read deeply while staring at a screen. It's not as well adapted to human physicality as a codex is. That'll probably change (and when it changes successfully, it's not gonna look like Kindle), but in the meantime, though I could read deeper content online, it's not very rewarding, and print is the better medium. I often notice this when I read a New Yorker piece and then it's posted online - it's much, much easier to read, think about and absorb, for me, in quiet, portable print than in the online form with its intrusive ads and 'NEXT' buttons and such.
posted by Miko at 7:03 AM on August 13, 2009 [9 favorites]


It always seems to me that the people saying the cognitive sky is falling in regards to the internet and literacy are ignoring the fact that books have always existed in an ecosystem that included signage, technical documentation, decorative calligraphy, graffiti, written correspondence, and business receipts. Some tantalizing new finds suggest that the Egyptian middle- and working-class may have been much more literate than previously assumed, with the discovery of both worker's marks on stonework and trash heaps of ephemeral texts. What had once been claimed to be an early example of sacred musical notation from the Fertile Crescent turned out to be, on further examination, a written receipt for livestock.

I don't think this article is lamenting the type of content, as you and others seem to think (seriously I can't find it, maybe I'm missing something), it's talking about the structure of provision and access. The world has always had a place for the sacred and the profane, the existence of the latter isn't a problem, it has always been there and been "accessible" in one way or another. Once both these things are removed from living practice and placed in supposedly a "neutral" context they lose in purpose what they gain in access, this isn't a phenomenon confined to the internet or even writing, it has been happening for over two centuries and is probably best exemplified by the collection of objects thought to embody culture itself in museums.
posted by doobiedoo at 7:04 AM on August 13, 2009


doobiedoo: The break down of institutional distinctions that we took for granted in (implicitly) evaluating different types of information - from shitty bill posters stuck on the bus stop, to ancient liturgical text - disappears once everything is turned into information.

Except that certainly is not the case. The internet strongly follows Zipf's law in which approximately 10% of sites get about 90% of the traffic. And the markers that served to distinguish different forms of text have not especially changed with transformation to the screen. One can still distinguish an article in Nature from a patent-medicine pitch.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:05 AM on August 13, 2009


I am sick of doomsday internet generation articles.

If it makes us dumber, we'll cope. I consider constant reading, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, to be just another distraction. The real test will be whether us internet generation folk can turn off the stimulation and spend some time seriously reflecting. I sold my iPod and got rid of my cell phone for a couple years. I think it helped.
posted by radgardener at 7:07 AM on August 13, 2009


What we should really be asking is: Why does our culture continually produce voices that insist that anything that's enjoyable is automatically bad for you, simply because it's enjoyable?
posted by gimonca at 7:15 AM on August 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


"Why does our culture continually produce voices that insist that anything that's enjoyable is automatically bad for you, simply because it's enjoyable?"

'cuz Jesus said so???
posted by HuronBob at 7:18 AM on August 13, 2009


Except that certainly is not the case. The internet strongly follows Zipf's law in which approximately 10% of sites get about 90% of the traffic. And the markers that served to distinguish different forms of text have not especially changed with transformation to the screen. One can still distinguish an article in Nature from a patent-medicine pitch.

I think these breakdowns are more subtle that that. What about when your boss takes a gander through your facebook party photos for job assessment? Or that recent story of the prize winning illustrator who was exposed for plagiarism? In both these situations the photos or facts are embedded in contexts (facebook, google) that do not easily define behaviour, types of reception or ethical conduct - should your boss be looking at what we know traditionally to be "private" information? should web databases hold all facts of your life, whether achievements or misdemeanours in perpetuity? adam greenfield has done some work on this but I can't find the relevant articles right now.

I am sick of doomsday internet generation articles.

I think there's an equal tendency to dismiss all enquiries immediately as doomsday mongering, I think Miko's got my qualms about right:

so the question is not whether internet reading is changing our cognitive skills - it is -, but in what ways, and to what effects?

I won't deny the internet has done amazing things, but I worry about what else it is doing that none of us can foresee.
posted by doobiedoo at 7:18 AM on August 13, 2009


*I'm anxious like that
posted by doobiedoo at 7:21 AM on August 13, 2009


The human brain has been going to hell since we started writing the epics down. The only way to keep your gray matter in tip-top condition is to memorize everything that the elder bards recite.
posted by drdanger at 7:22 AM on August 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure why this is; there just seems to be something about holding a physical copy that makes it easier to focus. Maybe because it breaks the association between computer screens and instant entertainment, so we're not being primed to seek instant gratification instead of focusing on the dry, difficult text?

We put up with monitors because computers make data manipulation easier, but they don't make reading easier. The best monitor display is still not as good as black text on white paper. But the minute they are as good, I'll bet fewer people will be printing stuff out.
posted by emeiji at 7:24 AM on August 13, 2009


I'm not entirely certain the 'disease' (for lack of a better metaphor) described in the articles isn't simply a symptom of something considerably larger, that being the desire for Instant Gratification. 'tl;dr' doesn't seem so much mental laziness brought on by the Rise of The Internet (though I'm sure it's a contributing factor) as a statement that the words didn't immediately satisfy the desire to know something about the subject matter.

From McDonald's versus a cooking dinner, Federal Express versus mail to texting versus a phone call versus a letter to Twitter versus a blog versus a book, the human attention span narrows to that which will provide the most gratification in the shortest period of time, and it appears that the things that sell best/perform best are those things that tend to narrow that window further.

The upshot of this is experience, knowledge (and some might even add personality) are shallower for not having spent the time required to grok. Mind you, I don't think this is a generation problem, except to the extent that technology has existed in each generation that provided more instant gratification than the one before - it's a human thing, and would probably take something on the order of a Butlerian Jihad (or Spanish Inquisition) to undo.
posted by Pragmatica at 7:25 AM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


And don't forget the clothing our teens are wearing is thuggish, their music is meaningless, their actions are licentious, and their drugs are far more dangerous than the ones we did.

See Doobiedoo, the reason we tend to roll our eyes at the "effect the internet has on our children" is that this is more of the same-old sme-old. "End of civilization in sight, cause our youth." If you we're't able to accomplish that feat in your youth, why expect the same of today's youth?
posted by happyroach at 7:26 AM on August 13, 2009


I've clocked in 26 orbits round the sun and consider myself youngish...so actually I like "our" music, fashions, drugs and bacchanalian diversions, got to keep yourself busy right?

The article though seems to have taken a less contentious generational division - between digital "natives" and "immigrants", people who were born into the culture and people who had to adapt to it. I just don't see the hand wringing that people are moaning about. Maybe it was just the way the original post was written up that is skewering people's reception.
posted by doobiedoo at 7:34 AM on August 13, 2009


The idea that somehow people haven't been skimming reading material before the internet is laughable.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:35 AM on August 13, 2009




I don't think the internet has had a negative impact on my attention sp
posted by borkencode at 7:57 AM on August 13, 2009


doobiedoo: I don't think this article is lamenting the type of content, as you and others seem to think (seriously I can't find it, maybe I'm missing something), it's talking about the structure of provision and access. The world has always had a place for the sacred and the profane, the existence of the latter isn't a problem, it has always been there and been "accessible" in one way or another. Once both these things are removed from living practice and placed in supposedly a "neutral" context they lose in purpose what they gain in access, this isn't a phenomenon confined to the internet or even writing, it has been happening for over two centuries and is probably best exemplified by the collection of objects thought to embody culture itself in museums.

Well, now you are contradicting yourself to the point of incoherence. You can't say that "medium is the message" and then, in under an hour, babble that's it's not about medium or message but about structure of provision and access. I have to say that I come out of a research tradition of discourse analysis that looks at language as it is and actually used, not as a idealized fetish of an ideal religion about which magical claims can be made. But generally I think it's important to look at medium, message, and context, if you want to understand what's going on.

I think these breakdowns are more subtle that that. What about when your boss takes a gander through your facebook party photos for job assessment? Or that recent story of the prize winning illustrator who was exposed for plagiarism? In both these situations the photos or facts are embedded in contexts (facebook, google) that do not easily define behaviour, types of reception or ethical conduct - should your boss be looking at what we know traditionally to be "private" information? should web databases hold all facts of your life, whether achievements or misdemeanours in perpetuity? adam greenfield has done some work on this but I can't find the relevant articles right now.

Pardon, but I'm struggling to see how this relates to either your previous claim that the internet demolishes the distinctions between different types of discourse, my response to that claim, or literacy and cognitive development. The issue of boundaries between private and public behavior, and the potential repercussions is certainly not new. A key ethical puzzler of Pride and Prejudice centers on Mr. Darcy's reluctance to expose Mr. Wickham's prior romantic and economic malfeasance to broader social ridicule. There is nothing magical about the internet that makes us unable evaluate it's ethical mandates, or paper which highlights those mandates.

What this has to do with literacy, I've not a clue.

As an example, I'd like to point out that Killian's article cites a link to a "study" that's actually a "briefing paper", a screen-formatted PDF with conclusions presented separate from statistical supporting evidence. One of the conclusions is that skimming published journal articles is not age-dependent, and that means that all generations are "dumbing down."

However, the entire structure of the scientific paper is designed around progressive information-finding behavior. We write abstracts and introduction sections so that the reader can quickly identify if it's of interest and falls into his or her area of expertise. And we write conclusion sections so that people not interested in replication (or critique) of findings can cut to the chase. As Bruno Latour points out, the social-networking features of scientific studies are an inherent feature of the genre. Few people ever read print journals cover-to-cover, they skimmed the abstracts, looked for key names, and dove into the details on one or two articles a month.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:01 AM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


From the bumpf of one of the books mentioned in the article:-
Instead of a bunch of spoiled “screenagers” with short attention spans and zero social skills, he discovered a remarkably bright community which has developed revolutionary new ways of thinking, interacting, working, and socializing.
Oh, please let 'screenagers' not become an accepted term!

Sorry for my earlier tl;dr - it was too obvious to avoid. I even previewed several times to see if anyone else was there before me.
posted by jzed at 8:30 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


This always seems to me to have strange undercurrents about class--the New Yorker might be more difficult to digest in some intangible way, but now it is accessible to so many more people than it otherwise was 10 years ago.

Books, newspapers, scholarly journals, even People magazine cost money. How many more people can read the New York Times now that it is, essentially, free? See wonderful photography? Do basic research? Learn new words?
posted by kathrineg at 8:32 AM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


No one should take tl;dr seriously; it's largely meant to piss people off, insult them, or joke around.
posted by kathrineg at 8:33 AM on August 13, 2009


The notion that big, fat, scary books that you don't immediately understand can't gravely influence your intellectual development is laughable.

What frightens me is seeing people dismissing things as not worth their time because they take effort to grasp. I don't think the internet is the cause of that behavior, but it is an enabler.

If your reaction to that idea is to say "But I put effort into absorbing difficult concepts on the internet all the time," then you should keep in mind that you are rare, in the large picture.
posted by Darth Fedor at 8:35 AM on August 13, 2009


If your reaction to that idea is to say "But I put effort into absorbing difficult concepts on the internet all the time," then you should keep in mind that you are rare, in the large picture.

Perhaps we need a kids.metafilter.com?
posted by jzed at 8:40 AM on August 13, 2009


What does the ubiquitous availability of digital text mean for the human brain as it processes ever-increasingly amounts of information?

That we'll stop being able to construct meaningful, grammatically correct sentences? God forbid.
Not a good start to any article, and the rest didn't fair much better.
posted by opsin at 8:49 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the "Nueroscientists worried" link: Those who have grown up with the Internet are often referred to as ‘digital natives’, while those who came to the party later are sometimes called ‘digital immigrants’

I guess internet-induced intellectual erosion has affected my memory because I can't remember ever hearing those terms before.

The article quotes varied scources who postulate and speculate that brains might be changing, and one scientist who wrote a book about how reading changed the way the human mind is organized, and then the writer gives us this rhetorical question: "Are our brains losing critical cognitive ability in the Internet age, or are they in fact simply adapting?"

There are no "neuroscientists," or anyone else for that matter, who seem "worried about what the internet will do to humanity," at least not in that breezy article from an internet pop culture magazine.
posted by longsleeves at 8:54 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I skimmed the article, glanced at the comments, and conclude that I wholeheartedly disagree.
posted by hypersloth at 9:10 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


What we should really be asking is: Why does our culture continually produce voices that insist that anything that's enjoyable is automatically bad for you, simply because it's enjoyable?

Can you cite the part where someone said that their concern was simply that the internet was enjoyable? I have $20 for you if its in either of the FPP links.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:34 AM on August 13, 2009


There's also the plasticity of reality to worry about.
posted by koeselitz at 10:44 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Carr postulated that reading online is a more shallow experience ...

How many times have you been reading a complicated book (fiction or nonfiction) and you get to a part that reminds you of something you read earlier in the book? Or refers to an earlier character that you don't remember well or something...

You want to go back and read the earlier reference again, but how to find it? What I wouldn't give for a Ctrl-F button on books.

I would love to have my favorite books online, tagged and cross-referenced and fully text searchable. Now, I check to see if its in Google Books, do a search there, and then go to the correct page in the hard version (if I'm lucky enough to be reading the same edition that Google has ...)

Wait- wasn't TV supposed to be the thing that shortened attention spans and killed brain cells?

Seriously. I'm not a huge fan of the millennial generation yet, but I'd rather trust the world to them than to the fucked-up TV generation of Boomers and Gen X/Ys.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:45 AM on August 13, 2009


Also, I do think that information overload is a real and present danger, but we'll manage it.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:46 AM on August 13, 2009


I have a teenage daughter. Her main leisure time activity is reading, both in French and in English (English is her first language.) When any gift giving occasion rolls around she receives gift cards to purchase books. These are given to her by her friends who are also voracious readers. She spends a moderate amount of time on the computer where she reads online books. She has a vocabulary that challenges many adults. Am I worried that the use of the internet is eroding her attention span or her ability to focus? Nope. Teenagers these days, can't get them away from the written word in any form.
posted by Wendy BD at 11:00 AM on August 13, 2009


jzed: "Perhaps we need a kids.metafilter.com?"

This should be its Cat Scans.
posted by JHarris at 11:36 AM on August 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Doobie - It seems pretty clear to me that the author's complain entails an attack on both the unique way in which users read online AND an attack on what the author argues is a dearth of profound content available to be read online. This seems clearest to me in the second paragraph, when the author makes it explicit by saying, "quickly deciphering the presumed meaning behind ambiguous messages merely a few words in length" in reference to the way people read online. This phrase seems to explicitly and undeniably contain an accusation against the content of the internet itself and NOT merely against the methodology of the internet reader. As the argument progresses, it seems that it IS a fundamental assumption that the triviality of the content of the internet is one of the contributing factors to the style of reading (fostered by the internet) which the author laments. Do you disagree? If so, why?
posted by MultiplyDrafted at 2:51 PM on August 13, 2009


Well, now you are contradicting yourself to the point of incoherence. You can't say that "medium is the message" and then, in under an hour, babble that's it's not about medium or message but about structure of provision and access.

You obviously know more about this than I do then, I guess I always assumed that the way something is provided and accessed is part of what defines it as a medium, so the internet is defined by a network model that allowed information stored on a database to be accessed on demand. And when Killian talks about information on the web as being overwhelming to the point of distraction I see this as consequence of this model - the way links between pieces of persistent information can be made instantaneously, even serendipitously, but without the legwork or consideration involved in pursuing traditional print citations and references.

I'm struggling to see how this relates to either your previous claim that the internet demolishes the distinctions between different types of discourse, my response to that claim

I got sidetracked when thinking of the way the internet strips information of context, sorry. My original point was that the corporeal world provides the best system of "progressive information finding" and that information is always already latently defined by the contexts in which it can be displayed without any need to look up identifying markers (this being perhaps most recognisable in privacy issues). Subversion of this order is only possible because we take so much of this for granted. Admittedly my example of bill posters and religious books was broader than the scope of the Killian article which seems to focus on academic research in libraries and I'm less concerned with relevant evaluation of academic research than the way different types of information generally - whether technical, phatic or religious - support modes of comportment - indifference, irreverence, devotion, etc. My evidence is anecdotal but the experience of the internet is largely flat, an episodic string of little hits.

MultiplyDrafted,

I'm getting the opposite, the superficiality of twitter seems to stem from its form; 140 character limit, constant "update" style publication, subscription model. The author isn't so much banging on about the content of gossiping, bitching or whatever on twitter (that's surely been going on for ages in forums, blogs and emails) so much as the compactness, responsiveness and idea of exposure built into the medium. Surely she'd otherwise have pointed out all the fruitless kvetching and other superficialities on the internet.
posted by doobiedoo at 3:34 PM on August 13, 2009


Ironically it seems many commenters have personified the stereotype they refute by not actually reading the article.

Apologies if my post description was too incendiary, I thought it was a genuinely interesting article promulgating the kind of multi-faceted view people are asking for. The quote, "An inegnious device for avoiding thought" is actually from Sir Arthur Helps, and he was referring to reading! Too oblique, perhaps...
posted by smoke at 4:08 PM on August 13, 2009


I'm a neuroscientist and I'm not worried. About this.

Most things have an impact on the "structure" or "wiring" of your brain. So if I experience something that you (my grandfather) didn't, yes, our brains will be "wired" differently.

So What?
posted by cogneuro at 4:14 PM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]




Funny. Every generation thinks the younger generation is getting stupider. Our twenty something employees sometimes astound us in their goofiness.

It's easy to be cynical and forget you have 20 years of experience on them and that 20 years ago you too were a drooling simpleton to somebody older. Some things can only be gained through experience and that's that. They can't be taught. Only learned.
posted by tkchrist at 6:54 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Stupider may not be the right description, but we all have to admit that the information is, by and large, parsed smaller. The time we spend paying attention to a single author's concept is shrinking, while at the same time related ideas from other sources are more accessible.

In the past illiterate merchants had elaborate methods for remembering things. Who owed what, and what do I own and such. Special priest classes were in charge of memorizing all the laws and stories of a given culture. Printed text, numbers and literacy ended those skills.

I am not sure what exactly we are losing now, perhaps our single mindedness, some aspects of our memory and

tl;dr :
We don't remember as many facts, but our google-fu has improved
posted by psycho-alchemy at 12:08 AM on August 14, 2009


The question then is whether anyone will need the facts. If I can go find all the facts with my tablet, (and they're trustworthy, which is a different issue and I'm certainly not going to get into whether or not once a book that has been trusted for decades gets scanned online and is an 'unchanged' copy is still the same book and just as trustworthy as it was, vs 'the person scanning it could have edited out parts!') then I've all the facts at my fingertips and so I don't need to bother memorizing them. Which gets us to an "...ingenious device for avoiding thought." Please show me any written record of the past forever that isn't an ingenious device for avoiding thought. All the records are written down so that people don't have to keep thinking about the subject, they can just go look at the giant calendar hewn into the living rock, read the scroll, or tell the story.

The shorter attention span argument, which is pretty ,well, scanty, given the sheer amount of other things that could be causing it, (looking at you thirty-three-letter-trademarked-name for a chemical compound that contains an additional four trademarked names and you metal contraption that roars around at sixty miles an hour, and that's assuming the kids are going the speed limit which they aren't, so basically environmental factors, which yes the Internet falls under, but as the primary cause? At this point, the primary cause is essentially the World.) basically amounts to being annoyed that others have found a way to cheat the system. Which is sort of what all griping about the kids in general is. They have it better than we did, (hopefully, it is sort of the point), so of course we have to pretend that the shit we had to deal with, I say had to because at least half of us would have sloped off and had a ciggie/gone to recess if we'd had the option, but no let's memorize multiplication tables, (which I bet most of us know out to 12 places at a minimum, and of course the calculator has only been around since dinosaurs and God forbid we use technology for it's actual intended purpose, that of helping the people who have access to it), and we pretend that particular knowledge is a necessity. Because the alternative, that everyone after us is going to go farther and faster, and then they the selfish little gits actually choose not to, if you can fucking believe that, well they have to have something wrong with them. Can't pay attention, too busy tweeting, too easily distracted, too busy having more/different kinds of fun than we did. Of course we try to dress that up in a way that makes us look less wretched, spiteful, and behind the times than we are. Which is some of what this is you know. Oh not this specifically, but this "everything is ruined forever", thing old people do/have done since glaciers were a serious threat to human health.

The other question, I think, is informational gate-keeping. The idea of every single book being online and no different from a paper copy, (minus any arguments about how information on paper is so much more accessible, which is an aesthetic argument at worst and a personal preferences argument at best) horrifies some people. Because looking through a bunch of bibliographies, then requesting the books, then waiting for a week or two, and then reading the books makes writing that research paper an epic process. Having all the books readily to hand is sort of cheating somehow isn't it?
posted by Peztopiary at 3:29 AM on August 14, 2009


Doobie - Your critique would be fine if the article's force was devoted solely to the decrying of twitter-culture. However, her attack seems to be leveled at "online information" writ large. It's not just the character limits and update-styles of twitter and facebook that make internet information silly, according to this author. She also, as indicated in that last quote I referenced, seems to think that there is something essentially unimportant about online content, as opposed to print content.

Earlier in the comments, you were arguing that form=content. Then, when the author argues that the form of internet information is short and trivializing, isn't she also necessarily arguing that the internet has shallow content? Yes, she necessarily is (if we allow your identification of form with content to stand). Whether the form made the content trivial or the shallow content lent itself to portrayal in trivializing format is, ultimately, a moot point (at least for the author of this article). What is clear, from reading the words of the article, is that there IS a claim lurking here that the Internet is dumb and print is smart. This claim exists IN ADDITION to and in direct support of her more frequent claims about the way that interaction with "online information" has changed human behavior. Your ideas about the way that form and content interact are interesting and worth developing but you seem to be sort of artificially gluing them onto this article in your interpretation, when the author herself doesn't really seem to be interested in that distinction/relationship, as far as the reader can tell from the words she has written.
posted by MultiplyDrafted at 5:36 AM on August 14, 2009


Carr postulated that reading online is a more shallow experience, in terms of the reader’s comprehension, than traditional reading in print. The more we become accustomed to clicking on links, following snippets of text, and quickly deciphering the presumed meaning behind ambiguous messages merely a few words in length (I’m looking at you, Twitter), the less information many of us retain.

Twitter? Isn't this kinda the point of poetry and lyrics? To convey information with controlled, measured text based on clever language use and contextual cues? Does twitter cause folks to think more poetically?
posted by es_de_bah at 8:50 AM on August 14, 2009


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