Is my iPhone Changing my Brain?
November 5, 2012 9:23 PM   Subscribe

What's Wrong With Online Reading, a slide presentation by Randy Connolly, argues that the relatively recent and increasingly popular approach to reading and learning - on computers, tablets and smartphones instead of traditional print - influences what and how we read, research and think, with disturbing consequences.
posted by Schadenfreudian (50 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
People skim when they read print too.
posted by John Cohen at 9:25 PM on November 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

How appropriate that it's presented online in a difficult-to-read format.
posted by DoctorFedora at 9:26 PM on November 5, 2012 [43 favorites]

Yeah I couldn't read that.
posted by mazola at 9:27 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I like slide 68.
posted by anewnadir at 9:33 PM on November 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

come on
posted by the theory of revolution at 9:34 PM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Back in my day, we only read on scrolls, so we couldn't just flip ahead or back when we felt like it. We didn't have these newfangled "indexes" or "footnotes." Nowadays, people just skim the chapter headers and pretend they've read the whole thing!

Damn new "codex" technology is corrupting our youth.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:35 PM on November 5, 2012 [23 favorites]

a slide presentation by Randy Connolly, argues that the relatively recent and increasingly popular approach to reading and learning - on computers, tablets and smartphones instead of traditional print - influences what and how we read, research and think

The medium is the message / massage, people. It's not a new concept.
posted by hippybear at 9:37 PM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

If the term "Net Gener" ever catches on, I'm going to jump in front of a subway.
posted by deathpanels at 9:45 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

How appropriate that it's presented online in a difficult-to-read format.

It's so awkward that it might be deliberate. By putting each sentence or two on its own slide he's made the kind of skimming he's worried about impossible. Of course, that wouldn't explain the changes in font size and color.

Ugh, it really starts to ramble if you read on. By around slide 90 he's complaining about data center power usage. How is that relevant?

He's certainly made it clear that when information on the web is organized in such a way that I can skim and walk away quickly it's a feature, not a bug.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:46 PM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

A paragraph isn't always better than a bullet point.
posted by davebush at 9:50 PM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Let's be fair: this is a two year old set of lecture notes (most likely) rather than a standalone presentation. Connolly is a university professor who has placed various lectures and course supplements online. I doubt it was meant for mass consumption. Slideshare has a lot of abandoned material on it.

Ironically, I found that the way he dumped me into several slides of random images, then some poorly laid out text, just encouraged me to skip-skip-skip through on my first pass as I tried to figure out what he was doing. But then again, if this is really meant to be used as a lecture presentation, I don't expect it to read like a book.

I want to go back and review what he said, and check his references. He may have a good argument to make. Anecdotally, I know that I read fewer long texts in print than I used to even ten years ago.

But I wonder how much his experience of taking material that used to be communicated in a lecture hall, maybe with some slides, and in real paper books, and now plugging it into a tool like Camtasia, is colouring his perception of the value of online text and media in general. And, of course, as he mentions, his father's Alzheimer's hit him hard.

(I teach real live people in classrooms and I develop eLearning. It's harder than you think to move from presenting live to making everything work online.)
posted by maudlin at 9:57 PM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

/Skims slidesshow.
posted by Artw at 10:00 PM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

"...with disturbing consequences" is the new "...with sexy results!"
posted by edheil at 10:04 PM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Lol, slide 1 out of 141

I guess that sums it up.
posted by empath at 10:05 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

CGP grey disagrees.
posted by poe at 10:12 PM on November 5, 2012


1) make it readable
posted by mazola at 10:13 PM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by sexyrobot at 10:32 PM on November 5, 2012

the medium doesn't influence the message, now here's "being and nothingness" conveyed via twitter in a way that isn't either tedious or incoherent

(but it was already tedious and incoherent, ahueheuhueheu)
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:34 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

This post is a joke, right?
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:44 PM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

The problem I find I have with books is that truly important language is nestled in the middle of a paragraph recapitulating things the author thought you might have forgotten from two chapters ago.

Writing for the web has more markers for whats worth reading.
posted by ethansr at 10:49 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure why this is either interesting or new; moral panics about the dangers/evils of online reading (or online anything) appear once every four to six months and have done ever since academia and the news media discovered there was such a thing. Is it just that this one is particularly incoherent (perhaps, pace maudlin, due to having been intended as a classroom aid rather than something that could stand on its own)?

There must be differences between reading from a screen and reading from paper and it would be interesting to see a post summarising the research on it, rather than yet another attempt to castigate online [foo] for not being an offline [bar].
posted by MartinWisse at 10:51 PM on November 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Comics cause juvenile delinquency?

I'm reading a book IRL, listening to an audiobook and reading comics online these days.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:03 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Good for you son! If there's one thing the web needs, it's more flash-based slideshows. Can you imagine the web without flash-based slideshows?

posted by Talkie Toaster at 11:12 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

it isn't wise to make everything a comic book, OnTheLastCastle
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:15 PM on November 5, 2012

What? No. That's ridiculous. Of course everything should be made into a comic book. Ideally just one really big one that subsumes the entire universe. Wouldn't that be badass?
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:20 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

What the fuck is this shit?
posted by MaryDellamorte at 11:36 PM on November 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

The only piece I found worth mulling over was the part about 'selectivity'. It really is way too easy online to avoid any links that might challenge one's preferred world view. (i.e., I rarely, if ever, visit any sites that detail tea party principles) Still, I find it hard to believe that people explore diverse world views more when reading print material. Perhaps there is just the increase in the rate of increased 'selective' behavior due to online reading - an intensification of the behavior.

And, I suspect that political polarization (that is caused by selectivity, per Connolly) was inevitable with or without the internet ... and that it is related to a much more complex set of variables than computer use.
posted by Surfurrus at 11:36 PM on November 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

When I got to the slide where the word danger was roughly four times the size of all the other words and orange, he had pretty much proven to me that my willingness to wade through alarmist bullshit is not what it once was. Only this doesn't alarm me.

I think large swaths of what he cites are based on the perceived value of the information based on the difficulty of obtaining it. When I had to have our corporate library people print out and mail me a paper copy of an ancient journal article, I'd read the whole thing just because, after all that effort, it seems like I ought to,even if I decided that the information therein was of questionable worth to. Does that make me a better reader, or am I just throwing "good money after bad" in terms of wasting time reading a low value paper thoroughly.

Citing statistics for all web page visits and comparing that to reading books is only topical if you're factoring the time I spent going through my mail and sorting out what's important and what's crap.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:42 PM on November 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

CGP Grey was "invited by Google" to say that Youtube is the future of education. Not exactly an unbiased source, and on top of that, he gives no evidence.
posted by Yowser at 11:53 PM on November 5, 2012

I think Charlemagne makes the best point here about the difficulty in obtaining the information governing how one approaches it.

On the other hand, I grew up with computers at a young age. I didn't learn to properly read a book until my early 20s: unable to keep from skimming and being completely impatient with them because they didn't give me interesting information quickly enough.

Sure, I had to read books in school, but I did a piss poor job and often resorted to cliffs notes or other students to get the real meaning.

I would never want to go back to the way I used to be, and it's part of the reason I got rid of facebook and only stick to sites like metafilter or sites with links to full articles. Things like huffington post and reddit are overwhelming and put my brain into impulsive-information mode that is hard to brake out of, like an addict relapsing.
posted by hellslinger at 12:01 AM on November 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

I had stopped reading books until I got the tablet. Averaging about one or two books a week now. I especially like the "nighttime" (inverse) reading mode.
posted by telstar at 12:03 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ironically, I found that the way he dumped me into several slides of random images, then some poorly laid out text, just encouraged me to skip-skip-skip through on my first pass as I tried to figure out what he was doing.

Yeah, me too. I may not be that typical, of course, but I found it far more exhausting than reading a long block of text - and not because I skip in the long blocks either.

I know he comments that lots of websites are only looked at for a few seconds, but isn't that like saying a lot of people only read the titles of books? Sometimes you open a window, have a look, and then close it because it wasn't what you were looking for.

The point about increased selectivity is interesting. Personally, I suspect it's not just technological, though; it's social. Most web pages can be commented on; the internet is interactive and can feel much more as if you're 'in the room' with whoever wrote the piece than reading a book or newspaper. I suspect a lot of people avoid websites whose worldview they aren't comfortable with precisely because it's uncomfortable - because it feels like being in company that might be hostile to you. (And goodness knows, situations like the Sarkeesian case indicate that online hostility can turn into serious harassment. That's a case of hostile visitors trying to trash the house, but the interactivity still applies. The web is unsafe in a way that newsagents and bookshops just aren't.)

I might watch a documentary about a maximum-security prison because I was interested in what the prisoners had to say, but I wouldn't walk into one just to have a look around: I'd be afraid someone might thump me. I think a lot of online selectivity is ruled by the same principle: reading someone's web page is far more keeping company with them than reading something in print, and people are always selective about what company they keep.
posted by Kit W at 12:12 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anecdotally, I do experience an effect where the more easily I can obtain some information, the less likely it is to lodge in my memory. I rarely retain much detail from Internet research unless I make a concerted effort to transcribe notes onto paper or similar.

Since a lot of development seems to be directed at making interfaces more predictive and fluid, so you barely have to engage mentally to find what you're looking for this gets worse.

A common response to this is that we don't need to memorise stuff anyway so it's more efficient not to, but I think this ignores the role of learned knowledge in the subconscious process of having new ideas. All the best academics I've worked with have had a great volume of information directly stored in their heads which aids them in recognising patterns and synthesising new ideas. You can't do that if all you remember is the index.
posted by larkery at 1:12 AM on November 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Anecdotally, I do experience an effect where the more easily I can obtain some information, the less likely it is to lodge in my memory. I rarely retain much detail from Internet research unless I make a concerted effort to transcribe notes onto paper or similar.

That's a fairly well known phenomenon, isn't it, which doesn't have much to do with online reading or not, in that any student who actively engages the material they're studying, rather than just reading it, has a better chance or remembering it. It's why canny high school teachers urged pupils to make cheat sheets.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:50 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love the bit about google making us lazier and stupider. I remember the college class I had to take as an adjunct to my mandatory history class (best history class I ever took. They explained WHY things connected together. I finally got history, for real; A++, if I'd had time I would have audited the other half). We had to work in groups (ugh) and come up with a shared thesis statement (ugh ugh) and the lazy, pathetic fools I was paired with all plagiarized a BAD sentence from the textbook. I might have been able to swallow the plagiarism if it was actually a decent thesis statement, but it was total crap. I complained to the teacher, all kinds of annoyed at 1) having to work with plagiarists and 2) having to work with stupid plagiarists, and we got an educational class on plagiarism and I didn't have to work in a group anymore (thank the gods), not that they would have me.

This was significantly before google. This was before the internet had pictures. I used gopher to backdoor my way onto BBSes when I was home from college.

I also want to see his studies on attention and how they handled the ten gazillion confounds that are inherent in those sorts of correlational (remember kids, correlation does not imply causation!) studies - especially when they are across age cohorts instead of longitudinal. Maybe he needs to stop reading his studies off of web pages, or something.

I think the point with the data centers was that we are DESTROYING TEH WURLD BY SEARCHING OMGOMGOMG!!!! so obviously the solution is.... to print out anything you want to read on the internet...

I keep thinking there's a flaw in this logic, but WHAT is it??

I agree the selectivity issue is important - especially with geo-locating so that searches change in what they provide (something google's been doing for a while) as well as adjusting searches to match other searches one has made. I switched to a non-tracking search for that reason; the idea that the world I searched would conform to my history of searches disturbed me in ways I can't easily explain. Of course, I'm also a google 60+ year old man, so maybe their heuristics aren't the best.
posted by Deoridhe at 2:23 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Martin: it's not a fundamental property of online reading in the sense of reading from a screen rather than paper, but it is exacerbated by increased ease of access to information through indexes and linking. When I was in research I found I retained information better from material that I read on paper, not (I suspect) because of some intrinsic property of paper but because I had to work harder to find what I was looking for. Maybe extra lookup difficulty prompts the brain to remember so as to avoid that effort in the future?

To achieve the same recall from online reading I have to force some more effort into the situation which requires some extra discipline.
posted by larkery at 2:42 AM on November 6, 2012

That is to say, I have good recall just from reading some long form on paper or e-ink or whatever, whereas reading from screen in the format most web-type information is presented, with instant search, indexing, linking and so on demands effort above just reading to retain.
posted by larkery at 2:44 AM on November 6, 2012

I made it to the first slide with substantial text, which claims that “digital natives have sophisticated IT skills and need to be challenged”. This is begging the question to such an absurd extent – has the author ever talked to a teacher? do they understand that using Facebook and YouTube are not advanced skills or particularly transferable? – that fighting slideshare started to look unappealing.

Continuing to the next few slides, we get some quotes claiming that hypertext changes everything, with so many obvious logical errors even in the brief excerpts that the goal of this presentation appears to be either seriously engaging straw man arguments or part of some obscure internecine academic turf war with people who huffed several issues of mid-90s Wired.
posted by adamsc at 5:07 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Does the presentation deal with the fact that formally published materials are the tip of the iceberg in terms of literacy, and that previous generations were using written glyphs for a wide variety of social-function ephemera including graffiti, calling cards, post cards, telegrams, and a fair bit of letter writing that did little more than an informational handshake?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:20 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by RedEmma at 6:54 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that is this guy was really trying to align form to content, this would be formatted as a regular journal article, and y'know, printed somewhere.

Instead, he notes that wbpages are scanned, on average, in less than four seconds. I was clicking through that insane slide show at double that.

Pictures of seagulls flying above text?



I found myself clicking through at a very high rate of speed because a lot of this presentation is so granular that I was looking for the important stuff. Which, I suppose, is his point. But my sense is that it would be much more effective to present this as an article, with a caveat in the beginning explaining the nature of the work and asking the reader to take his/her time with reading . . . or is that too condescending?


[pie chart]

[bad clip art]

posted by exlotuseater at 7:25 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

This presentation was pretty disjointed and was not formatted too nicely. I do think that the following points are interesting 1. it's hard to resist quick-clicking 2. formation of extreme, homogeneous groups 3. pervasive influence of google 4. high speed of consensus building And I wish they had addressed the issue that it's much harder to read from monitors than from paper.
posted by zscore at 7:32 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.

-- Plato, on Writing.
Get off my digital lawn, etc.
posted by Drexen at 7:49 AM on November 6, 2012 [10 favorites]

So much hate! I thought it was clever (maybe in an old man way? "I will package it for the kids about whom I am talking") and interesting. Slide 23 (academics report they are not reading as deeply). Slides 29-31 (scanning and lack of comprehension in study). Slides 53-55 (academics reading/scanning more quickly). Slide 88 (online readers of NYT read fewer hard news stories). Selectivity and polarization. Impact of Google. Narrowing of scholarship.

It made me think, "Maybe I should go back to the print version of the NYT." I won't really do that, but it is true that there is value in looking through page by page of what the (professional) news writers and editors selected as worthy of inclusion. I look at the front page of several newspapers, and then I go through my (primarily domestic/social issue) news topics that I have selected (e.g. "gay," "lesbian," "transgender," "HIV," "trans youth," "disability," "Americans with Disabilities Act," "racism," "Russia gay"). (Note to self: Need iGoogle replacement before November 2013.) I probably do skip more international news stories than I used to. (Although with the swirl of content everywhere, I am probably more aware in some ways of at least the existence of various international news stories.)

It made me think, "Google better keep going with the digitization project." Getting the old books and articles on line so that students/academics/policy people won't only use the recent content.

The environmental part made me worry.

I thought it was incomplete (maybe fatally) that he did not include the impact of tablets/ Kindles. I read *way* more on my Kindle than I was reading for the ten years prior to purchase. Granted, it's mostly fiction, but I also regularly read three magazines on Kindle and occasionally newspapers (mostly single issues purchased during travel to read on planes). Once the NYT figures out its accounting for Kindle and online, I will hopefully get the NYT on my Kindle regularly, which to me seems as though I will be reading more NYT than when I got the print version.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:52 AM on November 6, 2012

And what about book covers?
posted by DreamerFi at 10:18 AM on November 6, 2012

Plato was right. But then, he didn't foresee the digital camera.

Googlearchy generates bias-driven infocamps. I'll buy that as a caution. You get a lot of hallelujahs when you preach to the choir, not so many when shouting about racism at the Klan gathering. Michel's Law connects with Google in a reasonable way. You get what you pay for, or rather, what you ask for. Show me your smiley face and don't bother me with your batshit theories.

The part about (upcoming generations) not becoming accustomed to reading seems dangerous, but I'm willing to believe it's not necessarily a species-ending trend. However, to lose the evocative power of the well-written paragraph in favor of scanning for relevant info...I dunno, it seems like poking out one of your eyes. What are you supposed to get in return?

Much about the virtual world hasn't been thought over very well. Our bodies move through space, while our avatars move through cyber-space--the long commute to work, listening to the clack of the subway, eyes and ears into my device, connected to my posse (in text and photos, movies), the person next to me similarly oblivious, yet he, too, is dancing in the ether. Prose won't go extinct until virtuality comes up with the proper electronic substitute.

All that worried mumbling's just brainfarts having been excited by a doomsayer's cautionary essay. Right now we are struggling with yet another flavor of oligarchism. The gadgets are still in the wet-dream stage. What happens when we figure out the relevant enhancements? Connolly seems to think we may be doomed to rule by a general idiocracy before we get a chance to teach the world to sing (in-per-fect har-mon-ee). He could be right.

I'm old. I remember when I thought the music had died. I was wrong about that. Jack me in. I want another trip down Bright Angel Trail (thanks to the services of that google kid who bothered to carry all that shit on his back). This time I'd like to feel a bit of winter chill and smell the living rock.

Rock on.
posted by mule98J at 11:02 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Without the context of the full talk that presumably goes with it, this presentation is difficult to read, hard to digest, and kind of meaningless.
posted by asnider at 12:23 PM on November 6, 2012

BungaDunga: r back when we felt like it. We didn't have these newfangled "indexes" or "footnotes." Nowadays, people just skim the chapter headers and preten
All downhill since they stopped using the wet-clay tablets.

Phhht. Kids these millenia.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:27 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Minor point, as usual: He should drop the part about the energy cost of data centers and a search. I no longer work at Google and can also only estimate, but his guess at the energy used by a single search is high by more than several orders of magnitude.
posted by Hello Dad, I'm in Jail at 11:43 PM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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