Literacy 2.Ooh Shiny!

One of today’s Fresh Pressed is the intriguingly-titled “Short Attention Span Theater or Why My Students Can’t Read Books.” It’s a review of a book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Carr’s thesis is that the Internet as a medium (not in terms of content) is changing the way we think, specifically that it encourages distraction, rather than sustained focus. Carr cites some scientific studies that extensive internet use can aggravate attention defici-ooh, shiny! and reduces memory function.


The dust jacket.

Let me put that one again: Carr’s concern, backed by scientific studies, is that extensive users of the Internet (i.e. you) have atrophied or underdeveloped abilities to concentrate, remember, and pay attention. I’d like to also reference this article from Stanford, about the limits of (media) multitasking and distractibility. If those don’t sound familiar, you haven’t been following along. 😀

Carr and Joseph, the blogger over at lovemesomebooks, take pains to point out that Carr’s thesis is far more nuanced than the usual brand of techno-alarmism. But if Carr’s concerns are valid, then applying mnemonics, meditating, petit perception and simulflow may actually help to correct some of the downsides of a wired existence. In the “grazing to deep reading” sense, it might be the best of both worlds: the technological tools to access wide and varied sources of information, even on a single topic, and the personal tools to resist the drive to distraction that such access brings.

How does media affect this, then? According to Carr, the Internet is a “distraction device.” Between the Skype pings, open tabs, and the monster that is TVTropes, the Internet is very, very good at getting you to come to the table and sample everything. In Steven Berlin Johnson’s terms, you are “skimming the surface of the incoming data, picking out the relevant details, and moving on to the next stream. You’re paying attention, but only partially. That lets you cast a wider net, but it also runs the risk of keeping you from really studying the fish.” And the economic, technological, and social bases of the Internet are geared towards making it more distracting over time. Your friends want to contact you. Google wants you to go to more websites so they can generate more ads. The Internet itself is based on multiple servers and users going at once (is that what ‘cloud computing’ is? I have no idea).

A book, by contrast, is a lot of text, by itself, usually on a single topic. There are no links. You can’t open another tab or another browser. It does not, itself, interrupt you in any way. And the social expectation isn’t that you’ll flip a couple of pages and move on to the next one. No, you’re expected to “sit down with a good book.” You expect to focus on it for a long period of time, to a greater or lesser degree exclusively. Books encourage deep reading in a way that the Internet simply doesn’t, but that’s all right, because the Internet encourages fact-checking and follow-up questions in a way that books simply don’t.

As it turns out, this blog was illegal until I incorporated a lolspeak cat. I did not know that you needed one to legally operate a blog.

Speaking of, there’s a lot of discussion over there about “deep reading” and its (apparently quite close) companion “deep thinking.” Since I didn’t see a definition forthcoming, I hunted up the terms on Google, like any good member of the Social Generation. After wading through the Wikipedia article and a few irrelevancies, I found this article, from March 1997, on the subject of deep reading in the information age.

The phrase has taken on a few Luddite, a few slow-local shades of meaning since then, but in “Deep Thinking and Deep Reading in an Age of Info-Glut, Info-Garbage and Info-Tactics,”(1) the author says that deep reading, as they define it, “does not require continuing active eye contact with printed or electronic text. It may be contact with text or it may be reflection aimed at resolving some unanswered question, issue or dilemma.” That is, holding a question in mind, and keeping it there, much like the question “Who Am I?” in neti neti meditation. It is the capacity to focus, to control one’s attention, that makes for deep reading, not whether it is a book or a screen you’re looking at, or indeed if you’re looking at anything at all.

In that essay, the author also discusses (and provides links to definitions of) what they call “the post-modem skills array”(2). Among others are “seeing and finding what’s missing,” such as Harry Lorayne’s card trick (where he calls out what cards are missing from a deck recited to him), and analyzing data, a process aided by attention to detail and a good memory.

My answer to Joseph (and Carr, once I get a copy of the book and double-check that I’m reading it right) is that the downsides of extensive internet use can be mitigated by good off-line education. Through both Learning to Think and learning to think, by focusing on finding the right questions and keeping one’s analytical and synthetical skills sharp, a person can make effective use of information technology of all stripes. They can graze their way to deep thought.

By the way…

…how many of you read this in one sitting, and how many of you nipped off to check Facebook, read the latest Girl Genius or look up something on Wikipedia first? 😉

Hey there, chrony. What time is it?

1 – What is now usually termed “information pollution.”
2 – Or “thinking skills” to you and I.

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About R. Jean Mathieu

They say he speaks five languages, was conceived on a chess board, and once seduced a tong boss' daughter and lived to tell the tale. All we know is, he's called Roscoe. You can find more scurrilous lies at rjeanmathieu.com and buy his books at fedoraarts.com. View all posts by R. Jean Mathieu

One response to “Literacy 2.Ooh Shiny!

  • Silver Adept

    (Cloud computing is the practice of using other people’s computers to store process and transform data, in such a way that the data is never permanently placed on a local machine, making the data available to the user wherever they go and whichever terminal they work on it from.)

    I take issue with Carr’s assertion. I do not believe that the Internet is somehow re-wiring our brains so as to be shallowly interested in many things, I think that people are naturally that way, and the Internet is a tool that gives us the ability to really do it well. People will still have those “Hey, who was President X?” or “Wasn’t this person in that movie, too?” kinds of questions, but now they can look it up on IMDB or Wikipedia or Google, instead of having to drag down the reference work, re-watch the movie, or ring up the library and ask the ready reference question themselves. The effort cost of answering all those questions buzzing around in someone’s head was dramatically lowered by the presence of the Internet. We seem more flighty because it doesn’t take too long to answer the thoughts that arise to distract during concentration, and so we’re more willing to pay that cost.

    What Carr is missing, however, is that deep reading and engagement with information does happen, when a surface reading is insufficiently satisfactory. While everyone can get political soundbites from the newspapers on-line, the person who is interested in tracing the connections or seeing what’s behind the curtain will almost automatically shift into deep mode – and usually get frustrated because most of the deep information on the Internet is behind paywalls, housed in databases that are priced out of individual subscription ranges, or available in books, which are also behind paywalls that can get very expensive quickly. The lucky few are either introduced or remember that said library still has books and databases available for the researcher, and with a little training, they can fill their deep information needs just as easily as their shallow ones.

    Anecdata for you and him to chew on: Most schoolchildren are assigned a reading grade level, and then told that they must read a certain number of books within that grade level to pass onward and demonstrate their competence.

    Most schoolchildren can read beyond that grade level, if the topic or story presented to them holds substantive interest. In children, it usually manifests as a monomania about a particular thing, but if you asked the resident dinosaur expert to read a book on dinosaurs two reading levels higher that their current designation, they could do it. The information pull is deep there, not shallow, and the interest means they will expend the effort in Thinking about it.

    The trick here, or so I learned in a course that talked about search behavior and patterns, is that people read and search to the level of their satisfaction. If cursory overviews are sufficient, then there will be no need for deep reading – why waste the time? For those that need a deep level of understanding, however, they will keep searching until they obtain that deep understanding, distractions be damned. Carr’s lament is founded on the assumption that deep learning is drying up as more information becomes accessible on a shallow level. I think he’s wrong.

    That said, Learning to Think is something everyone should be doing, for those times when their deep faculties are engaged. Perhaps by a bald-faced lie uttered by an elected official.

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