28 July 2008

Does Google Be Making Us Stupid?

Joanne Jacobs comments about a growing phenomenon: kids who refuse to read books. They only read online.
A would-be English major, 15-year-old Nadia doesn’t like to read books.

On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.

...Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. . . . Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers.

Nationally, teens’ reading scores are flat or declining as fewer youths say they read for fun. But some say reading tests don’t measure the “digital literacy” skills young people are developing online. _JJ
The Atlantic goes a bit further and asks: Is Google Making Us Stupid?
For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.

...I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “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?”

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” _Atlantic
How about you? When surfing on the web, it is easy to lose track of time. Time that might have been spent reading books or dissecting research can easily go to more superficial "skimming" on an incredibly broad range of topics. Are we sacrificing depth for breadth? Or worse yet, are we sacrificing both depth and breadth for the illusion of breadth?

We have spent a lot of time on this blog discussing the topic of "psychological neoteny"-the lifelong persistence of learned adolescent helplessness and cluelessness. What if important developmental milestones--critical periods of development--are being missed by current methods of child-raising, education, and recent childhood/adolescent leisure activities?

Substituting video games, the internet, and electronic chatting for reading, physical play, and face to face communication, cannot help but have consequences. Perhaps something is gained to compensate for what is lost? Difficult to say. It deserves a close look.

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Blogger Loren said...

I'm ADD, so I've always been somewhat staccato. But, I've not had trouble with the net. The difference I think, is that especially on some of the blogs I read, there are longish articles and stories, and so I'm not absorbing a mass of very short items, but a handful of longer, more reasonable things. This has probably helped keep me from "going staccato" worse than I am. I never had trouble sitting down with a good book(textbooks not included) and reading for hours on end.

My brother got on me the other day about using the spellchecker though. Seems a lot of people don't like the reliance society has built on them, and to some extent I can agree. Eye strain from staring at a monitor I think is one of the biggest threats we have--even the new LCD screens are probably trouble to stare at for long periods of time.

Monday, 28 July, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

It may not be long before electronic displays are as easy on the eyes as a printed surface. They are working on it.

BTW, if you never had trouble sitting down with a good book for hours on end, you might question your ADD diagnosis.

Thursday, 31 July, 2008  

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