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The Shallows

November 10, 2010 Leave a comment

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes about how the internet – and indeed how every new form of media before it – destroys our society. According to Carr, the most significant evidence of this is a loss of focus: once exposed to the internet and its ‘instant gratification’ model, he says that any other form of media seems lacking in comparison. He suggests neuroplasticity as the mechanism for what he says is a fundamental change in how we think: exposure to the internet quite literally changes how our brain works – how it seeks and processes information, and how it reacts to information that arrives in a different way. He cites a few examples, which I’ll get into at some point, but it seems to me that his only real complaint is a loss of focus while reading longer texts. If nothing else, I do have to say that I will gladly take a slight loss of focus in exchange for the wide amount of information that the internet offers.

He does complain about the organization of webpages. He specifically says that most people, when reading a webpage, skim though instead of reading all of the text. This is intentional to some degree, webpages are often optimized for efficiency. Their structure helps a reader to extract pertinent information more quickly: that is, someone who uses the internet can learn to recognize the structure of certain information. This is hardly a new concept, although it is one that has grown due to the internet and due to computers. As an example, look at the financial data in a print newspaper: columns of numbers arranged in a way that allows someone used to that format to extract information from it. The goal is efficiency: it’s getting more information in less time.

Consider then the people who work on the internet – the technical infrastructure engineers and programmers who make this media work. When such people need information, they have certain preferences as to how it be organized[0]. Terse is almost always preferable to verbose, as idle chatter communicates no actual information, however an initial report of a problem in a computer program should be complete enough to fully describe the problem. This preference for efficient communication seems to have bled over into the public side of the medium as well, and many users of the internet can assess the value of a webpage in only a few moments, just as a programmer can assess whether a bug report contains any useful information before deciding whether to read on. Structure is an important part of this. Imagine if Google, rather than ranking search results and formatting them with a link, a short summary, and then a url, simply copied and pasted the text of each relevant webpage to the user. The information would still be there, but the format, the structure, no longer exists. Despite the fact that the same information is present, there is too much actual text, and efficiency decreases.

I find no problem with this attitude of terseness; I find it to be a natural conclusion of the fact that the web allows us access to so much more information than we used to have access to. In order to wade through all this data, or if we are a programmer in order to wade through all the bug reports from our users, we must impose some structure on that data.

Or course, now that we have this structure for data on the internet, we will miss it when we go back to look at print media – but that’s OK. Print media is still usable because we don’t need that structure, because the amount of information is now easily manageable.

If, however, we accept that the internet’s availability is limiting people’s ability to read books, perhaps, rather than looking at the shift as a loss of an old medium, we can look at the internet as an improvement: people didn’t know what they were missing in the internet’s ability to condense information, and now that we have it, people are less inclined to use inferior sources of information. I certainly look at the it this way: why pull out an encyclopedia or dictionary when a quick Google search will give you the answer? Books are inherently ‘old’ – the information in them is instantly outdated – and have no built-in search engine or cross-references: they’re an inferior form of gathering information. The only exceptions that I can think of are textbooks, which are useful because they are both well-organized and thorough, and fiction, which doesn’t need to be organized or searchable, because getting information out of it isn’t the point.

Some people will argue that reading a book doesn’t give the instant gratification that reading a book does. I’d have to counter that you do if it’s a good book. They’re right that reading a book takes time, but that isn’t inherently bad, nor is it why I prefer the internet. It’s about efficiency, and the two exceptions I noted above still exist: textbooks and fiction. In those cases the internet’s improvements are less necessary: textbooks are well-organized and complete, so search engines and cross-links are less necessary, and fiction is just fiction, you’re not reading it to gain information so efficiency is irrelevant.

Speaking of books – what about the professors who say they can’t get their students to read books? What’s the cause of that change? Well, is there a change at all? Students not wanting to do their classwork – that’s not new. When given a reading or research assignment, I don’t filter on whether it’s web-based or print, I filter on content. When I’m looking at my list of things to do, I don’t put off reading the Iliad because it’s a book, I do so because it’s uninteresting. It would be equally uninteresting if I was reading the Illustrated Guide to the Trojan War online.

That’s not to say that I don’t care at all about media, it’s just that the medium is less important than the content. If I’m looking for some specific content, then I might prefer to get it from a certain medium, but the medium is secondary to the content.

There are also people who say “I wish I could read books”, as though they’re actually unable to. It really isn’t hard. You sit down and read. If you’re having trouble concentrating, and you just can’t manage to sit down and read, then don’t be so quick to blame the internet. Stress, lack of sleep, stimulants could be just as bad, or perhaps you just don’t like that particular book. But there’s no way that the internet has made you incapable of reading.

Writers complain that the internet forces new metrics on them: how many pageviews an article gets is a measure of quality, at least to publishers, and it tends to prefer more flashy and provocative articles rather than longer and duller articles, though the latter might strictly be more complete and better journalism. This is a valid critique of the medium of the internet, and perhaps the only such one that was brought up in class last week, although the fact is also that more pageviews is equivalent to more ad revenue. It may be unpleasant, but it’s good business.

In class someone brought up the abbreviation TL;DR. Standing for Too Long, Didn’t Read, it often appears on web forums in responses to overly verbose comments. It’s true that the standard of verbosity is somewhat different between the internet as a whole and the print media. I would argue that this is not an effect of the medium but rather of how people use it: the internet enables conversations much faster than letter-writing and much more trivial than phone calls or face-to-face meetings, so it is only natural that terseness would be preferred. This isn’t a bad thing though, it enables a wider exchange of information. The other good reason to prefer terseness is that the average post on the internet is probably from someone you’ve never met, and you may not be willing to read an extremely verbose piece by someone you’re unfamiliar with – but once you know their qualifications you might be willing to seek out longer work by them. My point is that there is, in the span of conversation and exchange of ideas, a time and place for verbosity, eloquence, or terseness.

As a final point, I question the data used to support the claim that the average user looks at a web page for only 17 seconds. For one, this means that we spend an average of seventeen seconds, not that we are completely unable to focus for eighteen seconds ever. Still, this value seems unlikely and I am forced to question it. Is this referring to full web pages, or to individual web requests? If the latter, which includes images, ads, style sheets, scripts, live content, and so on, a single load of Facebook can contain fifty page loads, and if the experiment was done on any bulk of users, it would be very hard for an automated system to tell the difference between the two. Does the quote include login pages? Junk email? Popup ads? Is page load time included? Does this data come from some specific website (in which case the data could easily be biased) or from some set of the population sampled in a lab (being in a lab would probably affect your browsing habits)? Was it just a number made up by some alarmist pseudoscientific futurist?

I don’t know, but I for one am glad we have the net. Perhaps I’m just naturally wary of people who would criticise new technology, or my long exposure to the net keeping me from seeing how things have changed, but I fail to see the problems that Carr does. Maybe I also don’t function the way he expects: the term ‘interrupt-driven life’ comes to mind. It’s a term used by my technical director to describe a reactionary attitude rather than a proactive attitude. He prefers to respond to ‘interrupts’ – like emails and phone calls – on his own time rather than immediately. Carr rather assumes that internet use requires that you be interrupt driven – this is a behavior like browsing the web until you get Facebook notification, then immediately responding to it. These notifications become the streams that Carr mentions, streams of short messages. I am guilty of this when it comes to phone calls, which I prefer to respond to immediately, although I can see that behaving like this on the web could easily cut focus – that’s what interrupt-driven means. That term, by the way, comes from computer science, where it describes a program or tool that operates in response to a user’s command rather than functioning autonomously.

[0] Eric S. Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar and well-recognized programming guru wrote a piece on “how to ask questions the smart way”, which exemplifies the preference of computer programmers to terse and efficient communication. That document is located at http://catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html

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Categories: Essays, School