The Unbearable Lightness of Being on the Web

23 Apr ’06

I missed out on an interesting information overload discussion while I was away. Started by Andrew Orlowski (“A Thirst for Knowledge“) in the Guardian, and picked up by Nicholas Carr (“A Beautiful Mindlessness“) and BusinessPundit (“Is Concentration the New Competitive Advantage“), it’s a discussion that I see as being at least somewhat related to the multitasking-is-a-myth meme that I’ve energetically mined here.

Orlowski speculates that by living on the web we’re playing in the shallow end of the wisdom pool – shallow diving for information (unreliable information, to boot – not like the information that newspapers produce, I suppose – meow) when we are designed – or at least accustomed – to deep diving for knowledge. It’s the contrast between FeedDemon and NetNewsWire on one hand and books on the other (remember books?).

(He also spends a goodly amount of time knocking Wikipedia and Google and the like because they are mainly or largely or somewhat or at least more than Britannica (remember that tail-chase?), or finally – surely – more than books were in the years just after the Gutenberg press was invented (OK, no, not that last one, but um, which is it actually?) comprised of inaccurate or just plain unreliable information. But if you’ve spent any thinking time on the Web you have come to understand it as the organic, evolutionary, work-in-process that it is, and you can move along, people, there’s nothing to see here in this argument.)

Perhaps his best bits on the issue of volume vs. quality are taken from Will Davies, of the Institute of Public Policy Research – the passage on which Carr fastens. Gist:

we can endlessly delay having to interpret and judge things by stacking more and more bits of data in front of us … That data is a comfort blanket in a way – we all do this. People are becoming addicted to getting more information all the time. You can see it when they get out their BlackBerrys as soon as they’ve stepped off a plane.

Um OK, yes, people – blackberries – planes [insert Seinfeldian airplane joke here] and [insert knowing laugh-at-the-weenies joke here]. I suppose it’s true that as we all get more connected to each other we want to – um – connect to each other, but the information addiction point, while now trite, does bear repeating. Which Carr does:

Like me, you’ve probably sensed the same thing, in yourself and in others – the way the constant collection of information becomes an easy substitute for trying to achieve any kind of true understanding. It seems a form of laziness as much as anything else, a laziness that the internet both encourages and justifies. The web is “a hall of mirrors” that provides the illusion of thinking, Michael Gorman, the president of the American Library Association, tells Orlowski. “No one would tell you a student using Google today is producing work as good as they were 20 years ago using printed sources. Despite these amazing technical breakthroughs, these technologies haven’t added to human wellbeing.”

and then revisits in a later post:

The more we suck in information from the blogosphere or the web in general, the more we tune our minds to brief bursts of input. It becomes harder to muster the concentration required to read books or lengthy articles – or to follow the flow of dense or complex arguments in general. Haven’t you, dear blog reader, noticed that, too?

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that the Web is dragging people away from their TVs back to the world of the word, and let’s also pass for now on the fact that it’s connecting idea to idea to an unprecedented extent and that we are now fairly swimming in context. Oh, and let’s also ignore for now the fact that these knocks come from people who are accustomed to the world of books, and trying in their middle years to learn to love the web. And let’s just not touch the fact that this discussion has a “these kids today” feel to it – a sense that what is being criticized, when all is said and done, is youth, and how they’re different than the over 30’s / 40’s / 50’s (and after all, they’re growing up with it, and becoming accustomed to it at an early age, so really, shouldn’t we expect them to adapt to it better than we do – and shouldn’t the discussion be about that, and not whether their information (er popstars, er movies) is worse than ours was (when we were their age, hrumph, hrumph)?).

Still and all, putting aside all of that, it still seems to me that we are losing out on the opportunity to quietly reflect. I think Carr is right about tuning, and it’s a reasonably notorious fact that the brain can rewire itself to accommodate new patterns of thinking. But personally, I don’t think this needs to be about either / or. I try very hard to reserve daily periods for deeper concentration – devices mute, mail off, feeds quiet, gazing out the window / walking in the park time. My sense now, in the early days after a return from 10 days in wirelessless land, is that I’ve been missing out by spending too much time in the – er – shallow end of the pool. But I don’t intend to spend all of my time now in the deep end. I’m looking for balance, and coming to see that what I now have is a variety of tools at my disposal, and that I’m not a slave to any of them. Communication and data are powerful and I want them at my fingertips. But focus and concentration are profoundly satisfying, and produce some of my best work. Zen Pundit fairly nails it, actually, so well that an extensive quote seems necessary:

There is probably something to Carr’s second post because he is referencing the creation of a psychological habit. The Buddhist maxim ” What we think we become” can also very easily be expressed as ” How we think we become”. Short attentions spans are also natural to human beings – intense powers of concentration are usually acquired by practicing activities that are predicated on that skill-set, like learning a musical instrument, martial arts, meditation, mathematical problem-solving, various complex athletic activities and so on. Moreover, reading on the web tends to ” reward” our brains in a more stimulating way than do books not only in terms of speed but with more frequent, non-textual, imagery. And that’s assuming that we don’t wander away and engage in less constructive but more amusing pursuits !

A friend of mine, a serious scholar who speaks many languages and reads more, disconnected his internet at home for a time because it was too tempting a presence and was interfering with his tackling more challenging books. It was too easy to put off the intellectual heavy lifting in favor of intellectual entetainment. He’s since returned to the online world, but now is more disciplined about his use of time there. As much as I enjoy the blogosphere and certain listervs and forums, they don’t replace the experience of serious reading with a good book. I like marking up my books and scrawling, at times furiously, in the margins. Many great historical figures were voracious readers, from John Adams to Joseph Stalin, they revealed much of themselves in the marginalia found in the books of their private libraries.

Which is why, strangely enough, after years of living digitally, I’m finding that I’m returning to paper – at least partially. And why my next IT purchase will likely be a moleskine.

Update: Looks like Jeremy Zawodny is thinking about – er – whatever it was I was writing about at the beginning of this post. :).

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