Can We Make a Less Brain Damaging Internet?

Does the web make us smarter or dumber?

If you haven’t heard, information technology iconoclast Nicholas Carr has a new book coming up called The Shallows. The basic case he makes is this: the Internet is altering our brains and making our thinking wider but more shallow.

Carr makes a compelling case, and it’s time for web professionals to start thinking about how we can fix the problem.

Carr lays out his argument in a new piece in the Wall Street Journal. He’s also made the case in this Wired article.

The WSJ is also running Clay Shirkey’s response to Carr – or actually, they may have just asked him whether the Internet was making us stupid, because Shirkey’s piece doesn’t seem to specifically address Carr’s arguments and it doesn’t mention Carr at all.

Jonah Lehrer has a review of Carr’s book as well.

I haven’t read Carr’s book yet, so I’m having to go on reviews and Carr’s Wired and WSJ pieces. But I haven’t seen any critic of Carr’s yet make substantial argument that Carr is wrong about what’s happening to us. Lehrer compares Carr’s concerns about the Internet to Socrates’s concerns about writing. But Socrates didn’t have the sort of evidence Carr does. Nor was Socrates making quite the same sort of argument Carr is.

Weirdly, Lehrer points to two studies that show that video games may improve certain cognitive functions, such as sustained attention. Carr mentions these studies himself in his WSJ article. But the web is not a video game. I spend tens of hours per week on the web. I rarely play video games (maybe I should start). And the effects of the web, and of multitasking, are what Carr is talking about.

Shirkey is right to point out that the public at large never did read much, or spend much time on the sort of intellectual endeavors Carr is concerned with. They spent most of their time watching TV. YouTube comments aren’t evidence that people are becoming more stupid, YouTube just provides stupid people a platform they’d never been afforded before. And the Internet gives many people something more to do with their “cognitive surplus” than watch TV. Not that public libraries weren’t there before, and not that self-publishing and zine-making weren’t around before, but the Internet makes a lot of tools and information more accessible and appealing.

But what about the minority of us who do want to read longer works of text and think deeply about them? Are better understanding, deeper thinking, and sustained attention worthy pursuits? I think so, and Carr makes a compelling argument, backed up by scientific research, that our abilities to do these things are being diminished.

One argument I’ve seen made at different times, starting with Douglas Rushkoff’s Playing the Future, is that our shorter attention spans and tendency to multitask are actually cognitive evolutions – improvements in our ability to scan information. But we’re not getting better at multitasking – we’re actually getting worse. Carr cites a study that showed frequent multitaskers were actually worse at multitasking than infrequent multitaskers. I’m reminded of a study that made the blog rounds in 2005 that showed that multitasking was worse than marijuana on people’s job performance.

There are some questions we can ask and problems we can start working on right now:

What strategies, short of complete dis-engagement from the Internet (which I don’t think Carr advocates) can we adopt to preserve our attention spans? Periodic disengagement? Deliberate, daily monotasking? Zazen? More disciplined web surfing strategies? People in the “lifehacking” community have been working on things like this for years.

What can those of us involved in creating the web – as writers, designers, developers, publishers, etc. do to improve the experience of reading online. Can we makes sites and write content that actually help people focus?

For example, Carr suggested putting links at the bottom of articles instead of inline. I think that’s an over simplistic solution, but I think we can be more strategic, more mindful of how we integrate links into our texts (for this article, I put background info at the top, and added in the occasional additional link as necessary, and will include a few things at the end). I don’t know yet what the best solution will be, but I do believe that we ignore Carr’s research at our own peril.

Additional resources:

Readify a browser plugin that can “Carr-ify” web pages, among other things.

My comments on Carr’s Wired article

Carr’s article about moving links to the end of an article

6 Comments

  1. I usually only follow links after I read the whole article, if I even clicked them at all.

    Anyways, great article. I do believe that design dictates behavior, especially on the internet, so this is a nice bit of confirmation for my working theory and hunch.

  2. People who work in front of a computer all day would do well to turn off the constant flow of email. Check your email two or three times a day instead of keeping it on the edge of your attention all the time. This would be a big culture shift in a lot of workplaces, though.

    Whenever I make a website at work for someone under 50, they want it to “look like Wikipedia,” meaning full of links in every paragraph. But half the links end up being padding, just put in there to have more links. We should be much more discriminating about what links actually add value to what we’re saying, and trust our readers to know how searching works if they want to roam further afield.

    Unplugging yourself now and then is highly recommended. I once spent a few months pretty strictly observing the sabbath, and turning off the constant barrage of distractions made a huge difference in my attitude. I don’t know if one day a week is enough to undo or mitigate the changes that Carr seems to be taking about, but it’s at least enough to point the way.

  3. These are interesting questions. I haven’t read *The Shallows* yet, either, but some of what is summarized in these articles rings true for me. I definitely find myself using a different mental approach after I’ve disconnected from the internet and other distractions, even for a brief period. The rub is that it can take more than a brief period to disconnect!

    I suspect that getting into a more focused, contemplative mode before creating online content might be the best way of producing sites that encourage (or at least don’t discourage) focus.

    Thanks for highlighting this; I look forward to reading Carr’s book.

  4. I’ve been feeling a loss in ability to maintain focus. Expending the effort causes me to feel drowsy, especially when I try to read books. I don’t want to blame the internet for this specifically, though. Broadband access and always-on availability, perhaps, but not the internet itself.

  5. While design may encourage lack of focus, this does not mean that it causes lack of focus across the board. Additionally, there are still places on the web (I’m thinking gutenberg and user-submitted fiction archives mostly, though there are blogs like this) where the content mostly consists of long linear chunks of text with no hyperlinks, just like the printing press used to make. While web developers don’t have the ability to dictate design outside the browser pane, they do have the ability to dictate how they use what tools they use, so there’s plenty of opportunity to determine the effects of (say) no links in the body of a document — something that on the one hand might encourage people to do their own research (horray) but on the other hand might simply encourage people to (in the style of /b/) say too long; didn’t read.

    An alternative, of course, is to go even more broad-and-shallow in an attempt to fill in the gaps. News-ticker-type information flows with no links and no rewind can over time act as an ambient and configurable source for details missed in the normal course of browsing.

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