Is the Internet dividing our attention? Are we so buried in technology that we ignore one another? The technology writer discusses the history and implications of the information age, from the mechanical clock to the iPhone.
Why do you think “consumed” is an ugly term?
I think it’s an ugly term when applied to information. When you talk about consuming information you are talking about information as a commodity, rather than information as the substance of our thoughts and our communications with other people. To talk about consuming it, I think you lose a deeper sense of information as a carrier of meaning and emotion – the matter of intimate intellectual and social exchange between human beings. It becomes more of a product, a good, a commodity.
You discuss other ramifications – ill effects, even – of the information age and the net specifically in your book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
In The Shallows I argue that the Internet fundamentally encourages very rapid gathering of small bits of information – the skimming and scanning of information to quickly get the basic gist of it. What it discourages are therefore the ways of thinking that require greater attentiveness and concentration, everything from contemplation to reflection to deep reading.
The Internet is a hypertext system, which means that it puts lots of links in a text. These links are valuable to us because they allow us to go very quickly between one bit of information and another. But there are studies that compare what happens when a person reads a printed page of text versus when you put links into that text. Even though we may not be conscious of it, a link represents a little distraction, a little division of attention. You can see in the evidence that reading comprehension goes down with hypertext versus plaintext.
The Internet also is the most powerful multimedia technology ever invented. We get information not in one form but in many forms at once – text, sound, animation, images, moving pictures – whereas in the past you had to use different tools to get information in different forms. And it’s an interactive technology, incredibly good at sending messages and alerts. So as we read or take in information in other forms, we also tend to be bombarded by messages that are of interest to us – emails, texts, tweets, Facebook updates and so forth.
So you believe the “link economy” and suchlike leads to attention deficit?
I think that all of those qualities of the net encourage the division of attention, and an almost compulsive gathering of information very quickly. We’ve always skimmed and scanned in some areas of our intellectual lives, and that’s an important capability. But as we begin to carry the Internet with us every day – with the proliferation of first laptops and now smartphones and tablets – I think it is influencing the very way in which we think.
We are losing the balance of our thinking in this constant bombardment of information – those times when we can screen out distractions and spend time concentrating on one thing, or engaging in open-ended contemplation, reflection or introspection. Those qualities of thought, up until recently, were considered the highest and most characteristically human forms of thought. But we seem to be quite happy to throw them overboard in return for the many benefits of our online lives.
What are you basing these cognitive points on?
There is evidence from studies that indicates that we behave in a very mentally scattered way when we’re online. If you look at studies about the way people browse web pages, for instance, most people look at a page for 10 seconds or less, then click off to the next page. There are eye-tracking tests of how people read online, and it tends to be very cursory reading. Studies of email use show that we glance at our inbox something like 30 or 40 times an hour. Or you can see it in the explosion of text messages. The average American teenager today sends or receives well over 3,000 texts a month, which is about one text every six minutes during waking hours. And then there’s the streams of information on Facebook and Twitter.
There are cognitive costs to having this constant stream of interruptions and distractions, and a constant division of attention in perpetual multitasking. When you don’t pay attention you lose the cognitive benefits that come with that, namely the [increased] ability to form long-term memories or to weave information into high-level conceptual thoughts – rather than to simply Google everything and get it in discrete chunks. There is a loss here that until recently we’ve ignored because we have been so enamoured of the benefits of these technologies. The type of thinking that they encourage is, I think, a scattered, superficial and shallow way of thinking.