A Blog Around The Clock

The article is here, but it is too long for me and my attention span to read through. I got a snippet, though:

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. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

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.”

Then I skimmed the rest quickly, and copied and pasted (without reading, of course, who has the time?) this:

The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”

As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”–the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities–we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.”

The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the conception of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.

The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.

Can someone out there read all that and summarize it in, like, two sentences?

Comments

  1. #1 Adrian Thysse
    June 12, 2008

    I was just pondering the same thing. I was reading Sam Head’s ‘Palaeoentomology and Evolution’ blog, where he lists his favourite entomology books. His top choice, Grimaldi & Engel’s (2005) ‘Evolution of the Insects’. I was amazed that his top choice was a book that sits at my left hand as I type – it has been sitting there since I started blogging on evolution last year. It is practically unread.

    I have to rest now – this is the longest paragraph I’ve written in ages…

  2. #2 marcas
    June 13, 2008

    One sentence summary: you _can_ teach an old dog new tricks.

  3. #3 Kim
    June 13, 2008

    I’m not the voracious reader of books that I was pre-college, but I read more books now than I did 15 years ago, fiction and non-fiction alike. Where the internet has really impacted my media consumption is television viewing and magazines, which are both roughly equivalent activities.

    I will note though that when I need to read longer manuals online to complete a work task it’s a real struggle (vs. reading similar long, uninteresting material in print). This may have something to do with hating to just read and implement like an automaton vs. more creative work.

  4. #4 Coturnix
    June 13, 2008

    I completely cut off TV and magazines. When it’s a longer text, I print it out to read.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    June 15, 2008

    My temptation was to tune out after the author name-dropped McLuhan. To echo what Kilgore Trout said all those many years ago, “Who is this McLuhan, and what does he have to say about the relationship between wide-open beavers and the sales of books?”

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    June 15, 2008

    Hmmm:

    While the Atlantic article warns against conclusions drawn from anecdotes, it is almost entirely anecdotal. Tellingly, it quotes not a single study that has measured any of the things mentioned as a concern by the author or anyone else.

    So here’s what we’d want to do to test this concern out: use some neuropsychological tests of sustained attention to investigate whether internet use is linked to worse concentration. [...] As far as I can tell, not a single study has been completed that has actually tested sustained attention in web users – even for the weakest form of evidence. If you know of one, do let me know, because I’d be interested to find out. So far though, I know of none.

    There have been some related studies on video games, but they tend to show the reverse, that video games are linked to better mental performance.

    The improvements here all almost all in divided attention or visual search – the ability to take in information over a wider space – so it’s difficult to generalise to sustained attention.

  7. #7 Neal Cohen, Psy.D.
    June 20, 2008

    Two sentences? How about the following quote (http://global-info-society.org/about.pdf):

    “…advanced information, communication and media technologies have already significantly transformed the existing world order and they continue to unleash powerful forces that increasingly realign political, economic and social relationships. [1]

    These same technological forces that have the power to undermine totalitarian public regimes and destabilize entrenched private economic orders, however, can also threaten both legitimate public authority as well as individual liberties and future economic and social development if existing regulatory structures and policies are unable to easily adapt to the new environment.”

    I only add that there is a logical downward extension from social development to brain development.

    In regards to my vessel, the captain may not have control of the ship.

    [1] K. A. Taipale, “Advanced Media: Convergent Paths,” Strategic Plan, New York: MediaCapital (1989).

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