The Shallows 3: Driven to Distraction

When the Net first hit big in the mid-1990s, I would tell others, “This is a good thing. People are doing a lot more reading now. Teens are not just playing video games on their computers. Anything that encourages reading is for the good.” Now, especially having read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (see here and here), I’m not so sure.

At issue is what kind of reading is going on, and the kind of reading we do on a Web page, says Carr, is very different from how we read a book or magazine or almost anything in print—and not just for young folks but for all of us.

The Web recapitulated the history of the previous five hundred years of media development in the span of just two decades. It began with text as did Gutenberg. Even the term Web page emphasized the continuity with the world of print. Text could now be broadcast like radio or TV. But then the cost of memory and bandwidth fell steadily and quickly, and images began to appear on the Web: first grainy black-and-whites, then sharp, then in color. Before long, sound was added—not just beeps and dings but snippets of music and interviews. Telephone calls soon bypassed traditional phone lines. Finally video entered the scene—movies and television transmitted online.

While this all seems very similar and familiar, the difference between radio and television on the one hand and the Internet on the other is not just in degree but in category. TV is a passive medium. The Internet is interactive. That sounds like the blandest cliché, but it has immense implications for the brain.

That’s especially so since North Americans doubled the average amount of time on the Net between 2005 and 2009 to between twelve and nineteen hours a week; meanwhile reading printed works fell 11 percent between 2004 and 2008. Anecdotally the evidence is just as dramatic. Carr reports an Adweek magazine study of “four typical Americans—a barber, a chemist, an elementary school principal and a real estate agent. They were shadowed during the course of a day to document their media usage” (p. 88). The magazine reported that “none of the four cracked open any print media during their observed hours.”

Why is the brain so affected? In a word, hyperlinks. Carr writes, “Links don’t just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them . . . . Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause” (p. 90). We use these links by clicking the mouse and moving the cursor—over and over and over, ingraining neural patterns by our physical actions that alter our plastic brains.

We have become experts at making quick decisions based on visual and audio signals. The reward that encourages these repetitive mental and physical actions is instant—something new to look at or listen to. “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it” to the next array of links presented to us (p. 118).

Scientific experiments reveal the changes to our neural pathways, especially in, if you want to know, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The implications of these changes, which Carr covers next (as will I), show that reading on the Web is not just more reading as I hoped, but a very different type of reading.

Next Installment: The Shallows 4: The Net Effect

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

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