The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Go Jo!

Saw Nick Carr's article Is Google Making Us Stupid? reprinted in the Indie at the weekend. Gave it a quick skim - claims using the Internet is reducing our attention span, or something. Whatever. But seriously - whenever I see arguments like this, I think of Jo Walton.

Jo Walton is a writer who made using the Internet a part of life, and of literature, before most people knew it existed. I think she was the first person to be nominated for a fanwriting award entirely for writing posted to Usenet. She has gone on to write some quite extraordinary SF and fantasy novels.

She has just won the Prometheus Award for her novel Ha'penny, jointly with Harry Turtledove for The Gladiator.

As she says, 'Yay!'


I skim stuff on the net and have no problems with that. I won't say it has changed the way I think or read.About the impaired ability to do the latter, there's a simple explanation that escaped the author: lack of time. There are just 24 hours in a day. These days we must ADD surfing to whatever else we do as readers or thinkers. No wonder there is a problem. Thanks to all that googling we have LESS TIME to read, so it's harder to concentrate adequately on texts. Period.
The FLYNN EFFECT, the general increase in forms of IQ since 1984 or so, might be at work here. This could effect our reading ability. Who knows? It's worth looking in to,

Two thoughts...

First, is attention span pushing TV, or being pulled by it?

Second, there's an argument that the different amount of space on a computer screen, compared to typed or written on paper, does affect the structure of our writing.

On the second, I wonder how big the difference really is, recalling the layout for typed manuscripts. The old 25-line MS-DOS screen is a big chunk of a page typed with double-line-spacing.

Attention span is indeed a big problem, but perhaps in a different way than is mentioned by Dave, or is illustrated in the text Ken cites.
Older people like myself can often hardly follow modern, mostly Holywood, films and/or tv series. There are too many story lines and images flash by far to rapidly for me and others to focus on. Younger people usually have no problem here. That's one manifestation of the Flynn Effect. Flynn speculates that kids somehow think differently today, perhaps from the influence of games and an emphasis on quick spatial changes in vision. This is opposed to, say, my slow linear way of reading, which is under my control.
This is interesting speculation. Attention span has something to do with this stuff, but psychologists and educators don't know what.

The MindHacks blog had some interesting commentary on that article:

It's an interesting argument: that a massive increase in available information can make people dumb. Perhaps it's the Paradox of Choice in play ;D

I think that one thing commenters have overlooked in this discussion (though it was alluded to briefly when time constraints were mentionned) is good, old-fashionned laziness. We're a species conditionned by evolution to expend as little energy as possible on any given task, so while I could technically sift through every tome in a library for my history research, it is far easier for me to launch a keyword search on jStor and skim through articles that look right, looking for the context of my highlighted keywords. Google would have a similar effect. It is, in fact, the only practical and effective way to properly sift through the mountains of information currently available to us.

That being said, the question of actually sitting down with a book and having a good read can be readily addressed and rebuffed by a simple reminder that this discussion is taking place on a highly acclaimed author's blog. Most people I know read at least a book a month and a few, including myself, even average one a week; not bad for a population drowning in data.

I couldn't be bothered to read through that piece.

I occasionally see quoted figures on how much Americans spend on books per capita. As far as I can tell, to make up for my book buying, at least ten other Americans have to be buying no books at all, to pull down the average. That's not counting the stack of books from two libraries (plus the interlibrary loan system at one of them), currently dominated by research for a project for Steve Jackson Games. Indeed, the Web is a great place to learn about new books to read, as in your recent pointer to Tracy Rihll's book on Roman crossbows.

My experience has not been that the Internet makes it more difficult to read, for a person who already reads. It probably doesn't stimulate people who don't read to start doing so, beyond reading Internet content itself, of course. But I don't see it as making things worse.

Another factor to consider here is the sheer volume of information and the rate at which it is increasing. In times past it was quite possible to sit down in a well-stocked library and read everything that there was to know about a given topic (or so I gather). Now the most current information might not even be available in print, and there's so much information, that without some rapid way of scanning at a very superficial level, one cannot begin to know whether any given book or article is even remotely relevant or representative.

In the field of medicine, for example, my predecessors might easily have gotten through medical school with only a handful of textbooks, which they would have read in great detail. Now, however, with the advent of molecular diagnostics, targeted therapies, pharmacogenomics, and a whole plethora of other new modalities, physicians are required to know about a far broader range of topics than ever before (the trade-off, of course being either a relatively shallow level of understanding as a generalist or confinement to subspecialization).

I use internet-based summaries of medical literature daily in order to keep up with all of the frequent changes, and also so that I can determine more effectively which items merit a more detailed reading. I even use Google and Wikipedia sometimes! These rapid and superficial information resources are excellent starting points, and though I don't think they will ever replace the art of careful, thoughtful reading, they are a tool to help guide one through the potentially overwhelming (and continually expanding) jungle of literature.

When I read the article, I noted the "a decade ago" and "the past few years" references. Is it in part a change in concentration noted by the author and others in the article simply due to getting older?

Hi Neil, Nobody really knows if ONLY concentration is involved. It might even be the case that YOUNGER people think "differently" in some sense than oldies like myself. I urge you to check out the FLYNN EFFECT, which I mention above. I think Wikipedia has something about this. Flynn recently published a book about it. I can't follow most of the discussion, since its use of educational and psychological statistics is way over my head. I'm limited to what I heard Flynn say on TV. That was fascinating, so look it up. Best, George

Per capita amount spent on books may not be the key point here. I think I've spent $40 on books so far this year. I've read 39 books in that time period, not counting rereading or books I've read only part of, either because I disliked them and stopped, or because they were collections and I wanted to read a specific story. Those libraries William Stoddard mentions don't ask me to prove how many books I've bought.

Also, yes reading online competes for time with reading printed books. So does the newspaper I read on the train most mornings.

Vicki, here's a possible solution to your problem. Do you have a laptop, and can you travel in a train car that has internet connections? Then travel by that means, read the main pages of rags online in the train, and save the other stuff for when you get home. Why not kill two birds with ione stone?

Maybe the Internet makes us stupid; maybe not. Nobody seems to be interested in the question of whether or not *reading* makes us stupid.

A pre-literate hunter-gatherer uses her brain in a very different way than either a person who matured in 1950 or one who matured in 2000.

And remember the medieval treatises on "memory houses," imaginary constructions to aid people in remembering things. This was an invention for people who, though they could read and write, could not do so with the profligcacy that modern people can, simply from the availability of paper and reproductive technology.

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