A couple of weeks ago, I ran into an article with a very provocative title: Is Google Making us Stupid? Ordinarily, these types of articles strike me as the older generation failing to cope with technological changes, and decrying the younger crowd for embracing them. I generally find reading such articles to be unrewarding, but this one was different, because lately I had been asking myself a similar question. Not so much whether Google makes us stupid, but if getting much of my information from reading blogs, Wikipedia, and other web pages was changing the way that I read and the way that I think.
In contrast to the title of the article, I don’t think this is all bad. For instance, the instant access to supporting or contradicting information in the form of hyperlinks or the ability to do a quick Google search is certainly a good thing. Now, we no longer have to confine ourselves to the limited and perhaps biased view of just one author, which certainly has the possibility of increasing the amount of critical thinking done while reading.
Also, thanks to hyperlinks, internet reading is nonlinear. When reading a longer article with many interesting links, I often find myself jumping out of the original article to a related page, sometimes a couple of levels deep, before returning to the original page to continue reading it. In the best case scenario, this style of reading could be said to be helpful in developing the ability to keep several lines of thought going at once, or tabling a certain thought to come back to it later. I can see such skills as being useful in the real world.
In the worst case scenario, this “jumping around” style of reading could be deteriorating my ability to stick with a single nuanced argument or line of thought for many pages. This is the kind of reading and thinking skills that are traditionally valued in intellectual circles, but for many professions it is also practical. It is the style of reading that is necessary for in-depth reading of scientific papers, for example.
Although the style of reading encouraged by the internet may have its downside, most internet users (especially, I presume, those of my generation) will recognize a greater threat to concentration that lurks on the internet. Distractions unrelated to the task at hand, such as email, Facebook, RSS feeds, Twitter, and the like hold a magnetic pull over any activity that takes place on or near a computer.
Sure, one could claim that multitasking is the wave of the future, and that such internet distractions help train us for that future. However, recent studies suggest that those who multitask the most are actually the least productive at doing it. And when I think about it, I know I’m not really multitasking, I’m just allowing myself to be continually distracted by things that are really not at all urgent. I get time-sensitive emails once in a blue moon, if that, and other social media and sites I check are even less necessary to check on a regular basis. Really, the great thing about the internet is that all of these services are set up so that you won’t miss anything if you don’t catch it as it happens. You can choose to obsessively check everything, seeing them as they happen, or catch up on everything later, which is certainly more efficient.
So why do we let ourselves get caught up in petty distractions? Well, it’s simply human nature to be caught by things that are new and constantly changing, and some people are particularly susceptible. After all, the very definition of a distraction is in its ability to pull our attention away from something else. But the technology does play a role; if you work on a computer, the same machine provides you with both your workspace and a slew of distractions. With iPhones and the like, we can now download our worst distractors straight to our pockets. In fact, after a summer of sitting at a desk trying to focus on my theoretical physics research for 4 hour blocks, I have started to agree that the modern definition of “work ethic” is simply the ability to block out distractions.
(By the way, I found it ironic that I read the original article about Google over the course of several sittings. The article itself started out as a distraction from work, and then I later distracted myself from the article by following links, checking Facebook, etc. How about you? Were you able to focus for this whole article, or did you find yourself distracted?)