Sunday, June 15, 2008

PS on Information Overload

As a PS to my yesterday's post on Information Overload, its dangers, and the question whether we might be making a mistake that we won't be able to correct, here is a brilliant article by Nicholas Carr in the recent Atlantic issue

    Is Google Making Us Stupid?
    What the Internet is doing to our brains


    Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

If you read one article today, read this one.


  1. I mostly agree with him when he says "Anecdotes alone don't prove much."

    But I've got my own, which is that I can settle down and read six or eight hundred pages in a day now (assuming that day is a Saturday) just as I used to.

    So IF the Internet is changing him, it's not changing everyone.

  2. Hi Ridger,

    Yes, sure, anecdotes don't prove much, but the danger has been pointed out for a long time. There are many studies (that date back longer than one would think) confirming that information overload lowers the attention span (see e.g. the quotation I had above). Whether and how that affects cognitive abilities on the long term is a different question though.

    To speak of myself, I can't say internetting has affected my book reading. I am reading novels like I read or didn't read them before, and I have never been really able to read other books just from the first to the last page. (I constantly get stuck on things that I didn't really understand and then I'll have to think about it for a week or so. Spending more time online didn't change anything about that.)

    What I've noticed though, and that doesn't come as much of a surprise to me, is that I read very inattentive online. If I really think something is worth the time, I will print it. Part of the reason is that I don't like reading on a screen. Another part is that I like to take notes and underline parts (though one can probably come up with some tool to do this online).

    It is funny that I was yesterday writing a text as a PS to yesterday's post which said essentially exactly the same like this article, though my writing wasn't remotely as brilliant and well researched. So I think you are way better off with Carr's article. Best,


  3. err, I meant the quotation that I had in yesterday's post, sorry.

  4. Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurobiology and co-director of the Center for Neuroengineering, Duke University Medical Center, with robot arm. PHOTO CREDIT: Duke University

    "In our new experiments, the idea is that by using vision and touch, we're actually going to create inside the brains of these animal a vivid perceptual image of what it is to have a third arm," he said.

    There is a use for such technologies to help one move these cursors(not curses:) more then the cheek twitch that Stephen Hawking uses. I first saw this application when learning to be quiet inside(monitoring temperature, heart beat). New experimental roads for Brain wave rhythms accomplished, allowed one to move the cursor.

    In such cases we see where such an application could help those in paralyse, as well, show a place for the "intuitive mind" to absorb the essentials?:)

    You abdicate your own independence openly? While this is a wonderful resource, for myself, while distant from your universities and libraries, should one should rethink PIRSA?

    The referencing back and forth does not mean you "devoid your knowledge" but sew together an "intricate pattern" called BEE.

    Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).Is Google Making Us Stupid?

    If a person has not learnt to recognize who they are,"Who are you ,asking yourself in wonder?") Such youth could indeed abdicate their responsibilities by saying the computer made me do it?:) How silly.

    It becomes an extension of our finger tips, and finding the depth of the person who types is part of creating a strong centre and a independent person. Your character and inflections are revealled in your writing to,

    See:"Lightening," as Strings, Strike?

  5. I started to read the article, but I lost concentration and gave up.

  6. Jazz, comic books, the Pill, calculators... Google. What is worth thinking when supportive effort is minuscule compared to application? What is entertaining when the printed page is eclipsed by interactive display?

    Europeans once lived in thatched mud huts with their stock animals, surrounded by urine and feces. It was an astonding event to shuffle into a mammoth stone cathedral and there be gifted with a taste of wheaten wafer and grape wine. God is superannuated. The future was yesterday.

  7. I've set things up so that I don't have internet access every other day, more or less. I also don't have a TV. Eventually I get bored of working and play computer games. And so I don't buy new computer games out of fear of losing yet more work time.

  8. Dear Bee,

    thanks for the recommendation - it's indeed the one text I've read today (though, quite long for an online text ;-), and it's an interesting one.

    I am really not sure if one can blame the internet/google for a loss of the ability to focussed reading. As you say, this effect doesn't set in for everyone, and even though I know very well the feeling of not being able to focus on reading longer texts, that typically happens at very busy times, when lots of junk thoughts are swirling around in my head... It could be a consequence of dealing with lots of different inputs in very short time.

    Using google/the internet can provide just this kind of input, but there are other stimuli that may create the same effect (television, video games, busy jobs), and using the internet may not by necessity have this effect...

    Cheers, Stefan

  9. Dear Stefan,

    I am really not sure if one can blame the internet/google for a loss of the ability to focused reading. As you say, this effect doesn't set in for everyone, and even though I know very well the feeling of not being able to focus on reading longer texts, that typically happens at very busy times, when lots of junk thoughts are swirling around in my head... It could be a consequence of dealing with lots of different inputs in very short time.

    Yes, that's why I was talking about information overload. It wasn't my intention to blame specifically Google or the Internet. And actually, if I read the article, I don't see what it has to do with Google in particular. I learned recently that journalists can't chose the titles for their articles but the editors do, so maybe this is the reason. Either way, it is obviously the case that the internet is a vast resource of information that triggers the *overload* mechanism easily. But people have been talking about information overload already back in the seventies or so. Best,


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  11. Hi Bee,

    ‘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.’

    “Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets.”

    Yes the article you pointed to was a good one and yet it doesn’t goes much further then what has been expressed here earlier. In fact he talks about the same Marshal McLuhan’s “media is the message” and Ray Bradbury’s “factoids” that I drew attention to months back. The advice some have given here of just shutting it down or off for a bit is what I consider sound. To tell you the truth over the last few months I no longer have the radio on in the car as I drive to and from work and in as my daily commute is almost two hours, that gives me two hours a day with my own thoughts. Perhaps it’s not as good as reading, but at least it’s a start.

    This of course is not a new concept, in fact the 1976 movie “Network” if remade today it could be simply called “The Net” and Peter Finch's message as Howard Beale would still pretty much sum it up.

    Actually, I forgot they have already remade it, it's called "The Matrix":-)



  12. Hi Bee,

    Nicholas Carr writes:

    “The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.”

    Just as a follow up to what I said earlier in agreeing with Carr that the first step is to regain control of our own thoughts simply by giving ourselves an opportunity to having them. That said, I also wonder how many people actually have ever had (now and in the past) any of what he would call their own thoughts.

    What I mean is perhaps the percentage of people that have them and don’t might simply relate and correlate to people and the differences in the numbers who write blogs, seriously comment on them, or simply read them. When looked at from this perspective, I wonder if the media and its type have made any real difference since the first story told, stone tablet carved or for that matter cave painting drawn. Perhaps their always has just been the notion haver’s and the notion believers and the only difference is how that’s expressed and manifested.

    I would cite FaceBook as the ultimate example of what replaces them when you never had any or ever likely to, since all is provided and nothing further required.



  13. War is God's way of teaching Americans geography. -Ambrose Bierce, writer (1842-1914).

    Google just makes it a little bit easier (to learn geography, that is). Information is even easier to come by, and so (mistakenly) knowledge is even less valued. But the attitude is the same as it was a century ago.

  14. I think the title was chosen so they could have an eye-catching cover. Carr doesn't even talk about Google. He's mostly concerned with short articles and information overload, if I understood him correctly.


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