With the recent “shocking” story that Steve Jobs boycotted his own game changing contribution to the modern worlds landscape and forbade his own children and family from owning an iPad/iPhone, the slant on the story painted the man as somewhat of a hypocrite. We treat our access to new technologies and conveniences as a right with many happily describing themselves as tech-addicts and championing their wealth of gadgets and their “plugged in” nature. The question that the story really begs us to ask ourselves however is a different one, how exactly are these inventions affecting us and why did Jobs shy away from that change for himself and his family? With more and more of us converting to the religion of vacantly staring into our ever growing collection of screens, how is this new use of our free time changing the way we interact with one another and the world around us?
There are hosts of literature and information on the subject, but who even has the time or attention span to read a book anymore? Luckily for you Yack! is here to haphazardly mash together some of that information in a bitesize and easily digested chunk, served up to you ironically right here on the sticky strands of the world wide web. Intellectually the main argument seems to hinge around the concept that is has already been irrefutably proven that internet use changes the way our brain is wired. Whether this is to its benefit or detriment is the bone of contention; those who believe this is a good thing will tell you that as this new form of brain adapts, we can ingest information more quickly and our ability to multi-task will grow. We will gradually become more and more adept at being unfocused and excel at handling multiple projects or streams of input at once. The reverse is a far scarier prospect however with many believing our attention span and ability to focus is being greatly hindered, to the point where concentrated reading has now become a mental workout. The age old adage of jack of all trades master of none seems to apply; if our mind is flittering about several different projects at once, how could they possibly be given the necessary level of focus required to truly be digested/finished properly. We may well be headed towards a generation of attention deficient cyber junkies and all the Ritalin in the world couldn’t cure the systemic rot.
But wait, we seem to have skipped over the “irrefutably proven” part right? Were you asking that or just assuming that we had our sources and would never intentionally mislead you? What we should have done was hyperlink the relative information into the sentence, that’s what all the hip kids are doing these days right? This skipping, skittering method of information digestion is just one of the ways the internet and especially handheld devices are encouraging distracted reading. When we sit down with a book we enter into an almost meditative state and each sentence is mulled over and committed, we are able to focus solely on the art of reading and reflection and studies have shown that retention of information is much higher in this concentrated and sequential format. Reading on the web however is far different, as amongst the cacophony of flashing tabs alerting you to new emails, social media updates and new posts, the very page you are trying to take information from itself is littered with advertisements, hyperlinks and other shiny distractions, encouraging you to click away or look at something else. So we might click through a hyperlink to better understand something that influenced it, but when we rejoin the original piece our concentration and focus on the piece has been shattered. It is very hard to immerse yourself in a text in this manner.
When we read from a book or perhaps even a web disabled Kindle (if you are so inclined) we read line to line, in a sweeping motion. The web however finds users skimming the information in an F shaped pattern quickly trying to assimilate the most pertinent information. Whilst again this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is hazardous when it comes to information retention, this quick fix is ideal for finding a snappy quote or relative statistic but for truly understanding a concept or enjoying a work of fiction, the journey is lost. The digital traveller often only enjoys the peak and not the sometimes arduous but rewarding trek it took to reach that summit; when later asked to recall the information the context and possibly the very meaning of it eludes them.
Our brains are blessed with incredible plasticity; with repetition of a task our brain reworks itself to be better at it. A great quote to describe this phenomenon is “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Unfortunately the act of reading on the net seems to encourage our brains into distraction and a loss of focus, to quote T.S. Eliot we become “distracted from distraction by distraction”. We use the web much in the same way we read a book. Sometimes to acquire new knowledge and sometimes purely for pleasure but in spending the majority of our downtime clicking and staring we are engaging our brains just enough to deprive ourselves of the relative “idle” time our brain needs to subconsciously store away and work through this steady stream of new information. When finished with a good book, or after reading a particularly thought provoking article it is essential in this writers opinion to close the book or paper and sit for a moment in reflection. When reading on the internet too often we are swept down the hyperlink rabbithole, barreling straight into the next piece of clickbait trash.
When it comes to social interaction the crises seems even worse. For mister Jobs this may have been the main reason for his iPad ban. As the time we spend together with our families has been steadily eroded with every new technology presented to us, it is the handheld that is most invasive. Whilst a TV in the kitchen at dinner time can draw attention away, it doesn’t form quite the barrier that breaking your phone out does. With a handheld device attention is funnelled directly into the lap and away from the people around you. We have become so connected on social media that it seems hard for us to interact with each other in the real world anymore. Whilst it could possibly be technophobic claptrap, who here can honestly say they haven’t experienced the cold shoulder of the smart phone snub? It can happen in the middle of a conversation down the pub or at the dinner table with your family, the fact is when the phone comes out, at least partially the human checks out. Their attention cannot be in two places at once, so they either disconnect from the conversation completely or you have to put up with the inevitable flurry of eh’s, what’s and pardon’s.
As McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message”, the internet’s as a medium is definitely one of distraction, it is constantly trying to tempt us somewhere else with shiny, shiny baubles and if this is the case how can its message ever stray far from one of simply “hey stupid, click this.” Whilst the internet is obviously a tool and it is easily used to great effect, it also encourages and rewards very crippling intellectual behaviors and as with most things should be used in moderation, certainly not every waking moment of the day.
Words by Matt Miles
Filling this article with hyperlinks almost seems hypocritical so to any interested in reading more should check out the following authors as the information above is a vomitous reproduction of some of their own musings:
Carr, Nicholas. (2010) The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. Atlantic Books.
Johnson, Steven. (1997) Interface Culture. Harper Publishing.
Morozov, Evgeny. (2011) The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. Penguin Group.
Negroponte, Nicholas. (1995) Being Digital. Hodder & Stoughton