The idiot wall

by John Quiggin on June 7, 2010

Perhaps, despite the sample of one and the obvious irrelevance of the opening anecdote (didn’t people miss important letters amid the junk mail back in the old days?), there is something to this NYT story about how the Internet is killing our attention span. But I can’t help imagining some grouchy old-timer saying something like “Damn cave paintings. In my day, we told stories about the sacred mammoth hunt, and you really had to use your imagination. Kids these days just want to stare at a wall all night. No wonder they can’t throw a spear straight”.

{ 53 comments }

1

Doctor Science 06.07.10 at 2:54 pm

Socrates also IIRC was cranky about those young whippersnappers who think they can understand something by *reading* it, instead of memorizing it and actually holding in their heads where understanding happens. And if you base your knowledge on what you *read*, then of course you can flit from book to book, without the true discipline and concentration needed to study in an oral tradition.

Socrates was right, of course. If wisdom is based on what is in your head, then reading is pseudo-wisdom, a cheat. I prefer to think of it as off-site storage, and that reading is a way to access lots of information and ideas without having to keep them on-site. The Internet does the exact same thing, but it pumps the process up another couple of orders of magnitude.

I used to say that Aristotle was undoubtably smarter than I, but I plus the Columbia Encyclopedia know more than Aristotle. Today, I plus Wikipedia know *way* more than that, but the essential process is the same.

If you want to talk about how the Internet is changing the way we think, first look at how literacy changed the way people think.

2

william u. 06.07.10 at 3:06 pm

3

Guido Nius 06.07.10 at 3:07 pm

Actually, I have been informed that the trick is to not throw the spear straight as no serious professional goalkeeper can be fooled with a straight shot.

4

Jonquil 06.07.10 at 3:23 pm

I blame the photograph. Who reads a really well-crafted four-page description of a Hebridean landscape properly nowadays?

5

skidmarx 06.07.10 at 3:24 pm

Spears,pah! They’re for pussies who can’t cope with getting up close and personal.

My sister rang up once and mentioned taht she was doing a Phd in internet communication. I said that for the first six months I’d lived in East London, we hadn’t had a phone in the house, and so the only people who’d come round were those really interested in seeing us, and so perhaps the proliferation of communications media didn’t necessarily increase the quantity of quality personal interactions. She didn’t get in touch for another five years after that.

6

Michael 06.07.10 at 3:45 pm

william u. wins the … what were we talking about again?

7

Eli 06.07.10 at 3:50 pm

Very well-put, Dr. Science. I’d also add that when reading a book you’re also stuck in that author’s head. Now, this may be a marvelous place to be. But it can also be insidious. I’m thinking of the Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages develop false feelings of fealty towards their captors. One of the most marvelous aspects of reading the classics is the availability of annotation.

I’ve yet to read a book on one of these new-fangled e-readers, but the addition of subtle hyper-linking might be interesting. But then of course, if they’re created by the author you’re still in his grip. Maybe one day we’ll have open-sourced editions, whereby anyone can publish their own hyper-link annotations for a particular work.

In the meantime, having the computer handy is often just a brilliance reference tool. For instance, right now I’m reading Donald Worster’s biography of John Muir and I’ve popped over to Wikipedia more than once.

8

Maurice Meilleur 06.07.10 at 4:10 pm

@Eli: There are folks moving in that direction already online; check out BookGlutton, for example. Not links in text yet, but links and comments with the text, supplied by readers in conversation with one another.

9

Platonist 06.07.10 at 4:22 pm

“But I can’t help imagining some grouchy old-timer saying something like “Damn cave paintings…”

I find this line of reasoning is pernicious. Not because it’s usually false–it’s usually right. However, because criticisms based in false, nostalgic notions of “good old days” are so often weak, it promotes a thoughtless, reactionary leap to the opposite (and ironically conservative) falsehood that the status quo is always superior to the past. For that reason, I think we should err on the side of caution and never allow a critique of the present to be dismissed simply because it favors a prior state.

“But it can also be insidious. I’m thinking of the Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages develop false feelings of fealty towards their captors.”

True, this phenomenon in reading can sometimes be harmful (depending on the knowledge and intelligence of the reader, the harmfulness of the captor, the degree of the author’s countermeasures against it). But I think eliminating the possibility of this element of transference from education and communication is much more harmful.

The greatest threat to the development and promotion of human intelligence (both theoretical and moral) is the fact that the individual is constitutionally in the grip of her own ego. The first step of intellectual independence, just like physiological independence, always a form of dependence upon others–a captivity that liberates us from ourselves (more specifically, from captivity to the culture and history that produced it). So we might critique a naive enlightenment notion of decaptivation in the same way as those other grouchy oldtimers, Adorno and Horkheimer, critiqued an overly naive notion of demystification.

The ethical (and, it’s not trivial to add, _aesthetic_) danger of current cultural developments is precisely that it protects from being captivated by anyone or anything besides ourselves.

10

Jim Harrison 06.07.10 at 4:37 pm

No doubt it matters that the apparatus is now vastly more powerful and automatic than before, but the Internet is rather like an immense Talmud.

11

Chris Bertram 06.07.10 at 4:37 pm

12

Guido Nius 06.07.10 at 4:43 pm

The attractivity of cultural pessimism is easily explained: only when the future is – necessarily – worse than the past, is it possible for a cultural pessimist to believe what he, above all, wants to believe: that he is the best humanity will ever have to offer.

13

Platonist 06.07.10 at 5:09 pm

“The attractivity of cultural pessimism is easily explained: only when the future is – necessarily – worse than the past, is it possible for a cultural pessimist to believe what he, above all, wants to believe: that he is the best humanity will ever have to offer.”

Funny how that works for the worship of the now, too.

14

Platonist 06.07.10 at 5:11 pm

—addendum to above.

And thoroughly wrong for any cultural pessimist worthy of their membership card and pessimist pants. The good ones always rank themselves and their own time very low. See, for example, Twain. Or Nietzsche.

15

Substance McGravitas 06.07.10 at 5:29 pm

I wonder what the percentage change is in non-book-readers who now type on things vs. non-book-readers who typed on things in, say, 1970.

16

Guido Nius 06.07.10 at 5:50 pm

13-14: feeling good about yourself, aren’t you? ;-)

17

Doctor Science 06.07.10 at 6:54 pm

Substance:
I wonder what the percentage change is in non-book-readers who now type on things vs. non-book-readers who typed on things in, say, 1970

Approximately a squillion. Let’s talk about everyone between the ages of 10 and 15, for a start, and all but a couple percent of those between 15 and 25.

18

geo 06.07.10 at 7:08 pm

The admission ticket to this discussion is The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts. It’s impossible to say anything intelligent on this subject without having read it.

19

Crystal 06.07.10 at 7:17 pm

(didn’t people miss important letters amid the junk mail back in the old days?)

More than that, people were known to toss checks out with the junk mail by accident in the “good old days.” You can have my direct deposit when you pry it out of my cold, dead bank account.

It’s my understanding that even in the Good Very Old Days when culture and knowledge were mostly transmitted orally, a good portion of that oral culture was pornography (or at least dirty jokes) and escapism. Was there ever a time when people from all walks of life engaged in nonstop “meaningful” communication and/or had bookshelves full of meaty books? Perhaps some (many?) of those cave paintings were really the Paleolithic’s answer to junk mail.

20

Laurel 06.07.10 at 9:01 pm

True story: a good friend had trouble learning to drive because she got distracted by interesting flowers, trees, and views. Couldn’t focus on the road. Distractibility is a human, not a technological, issue. (Except to whatever extent consciousness is a technology.)

My favorite example of cultural pessimism is the eternal lament that men have become effeminate.

21

nick 06.07.10 at 9:02 pm

geo–really? as I recall, that was basically a grumpy essay, padded out to book length, in which a fancy prose style failed to compensate for a lack of historical depth….but I read it when it came out, and my distaste may have been exaggerated by youth.

care to briefly summarize what make Birkerts definitive on this question?

22

Lemuel Pitkin 06.07.10 at 9:06 pm

The NYT article is crap, for sure, but is it really so implausible that electronic media might have changed the way people think in some way, or that those changes might not all be unequivocally for the best?

I’m not seeing why the idea that nothing was better in the old days, is any less silly than the idea that everything was better in the old days.

Geo: Thanks for the recommendation!

23

Lemuel Pitkin 06.07.10 at 9:16 pm

Laurel, is there such a thing as cultural optimism, do you think? or is this a question on which it is possible to err in only one direction?

24

Russell Arben Fox 06.07.10 at 9:21 pm

If you want to talk about how the Internet is changing the way we think, first look at how literacy changed the way people think.

Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows (my review here) does this at great length, and fairly persuasively I think. The basic argument, drawing up much of the same kind of neuroscience discussed in the NYT article, is that certain “intellectual technologies” throughout history have radically changed forms of cognition, by giving us tools of expression and communication which our brains have adapted to, strengthening certain synaptic connections and allows others to atrophy. The invention of alphabets was one such revolution; the mass production of printed reading material was another. It’s obvious that something (though, being at such a distant remove, it’s hard to know exactly what) was lost when homo sapiens abandoned an exclusive reliance on orality and memory for writing; it’s also obvious that the printing press changed the social, political, and intellectual possibilities of human society in profound ways. Carr’s basic, and (I think rightly) worried, question about the internet follows these revolutions: what’s next? What’s going to become of our minds, and our societies, in a environment of perpetual cognitive distractedness, of the constant disassembly and associational reconstruction of arguments which the internet makes possible (even necessary)? His conclusion, which I find persuasive, is that we’re going to get ever better at snap judgments and instant critique…but that “deep reading,” and the world of interiority and serious contemplation will be ever more the province a small, cognitive elite.

25

Laurel 06.07.10 at 10:20 pm

@Lemuel: absolutely, and there’s a specially American version of cultural optimism (irrational cultural exuberance?) that focuses on the relentless march of progress, predicting that the grand utopia is just around the corner. Examples include Manifest Destiny and Dow 36,000.

26

geo 06.07.10 at 11:45 pm

nick @21: care to briefly summarize

What I found compelling was Birkerts’s phenomenology of inwardness, his description of the motions of the mind while reading (he is a superlative literary critic and drew on his own reading experience), his comparison of this deep attention state with the diffused attention that the incessant horizontal motion possible (and, increasingly, inevitable) on the Net, and his speculations about the effects of this radically new environment on our psychic and linguistic metabolism.

Also, I’m kind of a grumpy old fart myself.

27

John Quiggin 06.08.10 at 12:43 am

As I hinted in the OP, for most people, the Internet has not displaced deep reading as much as deep TV watching.

That’s certainly been my experience. I don’t read quite as many books as I used to, but I almost never watch TV now. And, as Dr S and others have said, lots of people who never read anything, let alone wrote anything, are now doing both on the Internet.

28

scathew 06.08.10 at 1:08 am

@John Quiggin

Yes, on NPR they had an author going on about the Internet, but he curiously neglected to mention the fact that most people had already turned off their brains for television.

At least the Internet requires some nominal interaction at a minimum and for sites like this, quite a bit more.

29

Lemuel Pitkin 06.08.10 at 3:29 am

Laurel,

Thanks for the reply. And having now looked at your lovely blog — if only I could throw dinners like yours — I feel a bit bad about the snippiness of my comment.

30

Laurel 06.08.10 at 5:04 am

No worries – I thought it was a fair question. (Thanks, by the way – I hope not to cook dinner for 160 again soon, but it was a fun adventure.)

31

analyticphilosopher 06.08.10 at 6:13 am

So you are saying that the time and type of media that you consume for hours a day makes no difference to your brain? Also: are you claiming that all new developments, like heavy use of the internet (or for that matter, offshore drilling) is unambiguously good, and anyone who points to a possible drawback is a caveman or Luddite?

While it is silly to conclude anything from an N=1, the real evidence in the article is in the experimental studies, such as “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers,” which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The internet does have widely recognized advantages; it is much easier to search for information, and it facilitates certain forms of communication and collaboration. But it is worth studying seriously whether heavy use of it might tend to distract, shorten attention span, or adversely affect academic performance.

32

Guido Nius 06.08.10 at 7:28 am

Lemuel, Laurel, there are names for cultural optimism gone astray: utopianism, Dow 36000 and so on but the term ‘cultural optimism’ is not symmetrical with cultural pessimism. The latter is a conviction that people get worse whilst the former merely asserts that in the face of lots of stuff that deteriorates, people still manage to make (albeit slow) progress.

Things deteriorate amazingly well ;-)

33

John Quiggin 06.08.10 at 8:54 am

@analyticphilosopher I’m not denying the claim, just saying that this is a particularly silly presentation of it (and, implicitly, that most presentations share in this silliness to some extent or another).

Coming to specific points, the discussion of the psych studies would be useful if it lent itself to (ahem) deep reading. As it is, we get a couple of paras suggesting that people who (claim to) multitask are more easily distracted than others. Self-selection, anybody?

Finally, do I say that “anyone who points to a possible drawback is a caveman or Luddite?” Actually, I say that the Luddites had (and still have) a far stronger case than someone who wants to assert that the Internet is a step backward relative to the TV era. It’s obvious that there are losses as well as gains with any new technology, but if you want a plausible argument that the losses outweigh the gains, Ned Ludd is your only man.

34

ah 06.08.10 at 10:52 am

The one part of the article I thought was sad was the 8 year old daughter suggesting she’d rather talk to her Dad more than play on her computer. If someone ruins his business with too much web time, that is his problem, but if people pay more attention to technology (whether books or tv or computers) than to their children, I think that could be worrying. I know I have to discipline myself to stop using the web at mealtimes so I can concentrate on the kids. But without adult interaction, kids can’t learn how to have a conversation or negotiate the real, social world.

35

ajay 06.08.10 at 12:15 pm

I have been informed that the trick is to not throw the spear straight as no serious professional goalkeeper can be fooled with a straight shot.

This presumably only applies to people who throw spears at goalkeepers.

36

chris 06.08.10 at 2:05 pm

But without adult interaction, kids can’t learn how to have a conversation or negotiate the real, social world.

Why do you assume that the *real* social world is the one not mediated by electronics?

Were there people who felt that way about telephones, that they weren’t interacting with real people?

37

Barry 06.08.10 at 2:19 pm

ajay: “This presumably only applies to people who throw spears at goalkeepers.”

Which would make soccer more interesting than the current version, where people run around not scoring for two hours, and a penalty kick decides the game.

38

John Quiggin 06.08.10 at 2:58 pm

Have I mentioned my idea for improving soccer? At full time, with scores equal, each team loses a player. Every five minutes another player is sent off from each side, until one team is ahead at the end of five minutes, or it’s down to 2+2 at which point the boring penalty shootout goes ahead.

39

Guido Nius 06.08.10 at 3:07 pm

37- you can have your football and eat it too.

38- and you too.

40

Salient 06.08.10 at 3:39 pm

Why do you assume that the real social world is the one not mediated by electronics?

I don’t agree with your interpretation of the punctuation, chris. I read that statement as saying “negotiate the real world, which is a social world.” And the use of the phrase “real world” for the world of face-to-face in-person interaction is common enough to not jump down someone’s throat about it.

41

chris 06.08.10 at 4:15 pm

And the use of the phrase “real world” for the world of face-to-face in-person interaction is common enough to not jump down someone’s throat about it.

If it weren’t for the context of this thread, sure. But it’s the same kind of sloppy thinking about the Internet being automatically different from everything else that has gone before (never mind the similarities) that is mocked in the OP, isn’t it?

As for the interpretation question, even under your interpretation, stating that the real world is a social world conversationally implicates the proposition that the unreal (i.e. electronic or virtual) world is *not* a social world, which is exactly the kind of misperception I was pointing out in the first place. Humans are social animals and therefore worlds populated by humans — or avatars controlled by humans — are social worlds. (E.g. Usenet, IRC, blogs, every MMO ever, etc.)

Although on second thought, the idea that kids can’t learn to negotiate social worlds without adult interaction is even weirder. Kids’ primary social world is their peers and they learn to negotiate it by the time-honored method of sinking or swimming.

42

mds 06.08.10 at 4:21 pm

Were there people who felt that way about telephones, that they weren’t interacting with real people?

If “were” can mean “are,” then yes. I feel that way about telephones to some extent. I would much rather interact in person or via letter-writing than talk on the telephone. Matthew Yglesias and many of his commentariat have also expressed distaste for conventional telephone communication. On the other hand, it’s not because of electronic mediation, since e-mail has been a godsend for someone who abhors doing business by telephone. On the gripping hand, the MY cohort apparently use Twitter all the time, too, which I think does introduce its own difficulties into communication. The notion being bandied about that blogging is “dying out,” to be replaced by 140-character off-the-cuff observations, would to me be a more worrying trend than the existence of online hyperlinked multimedia content.

And to second Mr. Quiggin @ 27, it has indeed been the case that richer, interactive Internet content has basically replaced my TV watching, not my book reading. After the US transition to digital television, I never got around to purchasing a converter box, but I still have many well-thumbed books in addition to a well-typed keyboard.

43

Martin Bento 06.08.10 at 4:40 pm

Well, as someone who had already stopped watching TV, I have sacrificed some book time to the Internet.

44

Salient 06.08.10 at 5:05 pm

Although on second thought, the idea that kids can’t learn to negotiate social worlds without adult interaction is even weirder. Kids’ primary social world is their peers

Maybe by preteen years, but I doubt this is true of your average five-year-old, at least in the communities I’ve inhabited… Younger kids’ primary social world is with their parents or guardians and their siblings if they have them, I think. And I definitely know a couple parents (relatives of mine) who patter on on the Internet while their kid spends the daytime hours in lonely self-play or rewatching Disney videos because they’ve learned bugging Mom for more attention results in being chided for being disruptive. :(

45

Salient 06.08.10 at 5:11 pm

Well, as someone who had already stopped watching TV, I have sacrificed some book time to the Internet.

I’ve definitely sacrificed some time-that-would-have-been-spent-reading to the Internet, but on average I’m a much much happier person for it. (My quip in response to criticism for setting aside Laurence Sterne or Aphra Behn to go patter online is that it’s probably a healthy thing for me to be spending less time curled up with dead people.)

46

Lemuel Pitkin 06.08.10 at 5:29 pm

It’s obvious that there are losses as well as gains with any new technology, but if you want a plausible argument that the losses outweigh the gains, Ned Ludd is your only man.

I don’t get this. Are you saying that it is never plausible that the losses from technological change outweigh the gains? Or that if you claim this about any technology, you are ipso facto a Luddite? Or that of all historical claims that a technology’s effects are negative on net, that of c. 1800 handloom weavers was unambiguously the strongest, so if you reject that you have to reject all the others?

Seriously, I don’t understand what you are saying here.

47

nick 06.08.10 at 7:52 pm

geo–ah, if Birkerts is to you a “superlative literary critic” then we are too far apart to discuss these matters usefully, since I remember him primarily as “the author of a small-minded and dull polemic against John Ashbery”…..but thanks for your courteous reply!

48

y81 06.08.10 at 9:09 pm

@38: 2+2 soccer would be very interesting, assuming that the “double touch” rules remained in effect for restarts. Would it be best, on a corner kick, to bring up the goalie to act as an offensive participant? Or is that too risky?

49

John Quiggin 06.08.10 at 10:43 pm

LP@46 I’m asserting the last of the three (using the Luddites as synecdoche for critics of industrial society in general). The strongest case for a negative net effect of technology is that the costs of the Industrial Revolution (division of labour, destruction of old skills, wage work timed by clocks), and the associated effects on human psychology, outweighed the obvious benefits.

50

Guido Nius 06.09.10 at 8:47 am

46- The problem is that no claim can be made in general about losses outweighing gains or vice versa. Posing the question in those terms presupposes that we have a conscious choice, that we can make or not make. Presenting things this way sets the debate up for either Utopianism – or for cultural pessimism. I believe it is possible to be a cultural optimist believing we will keep on finding new ways of interaction (and technology is just an enabler in this) and that this is a good in and of itself. Obviously, if somebody is addicted to TV or to porn sites, this will not be better from the point of view of this individual – but it seems that before TV and porn sites there were enough things to get addicted to. On balance however, both TV and internet have broadened in the average the opportunities for interaction. People would not be able to complain on a multi-cultural society if they were never confronted with other cultures, would they?

51

lemuel pitkin 06.09.10 at 8:12 pm

49-

OK, yes, that makes sense. Sorry for being dense.

In which case I would suggest, quite seriously, that the invention of agriculture is an even better candidate. It’s very hard to argue that the bulk of the population in most historical agricultural societies has been better off than typical hunter-gatherers.

52

chris 06.09.10 at 8:37 pm

It’s very hard to argue that the bulk of the population in most historical agricultural societies has been better off than typical hunter-gatherers.

Well, if you don’t count being alive, anyway. Low population densities don’t grow on trees.

53

mike 06.12.10 at 9:33 pm

As a 57 year old who’s been using computers since the early 80s, and the internet since the beginning, I have to agree with the basic argument of the Times article. I very definitely have more trouble concentrating on things, and staying focused. Above all I waste an enormous amount of time browsing the net, checking my email, and reading and writing silly comments. And I don’t seem able to stop.

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