Information continua

7 06 2010

(Update: Check out Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows” for more discussion of these issues.)

Cosmoboy here.

I’ve spent a bit of time reading about reading. Because when you think about it, reading is really hard.

It takes years of practice to piece together symbols and sounds into a tapestry of our uncertain future and undeniable past. Yet, reading, at least the deep concentrated reading you need to truly dive into a book, is getting harder for me.

So after some swift research, heck the internet is amazing for that, it turns out that this is a pretty common worry. Many blogs and even books outline a familiar lament, that the author is losing the ability to access the brain-state you need to play out the storylines of a book. Their mind wanders too quickly. Different, unconnected and uncontrollable thoughts flit into their head. Their concentration breaks and, damn it, they have to go back and read the sentence again. I know this feeling intimately.

So how can something that was so easy 20 years ago, suddenly become so difficult? Have I managed to unlearn a skill that took years to develop?

Everyone points to the internet as the culprit. As someone who spends probably most of their life connected to a computer, and thus the internet, this comes as a really unpleasant surprise. It’s almost akin to a betrayal by a trusted friend.

Much has been written about how the internet is changing how we process information. The roots of the argument can be traced all the way back to the genius of Marshall McLuhan. His timeless soundbite “The medium is the message” encapsulates it all. The message might be important in the short term, but the long term effect of the medium on our society will have a larger impact. We adapt to the way the medium presents the information. You can’t avoid it. Millions of years of evolution set you up to do it. Your brain does it subconsciously.

OK, so you don’t like TV or the internet. You don’t partake of either (which obviously make me wonder, how are you reading this?). But you still can’t avoid the influence of a medium. You’ve still read books. You’ve taken in information and developed a mind that Neil Postman calls the “typographic mind”.

So what has the internet done to us that books or TV didn’t? It’s connected us to almost every possible stream of consciousness you can imagine. You can read Dickens and hypertext yourself into a discussion of publishing practices in the 19th century. Investigations into the civil rights movements can wind up at pages devoted to U2. There’s no law of gravity pulling you toward anything on the internet. Well, except maybe Justin Bieber.

In this environment your brain can play a giant game of join the dots. Walking over the stepping-stones between concepts becomes the natural way of thinking. This freedom really unleashes creativity. Yet at the same time you seem to lose the capacity to dwell, or to contemplate the subtle nuances and variances. The immediacy of information and connection, and the easy availability of statistics gives the internet an unmatched verisimilitude.

This isn’t how you read a book. You go from word to sentence to paragraph to page to chapter. Sure you can play with the structure of a book and toss out this form. But few have really been successful in doing so. In this medium you really need to lose yourself. Good stories will literally become a play in your head. But it takes deep extended concentration to get to that point. Constant interjections of new thoughts and criticisms take you out of that head-space. So it’s no surprise that adaption to the internet is a movement away from the linear, even imaginative brain, that you need for reading a good book.

While newspapers may be losing out to the onslaught of digital reportage, book sales continue to be comparatively unaffected. How come?

Here’s my off-the-cuff thought: the internet with all its interconnectivity and hyperlinks is like one giant run-on sentence. It’s impossible to take it all in. After a while you get disconnected from where you were. It doesn’t read the same way twice. Sooner or later you have to go back to a starting point to refresh your memory (well at least I often have to!) It feels like a scriptio continua of information.

Scriptio continua, writing without breaks or punctuation, was common in Greek and Latin texts. Yet it is phenomenally difficult to parse efficiently. It takes vast amounts of practice and sizeable skill to piece together the meaning from and endless stream of word-letters. Making reading accessible to everyone required the introduction of word breaks and punctuation. Thankfully by 1000 AD scriptio continua was beginning to disappear.

Books have that information punctuation. They are compartmentalized. Searching down the references in the back of a book takes time. A book, in some sense, frees you from distractions while limiting your immediate horizons. I’m sure some people hate that, while others embrace it. I find myself with a foot in both camps.

So it’s taking an effort, but getting back into books seems to be a good thing. I just read 100 pages in a day, something I haven’t done in quite some time. It feels good to have a good friend back.

But I can hear McLuhan whisper “Just wait and see what good ebooks do…”




3 responses

7 06 2010

I like your characterisation of the internet as a run-on-sentence. Good analogy. Have you read Ebert’s take on this subject ( He also posted a fan letter from an eighteen-year-old Harvard student who thinks that the internet is making us all stupider. I disagree for a variety of reasons, but it’s all fun to think about.

7 06 2010

Thanks! No I hadn’t seen that, but I’ve read it now. Ebert really captures the essence of the feeling! I, too, don’t like to think we’re necessarily getting stupidier, it’s a different kind of intelligence (plus successive generations seem to do better on IQ tests, a la the Flynn effect).

7 06 2010
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