Warning: The Internet May Cause Distraction and Inability to Learn

If Nicholas Carr is correct in his recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, you will not read this entire blog post. The main idea of the book is that the internet causes our brains to be easily distracted and also makes us less able to learn deep ideas as we skim more and read deeply less.  The book digs into the science of how the human brain learns.  The brain has “plasticity” – meaning that it will adjust to the activities that it does often, similar to what our muscles do.  Carr lays out the history of communication from the first written world, through the mass production of books, to the internet age and analyzes the impact that these technologies have on society and the human brain.  As he points out in the book, for every new technology, there have been those that have said that it will doom the way that we think or take away the very things that make us human.  But this time, according to Carr, there are real issues.

The Internet Distracts People with…SQUIRREL

Like the dog Dug in the movie Up! (SQUIRREL!) – internet users can find it hard to stay focused.  While I agree that almost any repetitive activity can potentially become addictive, I believe that most people can take control of the tools that they use for communication rather than letting them control you.  Even in pre-internet days, the draw of interrupting technologies was there – do you finish the task that you’re working on, or answer the ringing phone or watch TV (or even read a book)?  The brain can get so used to a stimulus that it will make you crave it when it’s not there – this even affected Dilbert back in 1996.
The difference with the internet is that it is everywhere and people can become like a mouse pressing a lever for a pellet by constantly checking email, RSS, Facebook, or Twitter.  These activities can be properly worked into the flow of the workday rather than as a distraction from getting things done.  Personally I know that I have a tendency to want to stay connected and respond rapidly to messages. (Disclosure: Hi, I’m Stu and I’m an internet addict, see me on Twitter)  The more we allow ourselves to be interrupt driven, the more our brains will see that as “normal” and it will become harder to stay focused for longer periods of time.  Recent studies (including some in the book) show that the cost of context switching is larger than any gains for multitasking.  You have the power to take control of your environment: finish conversations without interruption, check messages when you’re done with a task, not when an alarm tells you that it comes in.

Reading vs. Skimming

If you’ve read this far, congratulations!  In the age of the internet, most people skim rather than read.  The book describes that people read in an “F” shape, that is that they read the first line or two, then partial lines and eventually just start scanning down the page.  As a blogger, I try and keep my posts short (500 words for most posts or 1000 for a deeper discussion) and also try and break up the text visually with some bolding, italics, headers and photos.  Carr also says that even the basic web format with hyperlinks is very distracting.  Each hyperlink that you reach makes you think about clicking it and if you do will you ever get back to where you started (for this article, I put some links at the bottom rather than throughout the text).  There is fascinating research in the book which explains how memories are created and the science behind short term and long term memory.

“How do users read on the web?”…”They don’t”

While in general I feel that Carr is a bit of a pessimist about technology, I do believe that he is correctly raising an alarm on this topic.  The argument in the book is that as we skim more and rely on the internet to store information rather than our brains that our brains will have less context for problem solving or deep thoughts and that we become shallower.  Mass production of books brought learning to everyone, the internet increases information flow, but potentially we understand and internalize less.

There are a few ways that we can still absorb information in the internet age.  Of course the first is to read deeply – I’d recommend picking up The Shallows if you’ve found this discussion interesting (I think that it should be required reading at colleges). Another way is to write; the process of organizing your thoughts and translating them into words helps your memory and critical thinking.  A third way is to have deep discussions with friends and family – nothing like a lively debate to get the brain going.  A final way is just to give yourself some free time to think – where new information isn’t flooding in so that you can sort and process what you’ve brought in.

I consider myself a pragmatic optimist on the new technologies.  Like some of the optimists in the articles listed below, I believe that the internet age brings proliferation of information and opportunity for a globally connected community.  It’s the core of the company that I work at now.

Where do you stand?  Are you an internet optimist? Do you believe that there is validity in Carr’s positions?  Will the internet turn people into shallow shells that can’t function without computers?

Here are some related articles that I’d recommend:

Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society by Adam Thierer  (Adam also reviews The Shallows)

I Know I’m Not the Only Internet Optimist… by Andy McAfee

Carr’s article from The Atlantic: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Does Multitasking Lead to a More Productive Brain? from NPR

A couple of posts of mine discussing similar topics after reading a book by Neil Postman


Added May 2013: The Shallows cartoon edition

Nicholas Carr on The Colbert Report





14 Responses to Warning: The Internet May Cause Distraction and Inability to Learn

  1. Helen Gregg says:

    I think the web does cause folks to lose concentration. It’s so fast moving and I guess it’s a bit like tv in that you’re constantly downloading info.

    • Stuart Miniman says:

      Thanks for the comment. The TV is a medium for entertainment (Postman stated that even “educational” programming on TV was primarily entertainment), following theatre, radio and television. The internet is a tool of information, taking the place of books and libraries. Of course as the internet becomes more multimedia, these worlds are colliding – so what is the line between education and entertainment?

  2. Adam Thierer says:

    Great review, Stu. And thanks for the link-love!

    Have you read Shirky’s new book, “Cognitive Surplus.” I think it’s useful compare-and-contrast text to Carr’s book. I think they both make many valid points, even if I don’t entire embrace either book.

    Cheers — Adam Thierer

  3. anonymouse says:

    5o0 ?! Well yes I would agree in essence, did you manage to get some deep thought when you proof read this? (No disrespect meant or intended)

  4. Dave says:

    I didnt get to the end, so I guess hes right.

  5. Brian says:

    Hi Stu,
    I skimmed your blog post because I got distracted 🙂 but I mostly agree with Carr. Whether or not we like to admit it or not, our society is victim to the current forms of media we embrace – from TV to MTV to YouTube to Facebook to Twitter – it’s all having some effect on us.

    Time will tell if it’s negative or not, and the trick will be like you say, using the tools instead of having them use you.

  6. Enjoyed this post Stu. I read it as thoroughly as time allowed. Must admit I was then distracted by a tweet from you. Come to think of it…I read this post weeks ago and was moved by your words. I am just now commenting here = yet another example of internet distraction.

    Your suggestion of having lively debate with friends + family is very valuable. Assuming you are referring to an *in person* healthy exchange of ideas. Body language on Skype vs the digital world do not necessarily equal the same depth of interaction. My vote is for a healthy balance of real-life human interaction online. Honestly, I worry about people who limit their ability and desire to negotiate relationships in the “real world” due to being glued to the screen. I remain cautiously optimistic about digital life. And yes – I’m one too 🙂

  7. edmusesupon says:

    Stu, I really appreciated the “F” reading pattern description, as it’s so SQUIRREL apt!

  8. […] their job without having to feel guilty for not checking email, answering calls or otherwise being distracted from their primary job.  As part of building habits, Heath advocates that checklists can help […]

  9. Yet another stellar article! I shared this blog on Facebook – you really should add a “like” button to your posts. 🙂

  10. davidlandaverde says:

    I think that depends on how you use it, because internet can open many door, but at the same time it can create a bomb waiting for clicking on it….

  11. […] Internet gave us broad access to an endless supply of information (even if it might distract us and prevent us from deeply understanding topics). Mobile technology increasingly allows us to be constantly connected to the Internet, plus […]

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