the winter of our disconnect: chapter 5

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“Having too many facts at one’s fingertips ‘without proper instruction’ was dangerous, too, leading people to be ‘filled with conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom’.” – Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect

Chapter 5 of the book largely reviews the topic of multitasking: the theoretical pros and cons, the idea of younger generations surpassing their elders in this area and the issue of whether multitasking is even possible. Maushart’s children claim that they can easily complete homework while multitasking online with multiple active windows and conversations. Though this section covers both sides of the debate, Maushart sums up early on that “the fact is no one’s brain is different enough to make constant interruptions, distractions and task-switching an optimal environment in which to function. No one’s.” Neuroscientific research continues to show that there is no such thing as multitasking, but when it comes to task-switching children are actually worse than adults. The region of the brain that “toggles” is located in the anterior prefrontal cortex and is one of the regions that is “last to ripen” (p 159). Studies done by David E. Meyer, the director of the university of Michigan’s Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory, show that Digital Natives took at least double the time to complete tasks when multitasking and their number of errors increased significantly.

Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital, discusses how today’s youth “grow up interacting and collaborating, thinking and organizing, scrutinizing, having to remember things, managing information”, and that this affects the wiring of their brain. Though today’s media environment undoubtedly alters some functions, Tapscott’s claim that it alters the “actual wiring, synaptic connections and structure of kids’ brains” (p 146) is a bit of a stretch (especially considering he is not a scientist). Yes; they are great at seeking and gathering information, and their visual acuity (among other skills) surpasses their elders, but evolution clearly proves that there’s no way a definitive cognitive change such as an ability to multitask could occur from one generation to the next (or the next, or the next).

Media have also drastically changed since their first introduction. For example, Maushart remembers when watching TV “had not yet become the soundtrack for family life–the not-beautiful, not-useful wallpaper lining every household’s personal space; the visual cud on which the entire culture chewed” (p 145). Though I know quite a few people who opt out of cable or television including myself, I still find this poignant and relevant for the majority of situations. It’s as if we’ve been conditioned to only be able to pass X amount of minutes without “visual cud” before needing another hit. To further my point is this staggering fact: American teenagers spend 7.5 hours with media a day, and that number raises to 10.75 hours a day when assessing total exposure (separating times when more than one device was used).

Though this chapter largely discussed multitasking and a plethora of other facts and ideas not discussed in this entry, I also want to circle back to my introductory quote. I find the second part of this quote to be particularly interesting as I think it hits the nail on the head in terms of our personal wisdom–we have outsourced our knowledge, and our brains now serve as incredible indices for this information, knowing where and how to find things, but not knowing the things themselves. I am also consistently interested in the sheer amount of information in existence and our need for more of it. Maushart quotes Walter Ong on page 169, “We are captives of information, dangerously adrift in an information chaos that means nothing and takes us nowhere.” But I’m not sure we are adrift as much as we are paddling furiously toward some unforeseen shore. We’ve created a virtually (har har) boundless knowledge bank, yet we still seek to reach some optimal, yet undefinable, state of enlightenment.

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the shallows: chapter 7

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“What we’re experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization; we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Chapter 7 of Carr’s book is full of information and research results leading to the same conclusion: internet use encourages “cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning”, even when exposure is minimal. Carr spends ample time presenting plenty of evidence to support his point. Contrary to earlier expectations of technology liberating readers and adding depth through increased connectivity of information, it has actual barred us in a shallow pool of facts that we can barely grasp, let alone synthesize.

It is debated by researchers that we can hold about 2 – 7 elements of information in out working memory at a given time. Carr depicts this function in a terrific way: “Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory… When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip… With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next… When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to sort and process the information – when the water overflows the thimble – we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory” (Carr).

Also, merely having links present creates an unexpected cognitive burden; various experiments cited that even having to stop and evaluate a link’s worth interrupts our thought process and “weakens [our] ability to comprehend and retain what [we] are reading”. Studies comparing readers using hypertexts documents versus control groups using a linear format showed that hypertext readers were much more confused about plot and details. In another study, test subjects with linear content “scored considerably higher on a subsequent comprehension test” and readers’ “comprehension declined as the number of hyperlinks increased”.

By adding links to our copy, we encourage readers to click and gather more information from other sources, segmenting their exposure to our content and decreasing their ability to truly comprehend and process it.

As an interesting aside for web developers, Carr also highlights research from Jacob Nielsen. Using eye-tracking software, Neilsen discovered that users generally “read” information in an “F” shape on the page, and he summed up his findings by saying the F is “for fast. That’s how users read your precious content.” He found that when word count increased, the time spent on a page only slightly increased. “For every hundred additional words, the average viewer will spend just 4.4 more seconds perusing the page. Since even the most accomplished readers can only read about 18 words in 4.4 seconds,” you know people are barely seeing, let alone reading and processing, your content.

But it’s not all bad news. Some of the research shows that the internet can possibly help sharpen aging brains “in a way similar to solving crossword puzzles” (Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, paraphrased by Carr). And not all mixed media is harmful to information processing; it was found that “carefully designed presentations that combined audio and visual explanations or instructions can enhance students’ learning”. But I’d say the the main issue is that most sites and pages are not “carefully” constructed for learning and are, in fact, built to focus on increasing ease of information skimming and gathering.

Though there are some benefits, we are making huge sacrifices for convenient, bite-sized information. By consistently using the internet and digital media, “‘we revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged” (Carr, with quote from Maryanne Wolf).