“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).