The cover story for the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly considers the impact of the Internet generally, and Google specifically, on how people consume information. In the article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Nick Carr looks at the evolution of reading caused by the rise of the Internet. He references himself and others who say they can no longer read books, as they cannot keep their attention on a single piece of writing for more than a few moments. Sheer quantity has replaced quality of information in terms of importance. I become a social media expert because I have five different social networking accounts; really, I can become an expert on anything thanks to search engines and sites like Wikipedia. The fear of a generation of ADD adults seems inevitable, right?
Not necessarily. I admit I am an information addict, checking my email every few minutes and keeping it open in a tab in my browser 24/7, refreshing my Facebook and Twitter pages whenever my attention drifts from whatever I’m currently doing (which is usually about every five minutes), subscribing to 50+ blogs in my Google Reader…I could go on and on. I, like many others in the technology-driven 21st century, have become masters of what Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention.” This means that no matter what I’m doing on my computer, one eye is constantly twitching to my Gmail tab to see if I have a new email or IM. I mean, god forbid if I miss that email about a party in two weeks and don’t read it until 20 minutes after it comes in!
While I need this constant stimulation, I found that unlike the author and others cited in the Atlantic article, I have luckily not lost the joy of immersion reading. Even while writing my master’s thesis, a time during which I did little but research and write the thing, I made sure that I spent at least 20 minutes of “pleasure reading” before going to bed. Now that I have more free time, I am rarely without a book and can easily spend hours reading it (as long as my laptop doesn’t go to sleep and I can’t see Gmail!). While I do agree that I find myself skimming a lot more now when it comes to more “academic” reading, the pleasure reading I do is slow and extremely enjoyable.
I also know that while information overload is causing widespread ADD tendencies in terms of searching for information — and that this is obviously leading to problems related to the validity of information (what? are you saying that not everything on the Internet is true?) — we’re certainly not all slaves to our computers. One thing I’ve noticed among a significant number of friends that I can’t wrap my head around is how many of them have hundreds of unread emails in their email accounts. Now I am rather meticulous with my email, reading every email I get (unless it’s spam obviously), and labeling/cataloging/archiving it regularly. If there are more than 50 emails in my inbox, then I’ve been slacking. And I tend to keep everything. But then I look at some of my friends’ email inboxes and there are maybe 1000 emails in the inbox, 200 of which haven’t been read. WTF I ask? That would drive me crazy! Then again, I know whenever my roommate looks into my post-Chernobyl disaster of a bedroom, her skin probably crawls too. But at least that’s my room. When people allow their inboxes to get that cluttered, they’re not the only ones who suffer. How many times have I asked a friend, “Did you read that article I emailed you?” or “Are you coming to the barbeque tomorrow?” only to receive a puzzled look because they were too lazy to read my email.
Okay, now that I’m going off on quite the tangent, let me attempt to bring this back around to my point (assuming I have one). As Carr says in the article, conventional wisdom regarding our brains being “hard-wired” after a certain age can pretty much be disregarded now as it is obvious we can change the ways in which we think, learn, read, etc. So if you see yourself changing the way you process information and you don’t like it, you can change it. You could try what my friend Ashley is doing after she determined she’s too reliant on technology and separate yourself from it. There are other ways of finding out information, such as newspapers and phone books (you know, the big, heavy yellow and white books you keep under the bed on in the darkest recesses of your hall closet). You can try to slow down your information absorption rate — after all, as much as you enjoy entertaining your friends at parties with all the random bits of information you’ve collected over the years from random websites, it’s just taking up valuable space in your noggin. Or you can be like me and just come to terms with the fact that the Internet has officially laid claim to your soul and all you can do is hang on and enjoy the ride.