Online temptation vs. distraction

Thursday, July 15, 2010

For someone who claims the internet has ruined our attention spans, Nicholas Carr sure has sparked a long, ongoing conversation online about his book, The Shallows. Today, the Guardian puts it in the context of the "slow reading" movement, which is exactly what it sounds like: a push to focus on single texts and avoid the constant distraction and temptation to skim online.

I know I wrote about this on Tuesday already, but this article made me think of something to further clarify what I was saying about how getting distracted online is a conscious choice. There are plenty of ways to shut out all the alerts and pings and chat windows that interrupt deep-reading online. The problem that Carr sees with the internet is temptation. We don't want to miss anything, we don't want to be left out, so we don't stay put in one place for very long. But this isn't an issue with the technology per se, it's the culture that surrounds it.

The online culture assumes that we want all those inputs all the time, and the further you're invested in that culture, the more you demand them. The computer/iPhone/Kindle doesn't do this though, you do. Granted, many of the beeps and message boxes are turned on by default, but if you don't like them you can turn them off. I can be distracted just as easily reading a book in a cafe while someone is having a loud conversation next to me, or at home with my kids running around and my dog nudging me to go outside. The distractions aren't combined with the medium, but it takes discipline to concentrate on a book in those contexts too.

I guess my argument here is "don't shoot the messenger." The internet isn't rotting our brains; it's the expectation of how we are supposed to use it.