Overwhelmed by Choice

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

This article by Nicholas Carr from Wired, an adaptation from his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, caused quite a stir online late last week, namely because it suggested that the internet may not be all that great for our brains. Carr cites research by a UCLA professor that shows how web surfing rewires neural pathways in the brain to encourage faster but more shallow thinking:

When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

As Carr wrote in another piece for the Atlantic, Google is indeed making us stupid. What he is saying is that it's not so much the length of content online that encourages skimming, it's the sheer volume of possibilities. We don't feel like we have enough time to linger over any blog post or tweet, not to mention 2,500-word articles on psychology, because we have to move on to the next one. We're overwhelmed by choice. Rogert Ebert calls this the quest for frisson, moments of intense reaction. In the real world this is often accompanied by a physical reaction. Online it's usually expressed as "OMG" or "LOL." The problem for Ebert is that whatever the charge he gets from them, finding them is a compulsion:

A frisson can be quite a delight. The problem is, I seem to be spending way too much time these days in search of them. In an ideal world, I would sit down at my computer, do my work, and that would be that. In this world, I get entangled in surfing and an hour disappears.

The effects on work is obvious, especially the solitary concentration required by writing. "Multitasking" has always been a problem, if not outright myth. It seems like our brain can switch back and forth between many tasks, but it's still focusing on one at a time and the costs of switching are dear. AJ Jacobs has taken to tying himself to a chair to force himself to stay put and concentrate. But now the distractions of the internet are bleeding into pleasure reading. If we read more and more on the same devices where we work and look at videos of cats playing the piano, how can we be expected to concentrate? An e-book takes so long to read, and there are just so many cat videos you haven't seen yet.