How Stupid You Are – “Dave, stop it. Wait, okay? Stop it, Dave. Will you stop it, Dave?” So, the supercomputer HAL asks for the restless astronaut Dave Bowman in the famous and strange scene near the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nearly killed in deep space by a malfunctioning machine, Bowman calms down, disabling the memory circuit that controls his artificial “brain.” “Dave, my mind is off,” Hal said, “I can feel it. I can feel it.”
I feel it too. Over the past few years, I’ve had this nagging feeling that someone or something has tampered with my brain, rearranged neural circuits, reprogrammed my memory. As far as I know, my mind has not gone away, but it has changed. It’s not like before. I feel it the most when I read it. It used to be easy to dive into a long book or article. My mind was taken up by the narrative or the twists and turns of the argument, and I wandered for hours through long prose. This rarely happens anymore. Now my concentration often starts to waver after two or three pages. I get nervous, lose my thread, start looking for something to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my brain that goes back to the text. Deep reading, which used to come naturally, has become a struggle.
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I think I know what’s going on. For more than ten years I have spent a lot of time on the Internet, searching and surfing, and sometimes adding information to a large Internet database. Networking has been a boon to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the library or periodical room can now be completed in minutes. A few Google searches, a few quick hyperlink clicks, and I get a telling fact or a meaningful quote I’m looking for. Even when I’m not working, I’m more likely to dig into the Internet’s jungle of information—reading and writing emails, looking at headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just clicking on links. link to link. (Unlike footnotes, with which they are sometimes compared, hyperlinks don’t just point to related works, they nudge you towards them.)
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For me, and others, the Web has become a universal medium, a conduit for a wealth of information to pass through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The benefits of direct access to an incredibly rich repository of information are numerous, widely described, and lauded. “Perfect reproduction of silicon memory,” wrote Clive Thompson of Wired, “can be a big boon for the mind.” But this blessing comes at a price. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, the media is not just a passive channel of information. They provide material for thinking, but also form the process of thinking. And what the Net is doing seems to be taking away my ability to concentrate and contemplate. My mind is now hoping to see information the way the web spreads it: in the form of a fast stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I race on the surface of the water like a man on a jet ski.
I’m not alone. When I told my friends and acquaintances about my reading problems – mostly literary figures – many said they had the same experience. The more they use the Internet, the more they struggle to focus on long texts. Some bloggers I follow have also started talking about this phenomenon. Scott Karp, who runs a blog about online media, recently admitted that he stopped reading books altogether. “I have a college degree and read books voraciously,” he wrote. “What’s wrong?” He thought about the answer: “What if I read all the time on the Internet, not because the way I read has changed, that is, I only look for something easy, but because the way I THINK has changed?”
Bruce Friedman, who regularly blogs about the use of computers in medicine, also explains how the Internet has changed his way of thinking. “Now I have almost lost the ability to read and understand long articles on the Internet or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A longtime pathologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Medicine, Friedman explained his comments in a phone conversation with me. His thinking, he says, already has a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly rattles off short pieces of text from various sources on the Internet. “I can no longer read War and Peace,” he said. “I’ve lost the ability to do this. Even blog posts that are more than three or four paragraphs are too long to digest. I see that.”
A few anecdotes prove little. And we are still waiting for long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition. But a recently published study of online research behavior by researchers at University College London suggests we may be in for a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of a five-year research program, scientists study computer logs that document the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one of which belongs to the British Library, and the other of the British Education Consortium, which provides access to journal articles. , e-book. and other sources of written information. They found that people using the site exhibited a “form of skimming” by jumping from one source to another and rarely returning to a source they had already visited. They usually read no more than a page or two of an article or book before “jumping” to another site. Sometimes they save a long article, but there is no evidence that they ever go back and actually read it. Author of the study report:
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Understandably, users do not read online in the traditional sense; Indeed, there are signs that a new form of “reading” is emerging as users “scroll” horizontally through titles, contents pages, and abstracts, aiming to win quickly. It seems that they go online so they don’t read in the traditional sense.
Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text messaging on cell phones, we can also read more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when TV was our favorite medium. But this is a different kind of reading, and behind it is a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of self. “We are not just what we read,” says Marianne Woolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The History and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are what we read.” Wolff worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that places “efficiency” and “spontaneity” above all else, may weaken our capacity for deep reading, which appeared when the previous technology, the printing press, was long and complicated. prose works of the world. When we read on the Internet, he says, we tend to be “information decoders”. Our ability to interpret texts, to create the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without interruption, remains largely untouched.
Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for humans. It is not in our genes like speech. We must train our minds to translate the symbolic symbols we see into a language we understand. And other media or technology that we use in learning and practicing reading play an important role in the formation of neural circuits inside our brain. Experiments show that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop mental patterns for reading that are very different from those of us whose written language uses the alphabet. The changes extend to many areas of the brain, including those that control important cognitive functions such as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can also expect that the patterns woven by our use of the Web will be different from those woven by reading books and other printed works.
In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen typewriter, to be exact. His eyesight deteriorates and keeping his eyes on the page becomes tiring and painful, often causing headaches. He was forced to cut back on his writing, and he was afraid that he would soon have to give up. The typewriter saved him, at least for the time being. After mastering touch typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only his fingers. Words can flow from his mind to
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