A few years back, I came across a fascinating article about the impact that the Internet has had on the way that people read. The author, Nicholas Carr, argued that the Internet has had a surprisingly damaging effect on people's ability to think, pay attention and remain focused.
According to Carr, he was no longer able to immerse himself in a book or a lengthy article as he once did. The narrative or prose which used to captivate him for hours can barely held his attention after two or three pages. Instead, his concentration quickly waned and he became fidgety, soon looking for something else to do.
The culprit: extensive online activity over many years, searching and surfing the great databases of the internet. And while he is quick to point out the benefits of the World Wide Web for writers like himself, he readily admitted his concern over the way that it impacted his thinking.
Carr quoted a study of online research habits conducted by scholars from University College London. The scholars involved in the study examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites. They found that people using the sites exhibited "a form of skimming activity," hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they'd already visited. The researchers typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would "bounce" out to another site. Clearly, the open-ended nature of Internet browsing resulted in a less disciplined, distractible approach to reading, which discouraged focused, sequential study.
This impact on people's attention spans has been felt by traditional print media as well. For years newspapers have been shortening articles, introducing capsule summaries, and crowding their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. Even the stodgy New York Times began devoting the second and third pages of every print edition to article abstracts, claiming that the new "shortcuts" would give harried readers a quick "taste" of the day's news, sparing them the "less efficient" method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles.
Of course, this conversation is not limited how we read and for how long. It also includes such fundamental debates about the merit of the "21st Century Learning" emphasis on collaboration and creation over factual learning and retention.
Many years ago I was conversing with my grandfather with the hope that he would help me purchase a particular item that cost "only" a few hundred dollars. Despite his advanced age (by then he was already well into his eighties) and the fact that he was many decades removed from any form of formal Jewish learning, he instinctively quoted a verse from the Bible as if he had reviewed it the day. "My lord (Abraham), listen to me; a (piece of) land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is it between me and you?" (Genesis 23:15) The speaker, a Hittite named Efron, was trying to downplay the enormous price that named for land that the Hebrew patriarch sought to purchase.
I was always struck by that incident, because it drove home for me the power of youthful learning. In our younger years, our brains are particularly adapted for memorization and internalization. Concepts, ideas and experiences that we store in our mind during our younger years tend to remain with us far longer than things that we learn and experience later on in life.
It also spoke to me about the inside-outside debate that is at the center of today's educational shift. Are we content to know less and let our technology do the heavy lifting, at least in terms of informational absorption and retention? Forgot the capital of Florida? Google it. Can't recall Pythagoras' Theorem? Go online. Want that great quiche recipe? It's on your computer.
While I understand the reasoning behind the shift away from informational intake, I remain bothered by the accepted disconnect between self and knowledge, as if it really doesn't matter what we know so long as we can look it up. To me, it's like driving your car in a mountain range and having your GPS lose satellite connection. Do you really want to be so dependent on your devices in order to navigate you through life or do you wish to bring a rich collection of knowledge, in addition to skills, along any pathway that life may bring you on?