Does The Web Undermine Reading?

Does the Internet, with its speed, efficiency and growing ubiquitousness undermine reading and comprehension?

A provocative question I am willing to explore largely because I spend a great deal of time online and, like most parents with young children growing up in this age of über-information at our fingertips and titillating augmented realities, I wonder how the Internet will influence my son’s capacity for reading, writing, and critical thinking.

I believe we are at a particularly interesting point in time when many people take the Internet for granted, as though it is always going to be there when we need it like the telephone, heat or electricity. The ability to carry around the entire Web in our pocket on a small device like one of latest 3G flavoured smart phones is quite a technological feat. The phenomenon of being able to text message or use Facebook anywhere is both highly convenient and fashionably addictive.
But aside from all these technological conveniences at our disposal, I wonder if perhaps we are becoming a culture of distraction where our ability to concentrate and filter out the digital junk is increasingly challenged by among other things, greater reliance upon Web-based technologies, particularly Web-enabled mobile gadgets, which seem to be creeping into all aspects of our daily lives.

But I Can’t Live Without The Internet
This sentiment is perhaps most pronounced among teenagers and young kids who likely cannot envision a world without access to their precious Web-enabled mobile ADHD-inducing gaming/gadget or device. Or heaven-forbid, getting through the daunting task of writing a school paper without in some way researching or sourcing material online. Are we now living in a time when the thought of going out to the library is becoming somewhat obsolete? (I’m embarrassed to say, but I actually can’t remember the last time I used or updated my local library card) What are the potential consequences for our education system when we can now find all our books and newspapers online and our school curriculum must now coexist and compete with the instantaneousness and rich interactivity offered by the Internet?

Does Google Undermine Our Intelligence?
Does the Internet, or more precisely Google, enhance learning and critical independent thought or obscure and perpetuate the wisdom of mobs?
When we venture into cyberspace we enter into a realm of vast knowledge where information on every conceivable facet of human existence has been indexed and parsed into some logical meta data or mathematical algorithm, efficiently made available to us courtesy of super-behemoth Google. Yet I wonder, conceivably there must be sites out there somewhere in cyberspace Google doesn’t find. Which begs the question: If a Web site is not indexed by Google, does it really exist? And, if you can’t find the answer to something through Google, are you a blundering idiot or just technologically-challenged? (In either case, you could always try MSN Search Bing if you’re dissatisfied with Google’s results)

While Google seems to work well for most, quickly and efficiently compiling our desired search results, the real task of filtering through seemingly endless amounts of information and deciphering the credible sources from the dubious and inaccurate; the authentic from the questionable; and the relevant from irrelevant redundant junk is unfortunately left to our critical best judgement.
What worries me now is that the Internet is becoming a sort of mental crutch when we don’t know the answer to something, we just Google it, which essentially precludes the need for us to spend time systematically working through a problem and exercise our brain when most of us (myself included) would rather just opt for the easier path of just give me the answer.  This is precisely the problem -Google makes it far too easy for us.

Recently I re-read Nicholas Carr’s infamous article Is Google Making Us Stupid? realizing many of the points touched upon concerning how the Web is supposedly reprogramming our brain and altering our cognitive function seem both fascinating and alarming at the same time. To a large extent Google represent this giant punching bag fuelling intellectual debate for or against technology’s impact on society. They have in some ways become the poster child for arguments exposing the many negative side-effects technology has imposed upon our social, economic, and education systems.
I would characterize Google as the dominant force of our modern information age and as the Web grows exponentially larger each year ‘search’ becomes ever more crucial in our ability to navigate cyberspace, determining how and ultimately what information we absorb.
On one hand Google are praised for elevating search to an almost mystical artistic form, while simultaneously they are demonized for threatening our intelligence by dumbing everything down and making it too easy to not think for ourselves.

Would We Be Smarter Without The Internet And Google?
Admittedly, it would be hard at this point to dispute Google’s broad influence on our lives. Google, and in all fairness the Internet, have succeeded in systematically infiltrating all aspects of our lives. Everything from our public spaces to cars, televisions, schools, even public transit systems are now interconnected with the Web. Perhaps this creeping penetration is unknowingly increasing our dependency for rich media and infotainment like a junkie to a crack-pipe. In my house alone I count 5 places where I can access the Internet and get my fix so to speak. As Nicholas Carr puts it: “The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.”

“For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind.”
-Nicholas Carr

There Are Too Many Apps In My Life -Is There An App For That?
I feel all of this technological convenience and ubiquity comes at a price -our intelligence, which could arguably be at stake if not holistically balanced against endeavors devoid of such technological influence. From Carr’s perspective Internet [Google] usage is altering how our brain processes information and perhaps the degree with which we are able to focus our attention. In many ways this represents a troubling sign that our growing app-driven lifestyle may be conspiring against our capacity for device-free problem solving. In the immortal words of Bruce Mau: “Think with your mind. Forget technology. Creativity is not device-dependent.”

Twitterdee And Twitterdum
It goes without saying there’s a lot of noise and information competing for our attention online and elsewhere. As a regular Twitter user and subscriber of RSS feeds, I sometimes feel an uneasy sense that my attention-span is getting ever shorter. Twitter as everyone knows encourages enforces brevity to the tune of 140 characters per Tweet, while RSS feeds, relentless in their ability to insidiously undermine the productivity of my working-day, deliver endless amounts of news and updates right to my desktop or mobile. (See the Tiger Woods debacle unfolding right now online!)
If Google is making us stupid, then Twitter might very well be turning us into attention deficit voyeurs of insignificant nonsense. No one cares to read status updates about how you’re so bored lately or that you’ve seen Twilight 5 times -you’re on the Internet, go learn or do something constructive!

Don’t Read This
When was the last time you remember reading through an article from start to finish online regardless of whether it was 3 paragraphs or 3000 words long? I’ll be the first to admit, sometimes it can be challenging to slow down and desynchronize from the propensity to skim text, skip from site to site, and read bits and pieces. Nevertheless, I believe the Web is shrinking our attention span inconspicuously one RSS feed widget at a time and I would venture to say most people are largely unaware or unwilling to admit this phenomenon exists. Take reading a lengthy article on a singular topic or theme for example, like Ars Technica’s exhaustive über-detailed 15-page analysis of Windows 7. Go on, I bet you can’t read through this article completely start to finish.
Again in Carr’s critique of Google, he goes on to reference developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, author of  Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, who suggests the Web is turning us into “mere decoders of information” due to the inherent “efficiency” and “immediacy” offered.

The Digerati Horde
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I spend a lot of time online -and I do, probably more than the average person, largely because I work in the interactive space and part of my job entails keeping up with Web culture and the latest trends online which affect how we architect Web sites. In fact, I would characterize the amount of time I spend online as exceeding the amount of time I spend reading books (non-digital, offline), watching television, and exercising combined.

I used to visit Digg quite a lot in the past -still do, but less frequently now. Oh how I sometimes marvel at the trivialities one can find on Digg; you can easily waste disproportionate amounts of time scrolling through an endless myriad of tabloid-ladened links if you’re not careful. Ironically I’ve started visiting popurls, the mother of all news aggregation sites, which must have been conceived as a lazy person’s guide to surfing the Web without having to do much work. Here you can not only browse the top Digg stories of the day but also view Google News, Reddit, Twitter, and a host of other RSS feeds all on one gigantic page. How convenient for people too pressed for time to do any real reading!

How We Consume Media
The New York Times recently reported that in 2008 Americans consumed roughly 34-Gigabytes of information per day from various sources (e.g. television, radio, print) with approximately 30-35% potentially coming from digital media [Internet] sources.

“[The report] suggests the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information in a single day. (Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is only 460,000 words long.) This doesn’t mean we read 100,000 words a day — it means that 100,000 words cross our eyes and ears in a single 24-hour period.”
-Nick Bilton, New York Times

With all this information crossing our eyes at warp speed on a daily basis, it’s not surprising reading is on the decline. The inherent immediacy and non-linearity of the Web has a tendency to limit the amount of information we read on any given Web page.
According to Web Usability expert Jakob Nielsen, on the average Web page, we read at most 20-28% of the words during an average visit. Nielsen explains: “This illustrates the Web as an active environment where we move from site to site quickly scanning pages absorbing fragments of content…”.
As someone who designs Web sites professionally for a living, I take this last point with a grain of salt. Granted, there are probably large numbers of people out there who read no more than 20-28% of any given Web page they visit, however I do not believe this constitutes absolutely everyone’s behavior online. Good IA and UI design take into account the vast differences among people online -their goals, behaviours [reading/attention span], attitudes, and motivations; and it is through this understanding of the various personas online we can at least improve the likelihood people will read as opposed to skim through a site’s content.

Now, considering you’re at the end of this excruciatingly long post (really, I’m willing to bet you read only 18% of the text on this page at best), go onward and read more!

Further Reading
Jakob Nielsen. Why Web Users Scan Instead of Read. useit.com Alertbox for October 1, 1997.
Claudine Beaumont. Are ebooks the future of reading? telegraph.co.uk September 10, 2009.
Steve Krug. How we really use the Web. Chapter 2, Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability
Naomi Alderman. How the web is undermining reading. guardian.co.uk January 20, 2009.
Denis G. Pelli and Charles Bigelow. A Writing Revolution. seedmagazine.com October 20, 2009.

4 thoughts on “Does The Web Undermine Reading?

  1. Hi Stewart, thank you for the comments.
    I am not condemning the Web but rather taking a critical perspective on how we are now using it (e.g. Twitter, RSS feeds) and the degree with which we have come to rely upon it in our daily lives.

    Many of the questions I pose are rhetorical and based on personal experiences and opinions.
    I think the long-term effects of [Google] Internet usage are still largely unknown at this point, nevertheless less you could check out University College London’s five-year research program study of online research habits if you’re looking for more empirical evidence.

  2. Also, your post only peripherally addresses the article topic: “Does the Web Undermine Reading?” It would be nice if some empirical evidence was considered and then discussed in light of your article’s topic.

  3. Darryl, I’ve been reading posts like this all over the Web, but none of the authors seem to take the time to critically consider their problem statement: “The Web is making us stupid!” They often just ask questions and pander to a paranoid audience. I find this somewhat ironic, but expected at the same time.

    I don’t think our behavior is inherently different than it was before the Web. I believe we were just as scattered and likely to move among various media as we are now. I will grant that the Web facilitates this behavior, but I don’t think the Web is contributing to a fundamental change in human behavior.

    By nature, we are curious creatures and the Web has provided us with a resource for stoking that curiosity–which again, I don’t think is a bad thing. More individuals have greater resources to make a more powerful impact than ever before. So on balance, while some people will end up lost in the great ether that is the Web, others will bend it to their will and realize opportunities never before possible. What is stupid is to not learn how to leverage the Web for the great resource that it is.

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