My very good wife gave me a great gift for Father’s Day. With air miles which were going to expire anyway, she got me a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. I had never had one before. We couldn’t justify the price on our tight budget, but a former roommate and my brother had had one.
I have loved getting the paper for the last few weeks but some wonderful thing has happened that I did not even consider until I got my first copies: the format has encouraged me to read about things I would normally never bother with.
You see when I go to the internet for news I tend to go to sites that agree with me, sites on which I’ll be safe from drivel. I have a limited amount of time, after all. What’s more, I tend just to look at headlines, scanning the screen for something that won’t waste my time: “Navy Warns It Can’t Meet 30-Year Funding Needs…” it says. So, I think to myself, the government is having trouble funding stuff. I got it. I won’t read that article.
But when I actually do bring up an article, I’ll usually just skim through it, unless I’m particularly interested. I’ll look at the first few words, skip a bit, skip some more, get to the punch at the end…. I certainly won’t read a very long article unless it’s very well written and particularly interesting to me. Finding such a thing is rare these days, but when it happens it’s great.
I remember reading a couple pieces from Vanity Fair on the real estate debacle involving a Greek monastery and the culture of corruption there as well as a piece on the folly of Californian government economics. Both were very long; both were very edifying.
It turns out, though, that I’m not the only one doing this quick reading. In a book titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, author Nicholas Carr explains that this skimming, this skimming in an “F” pattern more specifically, is how a lot of people function these days.
The internet is designed in such a way to catch our eye and move us on to more and more content. We’re not sitting and staying focused on one thing for long. Our brains, or at least certain parts of our brains, are firing off on all sorts of synapses as we’re taking in images and words and more images… and images. The hope is that with the ability to “go deeper” into this or that aspect of a story through hyperlinks and video, we’ll be using more of our brain and getting “content rich” material, making the reading/learning process richer.
The problem is that the opposite is happening. We’re not spending a lot of time concentrating on a single strand of thought, an argument, a carefully worded explanation. We’re not retaining the information as well. And while more of our brain is active, they are not the parts of the brain that help us to focus and think.
Carr does a good job explaining that the process of sitting down and reading a static tool like a book is not natural. Think of it this way. When we read a book we do so for an extended period of time, silently, and in order to follow a story or an argument. It’s not something we would have done before books came about. It’s not something necessary for the hunter-gatherer type. It’s an activity that developed over time, an activity that changes the way our brains work, so that our brains become habituated to the process of focused concentration.
With more and more emphasis (even in schools) on acquiring our news and information from the internet, however, our brains are moving away from this. Instead of sitting and concentrating, we’re moving back towards our primal selves where we are attracted to every movement and image that pops up before us, a habit which was very helpful when we had to hunt for food. Because we can only multitask so much, as those images pop up all over our screen it becomes more and more difficult to concentrate for long. As a result, we lose retention of the material we read.
It is amazing how little distraction is necessary to draw us away. In his book, Carr mentions a study done with a sample of people asked to read the same story. Divided into two groups, the readers are provided two versions which differ only in the number of hyperlinks within the stories they read. Over and over again they found that the group with more hyperlinks embedded in the story retained less of the information they read. The researcher stated that “comprehension declined as the number of links increased.”
Every time our eye passes a hyperlink, our brain becomes imperceptibly occupied by a decision: click or don’t click. That extra task distracts our brain and makes it harder for us to stay focused.
In many ways, it should be admitted, the internet is good. My wife and I don’t often have the time to sit and read a longer piece until the evening hours, when we are least energetic. Short pieces with bullet points are helpful for any person on the go who is snatching a few moments on the elevator to catch up on the latest news about governmental idiocy. Nevertheless, I think it is true that we’re missing something as we get away from the printed page.
Things have gotten so bad, or at least that’s my take, that when I was writing for a blog some time ago, we writers were told repeatedly to keep the headlines catchy and short. Do not write long pieces. Emphasize things like “the 4 things you need to know about x” or “6 things about y” etc. In other words, keep it simple; keep it short. I was annoyed, but that is the way to get people’s attention and keep it.
Carr does say that there’s nothing wrong with the type of skimming that we do. But the scary thing is that this distracted reading, and the skimming that comes along with it is becoming our dominant way of reading everything.
This brings me back to the Wall Street Journal. There is something about the physicality of the paper, a good paper, that makes me want to read about stuff I would never delve into if it were on a computer screen. Having it all laid out there at once on a page, gives me a fuller picture of what it would take to read through a piece. I’m more likely to invest in a story, even if it’s not wholly interesting, or just pick out what might interesting when it’s right before me this way. Who knew, for instance, that a recent discovery of a pre-historic bird has thrown conventional theories of flight into a tailspin?
The point is not that the internet is evil. I’m still posting. My point is only that a physical paper is a good thing for reasons I hadn’t even considered until recently. When I started getting the paper I was exposed to well more than what I’m used to. I could feel my brain come alive. I started working more with ideas for articles and other longer pieces.
It also makes me feel a part of a national conversation of record. I come into contact with persons with whom I never would if I stick to my bookmarks on the browser. All in all, the experience has been more culturally enriching for me as well, since I can keep track of some of the trends in theater, film, art, music and clothing.
When this subscription runs out, I’ll probably do without. Our budget is still our budget, and there are more pressing needs for my family than the joys of a paper. But the experience has me treating the internet differently, as has Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows. It also has me worried about school reforms that involve even more internet-based text books, but that’s a subject for a different post.
Omar Gutierrez writes from Omaha, NE. His new book, The Urging of Christ’s Love:The Saints and the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church can be purchased online and at Catholic booksellers.