Writing for The Awl, Maria Bustillos argues convincingly against recent suggestions that the cognitive habits enforced by web browsing are making people dumb. Taking on Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (recently expanded into a book), Bustillos dismantles one of Carr’s main ideas. As she says:
Hyperlinks, the proliferation of which Mr. Carr largely blames for his mental infirmity, are in no way different from footnotes. Footnotes, too, demand “microseconds of decision-making attention.” Just as a footnote does, a hyperlink beckons you away from the main text in order to examine tangentially-related but relevant material. Exactly like a hyperlink, a footnote often has the effect of sending you down a series of rabbit holes, from which you emerge hours later, armed with a dozen other books—that is, if you want to investigate the subject in fine detail. If you don’t, then by all means, you can skip the footnotes.
So do footnotes also “sap cognitive power from the reading process”?
Heavily annotated works have been useful for centuries to students of every discipline we’ve got, and their distraction-potential, though clear, is completely eclipsed by the invaluable advantage of access to a ton of carefully-signposted material that can greatly ease the conduct of serious study. It’s well worth the extra effort of concentration; if you want the goods, you’ll put up with the cost.
Carr had addressed the comparison of footnotes and hyperlinks, noting that
[u]nlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.
But Bustillos isn’t having it:
The fogginess of this reasoning—what does this mean, ‘propel’?—is evident throughout the original essay. The means by which one navigates through text are consistent within the medium—you page through all the pages of a book, and you click through all the pages of a website. For some reason, “propulsion” is supposed to be bad for you and “pointing” isn’t, but Carr doesn’t even attempt to explain why.
Source: The Awl