Reading Blogs Might Make You a Better Person

| 6/8/2010 1:22:49 PM


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

Image by Anonymous9000, licensed under Creative Commons.

Gregg DesElms_1
6/9/2010 4:39:40 PM

I've given lots of thought over the years to Carr's way of thinking, and I'm afraid he's right; and Ms Bustillos, godbless'er, is wrong. Footnotes in printed text are only superficially analogous to hyperlinks; and the devil is in that superficiality. One looks only longingly at footnotes, wishing, perhaps, that one had the footnoted work in hand with which to distract oneself. A hyperlink, on the other hand, makes the distraction real with the help of technology simply not present in a footnote on the printed page... and therein lies the critical difference which destroys the analogy. The problem, here, too, may be generational. I don't know, of course, but I'll bet that Mr. Carr is considerably older than Ms Bustillos; and that perhaps Ms Bustillos is either part of, or barely older than the current generation of young people who seem so capable of multi-tasking as to make spin the heads of those much older, such as I. And so for such as her, perhaps, the distraction is not so distracting as for such as Mr. Carr and myself. That said, studies show that such distractions, while perhaps more tolerable, from acclimation, to the young, are nevertheless just as actually distracting to them, after all, as they are to the old; and so now is being created an entire generation of future leaders who think better broadly than deeply. And that's sad. _______________________________ Gregg L. DesElms Napa California, USA gregg at greggdeselms dot com

Brian Beveridge
6/9/2010 3:54:44 PM

Much has been written lately about the growing problem of attention deficit problems in adults. This debate reminds me somewhat of watching young children in a grocery store. Children are often highly reactive to the psychological cues used in product packaging and consequently can be seen running from item to item and grabbing things for momma to buy. This seems similar to the behavior described in these essays; specifically the inability in the reader to not react upon seeing blue text in a paragraph. The issue may be more related to our growing impatience and need for constant gratification. Isn't Mr. Carr blaming opportunity rather than taking responsibility for his own actions?

Maria Bustillos
6/9/2010 2:17:18 PM

Ahoy there! I enjoyed this comment (and thank you so much, Mr. Rowe, for the link.) Footnotes and hyperlinks are equivalent to the exact extent that they create a miniature interruption in the flow of reading. They are both signposts, to be followed or not, and Mr. Carr points to studies claiming that repeated interruptions in the flow of thought while reading impair cognitive ability. That's why Laura Miller, in her Salon review, placed all the links at the end of her piece, and that's the topic around which much of the discussion of this book has revolved. Naturally, the experience is somewhat different once we choose to follow, at which point all kinds of other factors come into play.

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