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Posts Tagged ‘information’

I was on the verge of ending this blog. First, after pouring my heart out in a profound meditation on traffic management the other day, a friend put the following comment on my Facebook page:

You so need to get out more!

(I wouldn’t normally repeat personal comments, but this was already alarmingly public in the first place.)

Second, and much more seriously, I read this article by Todd Gitlin about the effects of using the Internet. Gitlin reviews Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a challenging thesis. It’s not just that the Internet dumbs information down (it’s easy to respond to this by pointing to the profusion of intelligent content on the net). It’s that the way we read and process ideas on the Internet is actually making us less able to think and reflect in any meaningful way.

So no matter how profound the ideas in this blog, it is just contributing to the cultural malaise of our times. That’s the suggestion. Do you agree? I don’t mean “is this blog in particular contributing to the malaise?” I mean “would we be better just switching off the computers and going to the library?”

It’s worth quoting a few paragraphs.

Carr grabs our lapels to insist that the so-called information society might be more accurately described as the interruption society. It pulverizes attention, the scarcest of all resources, and stuffs the mind with trivia. Our texting, IM-ing, iPhoning, Twittering, computer-assisted selves—or self-assisted computing networks—are so easily diverted that our very mode of everyday thought has changed, changed utterly, degraded from “calm, focused, undistracted” linearity into “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts.” Google searches, too, break our concentration, which only makes matters worse: “Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction,” Carr writes. Because we are always skimming one surface after another, memories do not consolidate and endure. So we live in a knife-edge present. We turn into what the playwright Richard Foreman called “pancake people—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” We collect bits and the bits collect us.

Worse still, no one has dragooned us into the shallows. Nobody is forcing us from pixel to post. We are our own victimizers, because we crave interruption. When we grow up texting every few minutes, legato—which now feels like an eternity—yields to staccato. Taking a break during the writing of this review, while watching a recent Lakers-Suns playoff game, I observed a couple of women in four-figure courtside seats behind the Suns’ bench working their thumbs on BlackBerries as the camera panned over them. Maybe they were live-blogging, or day-trading on Asian markets.

With so many interruptions so easy to arrange, Carr argues, it is no wonder that we cannot concentrate, or think straight, or even think in continuous arabesques. Where deep reading encourages intricacies of thought, the electronic torrent in which we live—or which lives in us—turns us into Twittering nerve nodes. The more links in our reading, the less we retain. We are what we click on.  We no longer read, we skim. With Wikipedia a click away, are we more knowledgeable? Or even more efficient? Multi-tasking, Carr quotes the neuroscientist David Meyer as saying, “is learning to be skillful at a superficial level.”

After all, the brain that has been re-wired online governs us offline, too. The more we multi-task, the more distractible we are. But aren’t we more sophisticated at “visual-spatial skills”? Sure, but at the price of “a weakening of our capacities for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins ‘mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection,” writes Carr, quoting a Science article that reviewed more than fifty relevant studies.

And so we devolve inexorably into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” These sweet tidbits are rotting our mental teeth. This is so, Carr maintains, because “the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions,” and that consequently, “with the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”

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How does your mind work? How do you approach problems? How do you organise ideas? Ben Macintyre summarises Isaiah Berlin’s suggestion that there are two kinds of thinkers: the hedgehog and the fox.

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Hedgehog writers, argued Berlin, see the world through the prism of a single overriding idea, whereas foxes dart hither and thither, gathering inspiration from the widest variety of experiences and sources. Marx, Nietzsche and Plato were hedgehogs; Aristotle, Shakespeare and Berlin himself were foxes.

Richard Serra: The Hedgehog and the Fox by p.joran.

Richard Serra: The Hedgehog and the Fox, sculpture at Princeton University

Macintyre argues that the internet has turned us all into foxes, darting around from one source to another, never really stopping to construct a ‘big idea’.

Today, feasting on the anarchic, ubiquitous, limitless and uncontrolled information cornucopia that is the web, we are all foxes. We browse and scavenge thoughts and influences, picking up what we want, discarding the rest, collecting, linking, hunting and gathering our information, social life and entertainment…

This way of thinking is a direct threat to ideology. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate expression of hedgehog-thinking is totalitarian and fundamentalist, which explains why the regimes in China and Iran are so terrified of the internet. The hedgehogs rightly fear the foxes.

For both better and worse, fox-thinking is dominant. At its worst, it means shorter attention spans, shallower memories, fragmented, unsustained argument, the undermining of intellectual property rights and a tendency to mistake anecdote for fact. At its best, the internet represents an intellectual revolution, fostering free collaboration as never before, with dramatically improved access to boundless information, the great store of the world’s knowledge just a few keystrokes and clicks away.

The nimble internet fox is both an extraordinary time-saver, nipping from one place to another on instant mind-journeys that would once have taken years. But he is also a prodigious time-waster, wandering down distracting avenues of celebrity gossip, pornography, invective and the minutiae of other peoples’ lives.

Reading the web usefully requires a new form of literacy, the ability to sift from the abundance of information what is helpful from what is pointless or merely distracting. Many feel overloaded by the onslaught of information: too many websites, too many messages, a deafening chorus of tweets and texts. Internet thinking is not just about browsing and gathering, but choosing and rejecting. The internet fox knows many things, but while hungrily snarfing up titbits from every corner, he must also know what is indigestible, what is nourishing and what is poisonous.

I’m only half-convinced by this. It’s true that an intellectual revolution has taken place. It’s true that we have to develop these skills of scanning, sifting and sorting. But the paradoxical effect of this information overload is that our core beliefs can remain unchallenged. The mind darts around the web but finds it much harder to settle down and engage deeply – as you have to do when you read a book or enter into a conversation. So the hedgehog that forms our identity can remain untouched. The infinite freedom of the internet makes it a place where it is very easy to reinforce one’s prejudices. Perhaps we are hedgehogs in foxes’ clothing.

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