I have just finished Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows in which he makes the argument that while the internet has its benefits, it basically makes us stupid. He claims that using the internet improves our ability to sift through large chunks of data quickly while at the same time we cannot concentrate at one thing at a time anymore. We only read headlines and a few sentences on websites to then head off to click on a link or check our mail, newsfeed reader, etc. We loose our ability to read deep and focus on the subject matter, think about it clearly and instead get always distracted – or what others call multitasking. He goes further and argues that these habits have a lasting impact on our brain whose circuits are rewired to get better at superficial and shallow reading and thinking while at the same time lessens our ability to follow and make complicated and extended arguments. And in order to memorize facts or a concept we need to focus and engage our mind with it for some amount of time, otherwise it will not make the jump from short to long-term memory.
I think he’s certainly on to something – otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered reading his book. But I conclude that he overdid it. Carr isn’t a luddite and he acknowledges that through all intellectual technologies such as books, maps and the compass we have gained some things while at the same time lost others. Indeed, his historical and cultural digressions and accounts of neurological and psychological research that take up a good part of the book are very interesting, sometimes I felt almost like reading National Geographic. But even as he acknowledges that the internet is here to stay, he offers no cues on how to fix it but paints a bleak picture of a medium that is inherently broken and that make its users shallower.
Carr also criticizes the view that a brain works like a complicated computer. While I’ll save the philosophical debate about that for another post, I certainly agree that in everyday life the metaphor isn’t all that helpful. Right now, computers are good (and even better than humans) at some task while they fail spectacularly at others. Humans think and feel massively parallel while computers still work mostly sequentially. Humans can get a grasp at a complicated problem even though it might be impossible to rigorously proof step by step that the intuitive solution is right. So I agree that for now we have to be careful when looking towards computers to help us at certain tasks and problems. Or more precisely, we should think carefully about what way we expect them to help us.
Towards the end of the book Carr argues that user interfaces and web sites shouldn’t be designed in a user friendly way but instead should be hard on the user in order to make him or her think. That way they will have to focus more and remember the contents better.
I think the exact opposite is true. The key to fixing computers and the internet and lessening their effect as a medium of distractions is better user interface design. The user interface should hide the complexity of problems that the computer is good at solving for us. Like when you are writing an email and enter the recipients name in the receiver-field it’s great that his email address gets filled in and you don’t have to look it up yourself. But on the other hand, the user interface shouldn’t try to hide the complexity of the problem we want to solve ourselves, as humans. When we only ask the computer to give us a word processor we don’t want it to write the text for us. Similarly, the computer or website shouldn’t flood us with notifications and other offers to be distracted as is often the case today. That’s why some people actually prefer the iPad’s approach to applications. You can work with only one app at a time and while you’re reading an ebook you haven’t any Facebook notifications popping in.
Another interesting note in The Shallows is that hyperlinks don’t necessarily improve the understanding of a text, indeed Carr cites a study that shows the opposite. The reader is preoccupied making the decision to either follow the link or not which distracts him of following the argument from beginning to end. This is a again a point where I tend to agree with him. More than just a few links in a text are too distracting. Better list them as references at the end of the text.
In conclusion I can say that I don’t think all hope is lost for the internet. But we certainly need to rethink the way we design websites and user interfaces. And as users we have to pay a lot more attention to the way we follow links mindlessly and are easily distracted. We need to make more conscious decisions on what we actually want to do right now and then focus on that and not stop until we’re done with it. And then we can take a conscious break instead of drifting off to Youtube or Facebook which doesn’t help us to really relax and tank energy.