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Shhh... I'm linking

20th June 2011 - Stephen Forde

There is a chance that barely moments after having started to read these words you had already clicked the link to the book I am about to mention, never to read any further. Before even finding out what I have to say you're away clicking links. Dipping in and out of pages, until you're far, far away. Looking for the next information fix.

Image of The Shallows (paperback edition)In Nicholas Carr's 2010 book The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read And Remember (published in paperback on 1st July), that is exactly to be expected.

Many of we bookish types pride ourselves on being capable of, in Carr's words, "deep thinking", bouts of sustained reading, and the ability to remember what we have read. Carr's thesis is that the use of the Internet is effecting our abilities to do all these things and not for the better.

We went from an ancient oral tradition, passing on stories and knowledge by memory and word of mouth alone, to one of illiterate masses being read and preached to by priests and scribes and then when, literacy became the norm, reading for ourselves, in silent concentration. Each of these forms required and created different social conditions, mind skills and came with their own "message", so to speak, as to what thinking, memory and the attainment of knowledge was or should be.

Today much if not a large bulk of may people's reading is internet-based. Pages are built with hypertext: hyper by name, hyper by nature. Carr argues that the link strewn pages on our computer screens demand and encourage minds unable to concentrate, unable and unwilling to remember. Google is slowly page-ranking our knowledge and those that get to the top of the searches are those that are linked to in part the most. Not those that are the most accurate or useful. Often its just what's new and popular. So what happens to all that unlinked knowledge? Forgotten? Discarded? Only the novelty wins.

There must be some positive side to this your thinking? Well, yes and no. As any teenage gamer will tell you, you develop hand-eye co-ordination and problem-solving skills when locked in Mortal Kombat, with an enemy in any first person fighting game. In the same way, the frenetic page scanning and decision making skills that allow you to decide if a page is worth reading are useful too. It's a shame though that you will find it harder to sustain any long-term patterns of concentration. Our brains do not work well when distracted by non-linear text. A page of linear text may eventual prove too boring and unadventurous to minds reared on web pages.

Carr's is careful to be sure his book is not just a welter of anecdotal evidence. He is at pains to document cognitive brain experiments and subject tests that illustrate how the brain both grows abilities, with use and loses those that we don't use. Tests using MRI scanning showed that heavy internet users had much more extensive brain activity over those parts of the brain used for problem-solving than light users. But is more activity better activity?

E-book readers and the iPad: new ways of reading books but, unlike books, you can festoon a single page of text with many links. War and Peace can have within it links to a site on Russian history, the Tsars and cavalry uniforms of the Napoleonic period. You may find you never read the book. Not because it's very long but because you're constantly distracted.

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