Distraction, Seeking, and Thinking on the Internet

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 20, 2009

A year-old essay in The Atlantic has once again been making the rounds among internet-anxious intellectuals after its mention in a more recent (and more compelling) piece in Slate that suggests the popularity of - nay, obsessive adherence to - internet search, texting and social networking is grounded in the brain's dopamine reward system.

I made some observations about the latter piece in a comment on my recent blog entry about time spent offline, but I'd like to muse about the Atlantic piece in contrast.

Whereas the Slate article investigates the question about whether the internet is affecting us at a cognitive level in an empirical manner, the Atlantic essay approaches it from a more personal, anecdotal direction:

Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going - so far as I can tell - but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.

That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

The author quotes playwright Richard Foreman arguing that the internet is draining our "inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance" and turning us into "pancake people - spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button."

In the context of that quote, a friend ask me:

Is this just old-fart-style reminiscing and resistance to technological change? Or are we really in danger of losing something important?

It this really what's happening? Are we all turning into Bilbo Baggins, like butter scraped over too much bread?

Denser, Not Sparser

Since the Atlantic piece relies on anecdote rather than data, I'm happy to respond in kind with a countervailing anecdote. In fact, if I were feeling cheekier, I'd merely answer the question with another: Why hold, say, the most quotable works of Keats committed to memory when you can look them up in mere seconds, and save your brain for higher-order thinking?

I've definitely noticed a growing tendency, over the past several years, on my part to remember not articles of cultural endurance or ephemera themselves but paths to such articles.

Like the author, I've been inclined to worry about this, but when it comes down to it, I still have these saved insights at my disposal when it comes time to write something and make reference to them.

In fact, I now have access to a much huger system of references than ever before, because the pathways:

  1. Take up a lot less space in my head; and
  2. Are more densely interlinked than the actual references would be were it necessary for me to retain them all.

Again, I'm inclined to kvetch over a) above, when it seems on reflection that the more significant observation is actually b) - the fact that my system of knowledge turns out to be not sparser but denser and more richly connected than it was when I was still principally a typographic thinker.

Networks and Knowledge

When movable type made cheap, mass printing of books possible, learned people of the time worried that the widespread availability of books would destroy the oral tradition of passing knowledge down through communities (and the Scribes worried that they would be put out of a job).

While the oral tradition is not yet destroyed (and in fact I attended a fantastic storytelling session earlier this year that was geared to adults), it has certainly been supplanted as the principal means through which people learn about the world - and thank heavens for it!

Widespread literacy has done much to destroy the steady state of ignorance, received wisdom, parochialism and narrow-mindedness that for so many eons retarded the progress of humanity toward a greater understanding of how the world works and how we can use that knowledge to advance our interests.

I don't accept either the heavy-handed liberalism that says progress is inevitable or the reflexive conservatism that says we're losing something precious by casting off tradition-for-tradition's-sake. However, I do believe the following:

  1. More and better knowledge is better than less and poorer knowledge;
  2. A culture of learning tends to be self-correcting;
  3. Knowledge is cumulative;
  4. The accumulation of knowledge is ultimately responsible for most of the increases in productivity and quality of life of the past two centuries; and
  5. Open systems of knowledge are exponentially more valuable than closed collections of information.

For all these reasons, I believe the internet - and the kind of thinking, researching and production that it tends to encourage - is on balance a strongly positive development.

Self-Correcting Knowledge System

The fact that you can read - on the internet, no less - an unnecessarily long-winded diatribe about how the internet makes it harder to read long diatribes suggests another of its strengths: by increasing by orders of magnitude the speed and extend of diffusion, the internet also tends to support the self-correction of knowledge on which science is also based.

Here's an interesting tidbit: the widespread adoption of MP3s has had the side-effect of rekindling a robust cottage industry of vinyl recordings among people who have decided that there's value in the physical substance of an album, with the warm, organic, analog sound of records played on a turntable and the sheer physicality of a 12"x12" dust jacket.)

If enough people find themselves thinking about how the internet makes it harder to read War and Peace or (my personal nemesis) Moby Dick, it will provoke a backlash that will have people consciously taking on longer and longer essays to cultivate the ability to read and absorb such pieces.

To the extent that the Atlantic essay signals an alarm, it may itself be part of the solution for the problem it poses. The crucial matter is whether:

  1. The change in our reading and comprehension patterns is real and not just an artifact; and if so,
  2. The change is an immutable physiological function of how people interact with the internet or merely the result of a habit that is susceptible to change.

New Systems Require New Habits

Having considered the latter question (I'll presuppose the former for the sake of this argument), I'm inclined toward the conclusion that the change in our reading and comprehension patterns is more of a mutable habit than an immutable property of how the internet changes the brain.

I have a few reasons for thinking this, not least of which is the increasingly well-understood idea that the structure of the human brain remains dynamic, flexible and malleable even after adulthood. However, my personal experience strongly suggests - at least for me - that the problem of concentration is fairly easy to solve.

The secret to extended, deep concentration lies in achieving the flow state of immersing and losing oneself in a full-spectrum narrative or argumentative work.

It's akin to programming, in that I simply can't do it when I'm being constantly interrupted. Each time I lose focus, I must first go through the exercise of 'uploading' the structure back into my consciousness before I can proceed. That's a lot of overhead if I'm only going to spend five or ten minutes on it before being distracted again.

(Yes, I know I'm using a computer metaphor to talk about the brain, and that metaphors are greedy and opportunistic. Believe me, it's just for convenience. What happens in a brain is a lot different - and orders of magnitude more complex - than what happens in a computer.)

Since flow state is essential for immersing in a large, involved work and flow state is highly vulnerable to distractions, the mere fact of spending long periods of time on what we can accurately call a Distraction Machine means our ability to achieve flow state will be severely curtailed - and hence our practice at achieving flow state will be stunted.

Organize to Eliminate Distraction

What this suggests is that the problem of being able to read large, absorbing works in the internet age is not a problem of a new technology changing our brain patterns so much as it is simply a problem of a new technology requiring us to develop new methods of organizing our time to facilitate what we want to accomplish.

If it's important to you to read large, absorbing works, it follows that you need to develop techniques - of habit and/or technology - to block out chunks of time during which you can read without the myriad interruptions that go along with a network-connected computer.

That might mean installing a program that allows you to lock out distracting websites or web-based services for those blocks of time during which you wish to turn your attention to weightier contents than a blog entry.

Now, where cognitive science comes into play is detailed in the Slate article, which points out that the brain is strongly primed for distraction and interruption.

Actually all our electronic communication devices - email, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter - are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. [Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak] Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably - as email, texts, updates do - we get even more carried away.

That is, it's possible that the underlying reason why we can't seem to ignore or turn off the distractions that make it hard to concentrate is that we really don't want them to stop.

And that's an entirely different problem from the one the Atlantic essayist tries to hang on the internet.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted August 20, 2009 at 18:30:25

Good article Ryan. There are a few points I'd like to ma...oh wait, there goes my Blackberry. Gotta go

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted August 21, 2009 at 15:30:07

Great article, Ryan--I'll spend my afternoon at work reading the Slate and Atlantic pieces (which will be nice introductions to the weekend).

While I think I agree with your list of epistemological beliefs, especially if aggregated on a societal level (I'm not convinced that at the individual level, knowledge is cumulative--I think there are limits to meaningful knowledge and recall in people), I think that they, along with initial question you asked:

"Why hold, say, the most quotable works of Keats committed to memory when you can look them up in mere seconds, and save your brain for higher-order thinking?"

further illustrate the problem that posed by the Atlantic author--that the dominant socio-cultural orientation is one biased towards processing vast QUANTITIES of information rather than fully mining or appreciating its quality. This orientation couldn't be clearer to me, as I work as a social researcher and most of my work involves trawling the net and putting together quick and dirty reports from those individual strands of information. One thing I'm rarely asked to do is any serious interpretation or high-order analysis of that data--I am to my superiors as Google is to me--we're all retaining our higher-order cognition for that eventual analysis or interpretation, not wishing to bog our minds down with the minutae of actually reading and understanding the source material.

This works quite fine for producing reports and briefs (and works fine for me because I don't need to memorize any boring and dry data), but the problem I see is that it doesn't develop any expertise over source material, only expertise at searching for it, and the tools we use to search (Google, etc.) no longer act as tools, but are actually like cybernetic additions to our brains: I would not be able to do my job WITHOUT the internet, so I don't try to fool myself into believing I'm master of the material, only an efficient drone asked to search it out.

So referring directly back to the original metaphors (pancakes or butter on toast), I disagree with your suggestion that knowledge is necessarily DENSER. Knowledge density suggests not only its volume or quantity, but its mass, which I would liken more to an appreciation or understanding of its quality. You suggest that the mere knowledge of the pathways to certain facts or source material is equivalent to its understanding, and I would argue that that's insufficient. Just as rote learning disregards the latent content of a subject, knowing where to locate something is similarly 'thin' learning.

In which case, we ARE "losing something important" by training our brains to act as indices (or creating personal habits, as you suggest) instead of the libraries themselves. I make not like Keats and want to keep some space in my head for something else, but think of something you can relate to: Isn't it funny how I still manage to keep random 30 Rock quotes up there for months at a time? With a single line, I can still imagine entire Kids in the Hall skits 10 years after I watched them. Same things with lessons from my university sociology textbooks, and I find myself re-reading Machiavelli or Weber years later just because I feel the material slipping, and along with that my inherent understanding of it.

Gah, this doesn't feel finished but it's already too long, sorry.

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By MelvinA (registered) - website | Posted August 26, 2009 at 01:55:36

Internet nowadays is really helpful in terms of disseminating wide variety of news and educational facts. Of course there are times that Internets are used for deceitful acts in creating articles that are disturbing and unethical reviews. But I believe that the only problem is us, the users, who abusing the power of free will to do things that are not acceptable in this society. We tend to abuse the advantages of these technologies and other things that give us some easiness to live. Knowledge is acquire and should be distributed or pass to people who truly deserves it. Ephren Taylor, a successful entrepreneur once said, in order for us to attain our goals in life and achieve what we truly deserve is through constant persistent and reading things as well as apply it in real life. Well, maybe the old-traditional way of acquiring knowledge isn't practice nowadays. Internets might be the more innovative way to learn but still experiencing good or bad things are the best lesson we can depend on.

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By drthomasho (anonymous) | Posted May 14, 2010 at 06:22:33

It's almost a year later and some are still discussing this such as this week's series of radio commentaries at Probe Ministries

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