“How the internet affects my productivity and intelligence (in particular reading)”
The internet is smart – containing the sum of all human knowledge, it would want to be. Gabe Newell, founder of Valve, Steam, and maker of Half Life, discussed the cumulative intelligence of the internet in a Q&A with Reddit: “We used to think we’re smart [at Valve] but nobody is smarter than the internet… The internet (in aggregate) is scary smart.”[i]
That’s for cumulative intelligence, but individual instances are quite low: “What is twerking?” was the top-trending question put to Google in Ireland last year.[ii] I’m not picking on silly questions put to search engines, because that’s what the internet is for: non-judgemental answer to questions you’d be ashamed to ask another human. “Knowledge is not the same thing as information” warns Sarah Churchwell in John Naughton’s article “The Internet: is it changing the way we think?”[iii], and the always-on access to information through the internet can have an adverse effect on our knowledge and powers of concentration and retention.
The internet has made it acceptable to no longer know things, that is until we’re reminded how much we don’t know, like in a pub quiz. John Naughton asks, “Who bothers to write down or memorise detailed information any more, for example, when they know that Google will always retrieve it if it’s needed again? The web has become, in a way, a global prosthesis for our collective memory.”
This reminded me of my Maths teacher deriding the use of calculators for making our brains dependent and flabby, unlike the toned and self-sufficient brain presumably he had. The fit-brain metaphor is deployed by Sarah Churchwell: “The brain is like any other muscle – if you don’t stretch it, it gets both stiff and flabby. But if you exercise it regularly, and cross-train, your brain will be flexible, quick, strong and versatile.”[iv]
In the same article author Geoff Dyer bemoans how the internet has depleted his concentration-levels: “Sometimes I think my ability to concentrate is being nibbled away by the internet; other times I think it’s being gulped down in huge, Jaws-shaped chunks.”[v]
The sudden difficulty in reading comes from the shifting reading strategies in use when reading online. Free online content doesn’t merit the same focus as a hardcover book equally in terms of financial investment as the quality of writing. With internet articles, according to Bertrand Gervais, “we engage in a rapid form of reading, where the impetus is more on progression than comprehension, more on rapidity than density”(Gervais p.192).[vi]
The cumulative intelligence of the internet has everything to do with its’ hold-all, repository nature. It’s communal and collaborative where reading is solitary and immersive. A novel is communion with another person’s thoughts, like having one extended, edifying conversation at a party versus fifteen shorter, dumber ones.
The internet is a blight on productivity too. This is not to abdicate the user responsibility for their actions, but it is to say how seductive and evolved the internet has become as a time-wasting tool. There is something to the propulsive hyperlinks and titillating content that’s designed to bamboozle the user:
“The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements…The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction” (Nicholas Carr, 2008).[vii]
Really the computer and internet are unique for facilitating worthwhile work on the one hand, while providing thrills, spills and broadly-relevant content on the other. This ability to flit between business and pleasure at the touch of a mouse never existed in the same way before. They used to be two well-delineated spheres but have bled into each other, as Geoff Dyer notes:
“In those quaint days before the internet, once you made it to your desk there wasn’t much to distract you. You could sit there working or you could just sit there. Now you sit down and there’s a universe of possibilities…to tempt you.”
Borrowing a system from the grandfather of productivity Frederick Winslow Taylor – referenced in Nicholas Carr’s article above in connection to improved efficiency in manufacturing – I decided to time how much per hour I spent reading the relevant articles, and how much I spent surfing through unconnected internet content. The New York Times Learning Blogpost “Considering the Future of Reading”[viii] also offered the helpful suggestion of keeping a 24-hour reading journal to track what reading devices readers used, and I chose to borrow and adapt this.
For six hours over two days I tracked how many minutes per hour I spent performing “Relevant Reading (RR)” and “Irrelevant Reading (IR)”. Making allowances for the time it took to type my findings, I staggered each hour by five minutes eg “15:02-16:02, 16:07-17:07”. Usually while attempting to study I switch off the wi-fi to ensure some work is accomplished, but in this experiment the internet remained on and I self-consciously allowed myself to indulge in random surfing.
I had some basic assumptions before beginning: that I would be less inclined to wander online if reading a printed text than a word document or HTML page; that after completing one text I would indulge in looking random things up before starting another; that by measuring my productivity I would try and concentrate harder to alter it thus appearing more studious; and that I would be less inclined to wander at the beginning of the study session than at the end. A guess at the nature of what I’d be looking up were hyperlinked articles connected to what I was reading, and additional articles by the authors of the text.
In my two fields, “Relevant Reading” and “Irrelevant Reading” what fell under “Relevant Reading” was reading pertaining directly to this article, and included printed texts, PDFs and HTML pages; “Irrelevant Reading” on the other hand included web articles not connected to the readings, meanings for words, social media, using my phone, email etc.
The results are interesting. I’ll treat their full breakdown in greater detail in the adjoining visualisations, but looking at the first day, three hours “reading” between 15:02 and 18:12, here’s the breakdown and a selection of online activities:
- 94mins “Irrelevant Reading”, 86mins “Relevant Reading”
- 3mins connecting to internet
- 5mins watching new Start Wars trailer
- 2mins Googling phrase (“Fits and starts”)
On the second day, 12:03-15:14:
- 62mins “Irrelevant Reading”, 119mins “Relevant Reading”
- 2mins Googling “corporeal”
- 11mins watching new GTA V trailer
- 3mins first Googling author, author’s wife
- 4mins looking up phrase “Fit for purpose” + synonyms
Some observations are my large appetite for film and videogame trailers (16mins!) and also how frequently I consult the internet for word definitions and synonyms, particularly while taking notes. Relating to my assumptions about print text vs online text, I discovered that the opposite was true: reading a text as one long “scroll” compels the reader on in a small way, while with a printed text – particularly a boring one – each page-turn is a momentary lapse in concentration which could find you online. Concentration was helped by reading something interesting and engaging on whatever medium, to nobody’s surprise.
I did notice the curious pleasure-pain principle connected to my reading, that with completion of a particularly heavy text I’d treat myself to some light internet confection. This could have to do with the practice of stymieing my curiosity until the text is finished, because who knows where I’d find myself on unleashing my full curiosity online, but it wouldn’t be conducive to work. And as the graphs show, it was not necessarily true that reading earlier in the day would produce better results, my second day from 12:03-15:14 seeing a 32min-increase in RR. Finally, that keeping tabs on my online movements would make me self-consciously want to appear more focused and hard-working, I agree might be true – not in the sense of caring to impress anyone with my diligence, but in a curious way by systematizing the wanderings of my brain I began to allot time for those digressions, limiting them to 2, 5 or 10min-intervals. In making them abide by industrial time as Frederick Winslow Taylor had done instead of responding to my curiosity, hunger or mood, I had managed to make my unproductivity much more productive.
Productivity Chart Day One (15:03-18:12)
Productivity Chart Day Two (12:03-15:13)
“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr
“The Future of Reading”, Jonah Lehrer
“The Internet: is it changing the way we think?” John Naughton
“Considering the Future of Reading: Lessons, Links and Though Experiements”, Katherine Schulten and Shannon Doyne
“Is There a Text on This Screen? Reading in an Era of Hypertextuality” Bertrand Gervais, from A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, edited by Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman
[iii] “The Internet: is it changing the way we think?” John Naughton
[iv] To overstretch the work-out metaphor, reading and libraries in Churchwell’s view are like free weights – “[which] used properly… works you harder” – while the internet is like a weight machine:
“Weight machines are directive and enabling: they encourage you to think you’ve worked hard without necessarily challenging yourself. The internet can be the same… It can substitute surface for depth, imitation for originality, and its passion for recycling would surpass the most committed environmentalist.”
And Jonah Lehrer weighs in as well in his article “The Future of Reading” on how internet technology saps its users of their strength to read hard texts:
“I worry that, before long, we’ll become so used to the mindless clarity of e-ink – to these screens that keep on getting better – that the technology will feedback onto the content, making us less willing to endure harder texts. We’ll forget what it’s like to flex those dorsal muscles, to consciously decipher a literate clause.”
[vi] “Is There a Text on This Screen? Reading in an Era of Hypertextuality” Bertrand Gervais
[vii] “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr
[viii] “Considering the Future of Reading: Lessons, Links and Thought Experiements”