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Sunday, 27 July 2008

The devil's not in Google!

I am about to finish "War and Peace". At last! It has been a mammoth, but totally enjoyable, read. I had read it before, long ago, and found it hard going, but this time I have had the benefit of the new (Penguin edition) translation and that or a greater maturity or both, has made all the difference. Easy to read though I have found it - even the names were no bar to my enjoyment - I have taken an inordinately long while over it, so long, indeed, that I am not giving any clues as to how long. The possible reasons for a slow read are legion, of course. Indeed, there are reasons and there are causes. A reason might be a desire to savour the work and to give due attention to its deeper issues; a cause might be technical or a tendency to nod off. Beyond saying which, I will remain stum - except to point out that reason and cause are not necessarily mutually exclusive and to add that I had been feeling very inferior about my declining reading powers, but that all has now changed, and I am feeling positively superior. And for why? Because I glean from an article by Nicholas Carr in The Independent that Bruce Friedman, a pathologist at The University of Michigan Medical School, a blogger on the use of computers in medicine, has put it on record that his use of the internet (and of Google in particular) has so messed with his mind as to have completely deprived him of the ability to read "War and Peace" at all. His internet searching has changed - and not for the better - the way he reads and, because of that, the way he thinks. It seems that this belief he has is shared by many, and is the basis of a polemic that has been rumbling around on the blogs for some time, though I must admit that I had not come up against it before now.

Back in April in my post One Man's Meat is Another Man's Haiku I discussed the contrasting mental processes involved in the reading of alphabet- and ideogram-based scripts. I also touched upon the consequences that it is thought this has for the brain, for the way we use the brain, for its future development and for the ways in which different parts of the brain are involved and their structures modified by the different demands placed upon them. Subsequently, I gave as a dramatic illustration of this, the case of a bilingual man (speaking Chinese and English) who had a severe stroke, as a result of which he totally lost the ability to read English, though his reading skills remained unaffected so far as Chinese was concerned.

What I did not make clear at that time was the degree to which these structural changes take place right across the brain, and are not restricted to the areas specifically concerned with reading and writing. They occur, for example, in those areas which give us our memory and in those devoted to the interpretation of visual stimulii in general, including those which on the face of it have nothing to do with reading and writing. They have also been shown to affect concentration. It is this more general effect, some now believe, that is the cause of Friedman's inability to read long texts slowly and with the deeper thought they require. To cast doubts on the unalloyed benefits of modern technologies or upon our ways of working with them is to run the risk of being dubbed a Luddite, and no one wishes that upon themselves, yet the Luddites have always been proved right in what they warned against. The machines introduced in the Industrial Revolution did cost jobs; the introduction of printing and even writing -(opposed by no less a person than Plato) did have the detrimental effects they were warning their peers about; computers have not been a total boon. Where they have been wrong, the Luddites, has been in failing to foresee (or to admit) the undoubtedly great benefits that would considerably outweigh their objections. But that is not to say we should close our eyes to the disadvantages and stumble blindly on, ignoring them.

So is there some way we can have our cake and eat it, have the benefits of Google, but perhaps a much enhanced Google capable of opening its doors to the desires of those of us who miss the more joined-up, bookish way of working? At present it would seem not, if only because there are too many vested interests stacked against that idea, too many providers, sponsors and promoters on the internet who would have too much to lose if we were ever to stop bouncing from site to site. The more we bounce, the more the cash tills ring for them.

Carr was simply reporting how Friedman and others now believe that other differences in reading and study methods influence the development of our brains and minds in ways that they see as alarming and of the greatest profundity, that the alphabet/ideogram example I blogged about back in April is just that: just one example of a general effect, that the ways in which we choose to go about our reading, writing, studying and collating, and that whatever tools we decide to use for those purposes will have a profound effect upon the way we think, and through that upon the way in which our neural connections are made and broken. In other words, will have a profound effect upon the way in which our brains are structured. In a small way I have found this for myself: if I am working, let us say on the first draft of a poem, and choose to do so using a ballpoint pen, that will not produce the same result (I am absolutely certain, but have found no way to prove) as attempting the same end using a keyboard. Indeed, Carr gives an illustration involving Nietzsche which points in the same direction: Nietzsche when going blind and unable to read or write without considerable distress and severe pain to his eyes, switched to using a typewriter. Once he had learnt to touch-type, he did so with his eyes closed. The words, which had stopped, flowed again - but differently: where they had previously produced rhetoric, now they were telegrammatic. (read more)

What Friedman is saying is that his own thinking has become "staccato" in that he is regularly scanning short passages of text at speed and from many different sources, but can no longr absorb the information in an extended piece of text. The latter requires the ability to make less obvious connectios at a deeper level, which the former does not. He can no longer read War and Peace, but could presumably read a less demanding paperback. Scott Karp, another blogger, this time on online media, reports the same symptoms, but suggests an even more alarming diagnosis. It may be that some of us have had the same misgivings, have felt that because we skim and read shallowly a lot of the time, we are getting out of the way of reading deeply, as a marathon runner who, for whatever reason, took to training over shorter and shorter distances might soon discover that he could no longer run the full marathon. (Though Karp and Friedman would argue that the analogy is not apt, that what is going on is more profound than that.) Maybe we have felt the truth of that a little, but have comforted ourselves with the thought (reasonable enough so far as it goes) that we do what we do because it is the quickest and most convenient way in which to assemble the information we require. We Google because days of searching dusty books in dismal libraries are replaced by a few moments clicking away on the mouse. The living is easy, and if we no longer have the opportunity to make those deep and rich connections that reading (books) used to allow, well, that is unfortunate, we miss it, but for now such pleasures must wait.

"What, though," asks Karp, "if I do all my reading on the web, not so much because the way I read has changed" (he might have added 'or because the purpose for which I read has changed'), "ie I am just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?" Studies made into the way people use online facilities in institutions such as The British Library, have found that the vast majority "bounce" from text to text, skimming never more than a page or two at the most, usually a paragraph or two, and hardly ever returning to a previous page. The evidence would tend to suggest that they have become information decoders and rarely progress beyond that. I would love to try an experiment: give to a group of researchers and students the task of studying some topic new to them, and let them cut-and-paste to their heart's content or use whatever technique they might prefer, then give a matched group the same task, but with the proviso that they research it from books. I guarantee that the second group, though they would almost certainly take longer, would be more critically aware and that their resulting text would be characterized by more 'joined-up' threads of thought. Perhaps then we could even give the first group the books to read to see if there were any 'after thoughts'.

That short reverie brings us, I believe, to the heart of the matter: the differences and the relationships which exist between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Computers work with data, but are the hub of information technology, so we will start there - and at the beginning. The word information from the Latin informatio / informationis means an outline, an idea, and from informare / informatum, to give form to, describe. But it is data that is the most basic element of Information Technology: the ages, test scores and ethnic origins of the children in my class perhaps. We - or the computer - may give the data shape so that it becomes information: say, the average age or the percentage of children being disadvantaged by having to learn in a language that is not their mother tongue, for example. From these we may be able to draw certain consequences, such as the degree to which the non-english pupils are being disadvantaged. This is knowledge. Wisdom might involve the ability to rank in importance the various pieces of knowledge we have gained, to see what can be done to improve the situation, and to establish priorities.

But computers are so good at processing data that they encourage us to stay at that level. They began life as cryptographic machines. That is where they have come from, and where, you begin to feel, they would like to stay, but they have become hugely influential in everything to do with reading, writing, the production of graphics and with printing. It is almost inevitable, therefore, human nature being what it is, that those who use them should tend to stay with what they (the computers) are good at. I could almost draw the analogy of a carpenter who for some reason decides one day that he will no longer choose the best tool for the job, but instead will confine himself to the jobs his favourite tool is good at.

But it doesn't even end with computers and Googling, for since the time when such means of research became all-pervading, the more pernicious aspects of the web's "good life" have spread out through the rest of society: Newspapers have begun to shrink in size and their editors have reduced the length of their articles; T.V. programme-makers have shortened their productions, face-to-face interviews have positively shrivelled and their tone has become less searching and more 'staccato', even when the interviwer is trying to be aggressive - though more frequently now they are shallow and the interviewee's answers are not followed-up, but we are bounced straight to the next prepared question. I can recall when in the '70's and '80's Michael Parkinson might interview no more than three guests at something like depth for anything up to an hour. More recently he would have interviewed half a dozen or more people in that time. Even the news, political and current affairs programmes pander to the quick-dip brigade - which, alas includes myself and, I guess, most of us. But if we cannot do too much to modify the nature of the technology, we could maybe put a little more of ourselves into the way we use it. My own feeling, which is little short of a conviction, is that the devil is not in Google, but in the hyperlinks. They have often been compared to the footnotes in a book. The analogy is apt in some ways, but with one mighty big reservation: when you break off from the thread of an argument in a book to consult a footnote, that footmote does not then present you with a dozen footnotes to the footnote, any one of which might lead you off to another score of footnotes, on and on ad infinitum, further and further from the thread you were following. Perhaps hyperlinks should come with a health warning... Bounce we must, I see that, but maybe we could at least try to bounce with our eyes open and the brain engaged to remind us of where we were before we lost our focus.


Rachel Fox said...

Interesting post, Dave. What would Tolstoy made of our hyperlinked world? I seem to remember he pretty much withdrew from the whirl of late 19th Cent. Russian society as it was but what on earth would he think of us now?

I think as people and as writers we have to control our pc and internet use (sometimes easier said than done...). We have to not let it control us. I try and read one piece at a time online (not twenty). I might go to linked articles when I've finished the first one I'm reading (or skimming...) but I try not to jump around too much...it makes my brain blur (and it's fairly blurred already).

I don't use hyperlinks when I post blogs very much either. This is partly laziness and lo-techiness but it's also that I think if someone is interested enough in the subject I am covering in the blog then they are quite capable of typing the name or subject into google themselves and looking it up, for example. I do make some exceptions but overall I'd rather the reader got on and read my article and, heck, maybe even thought about it before rushing off elsewhere!

I know I definitely value book-reading over online reading but I am aware that this is a dying view. There has to be something for me to moan about in my old age...'Young people...they don't understand...'

Rachel Fox said...

And see...I didn't proofread that properly either! Word missing in sentence 2!

Dave King said...

Interesting... I read your sentence as (I imagine) you intended it, and didn't spot that there was a word missing. I must confess I've been quite lax with my proof reading lately, where comments have been involved.
An interesting speculation about what Tolstoy would have made of hyperlinks. Perhaps they would have sealed his fate as a recluse! Jumping on a bit, I have not properly worked out my own policy for including them or not in posts. I began by not, and was then persuaded by Jim that it was a good idea to put them in (incidentally, that last seems a good example of where one should be included), but seem to be settling for fewer and fewer.
Your own policy of not following them until the article has been read strikes me as sensible.
Thanks for the contribution.

Unknown said...

I am the Bruce Friedman to whom you refer. I was struck by the following comment that you made:

"He can no longer read War and Peace, but could presumably read a less demanding paperback."

You are exactly right. I work on my blog (www.labsoftnews.com) perhaps two hours per day -- this requires intense concentration. For recreational reading, I turn to action-oriented detective novels/murder mysteries, most often in paperback. I favor those with spare prose and lots of dialogue, usually by a male author. The plot propels me through the story and I don't need to devote a lot of mental energy to the process.

Dave King said...

I am very grateful to you for dropping by and for your comments. Your explanation is wholly understandable, but does suggest that the reason why you do not (cannot?) read books such as War and Peace any more has less to do with the form and nature of information-gathering on the web and everything to do with the mental energy spent in blogging. If correct, also understandable - I have had a look at your blog and have to say that I found War and Peace less demanding by a factor I could not even begin to calculate! My thanks again for taking the time.

Lucy said...

Dave, so much here. Your blog is a good antidote to the speed reading the internet seems to require - it makes me take my time and digest and consider the ideas carefully. Unfortunately I often have just too much to say, so sometimes say little or nothing, but not this time! apologies for any lack of cogency and order here, but I'm just picking up various things at random

I've read more novels lately, as I've fancied rather losing myself in fiction; but the online world calls me back, for a different experience, and because of the personal contact.

I usually only put links in because it's good form, if I really want people to follow one I often urge them to. Like Rachel, I try to only follow links after reading the main body of the text. I sometimes think I'd probably learn more and pass my on-line time in a more elevated way if I did follow more links, but often the priority is to catch up with regular blogs and see how someone's children/grandchildren/ dogs/cats/quilts/knitting/poems/skin conditions/depression/marriage plans etc are going, and try to leave intelligent thoughtful comments on all of them! As in the real world, sociability and human involvement override the pursuit of higher knowledge, and I think that's how it should be. The wisdom and support I've received from blogging friends deserves nothing less. It can be difficult to keep up with, mind.

I do read fewer books now, mostly because of blogging, but not entirely, because of many other demands on leisure time. I also find I'm choosier, reading a mediocre novel causes me to resent the waste of precious reading time, which wouldn't have worried me once, when books were the main diversion.

I imagine if Bruce Friedman was on a desert island with War and Peace and no other demands he could probably settle into it as well as ever, I'm not convinced our faculties are really being fundamentally impaired, but it does seem that that kind of professional, focused, specialist on-line writing exerts stresses and pressures that can be quite damaging.

When I was studying,pre-computers, I found it difficult to read for pleasure; there was always a vague sense of guilt that if I was reading it should be purposive. The library based research also involved skimming and scanning, but as you say, took longer, and perhaps now so much is available at a click, more is expected, which may mean more information but less depth, perhaps.

Regarding composing on the keyboard: personally I have to start most things handwritten (including this comment, which, as you may perceive, I haven't spent a great deal of time shaping and editing!). Blogger's posting box particularly is constraining and unsatisfying for composing in, and somehow I find if I start off composing on the keyboard/screen, I can rarely get the writing into any kind of shape. However, I do find there comes a point when all the scribbling and inserts and crossings out are too noisy and messy, and I need to get it onto the computer. Poems, especially when I'm struggling with meter and balance, inparticular often come together quite effortlessly once I can get them on the screen in print form and step back from them.

Incidentally, my one attempt to read 'Moby Dick', years ago, was actually thwarted by distraction by footnotes, I remember. They were so numerous and extensive I never got into the narrative!

We still value books most highly, and sales have never been higher. (Though I sometimes wonder if all the books sold are actually read, or if we just buy a lot of them with the intention of it...). Bloggers dream of a book deal, when they will be *real* writers.

But I love much about the web: simply the ability to look something up without having to have the right reference book available, as well as scope for my own creativity, and the explosion of this form of self-expression is remarkable. Poetry and photography in particular, I think, have never had it so good. As Rachel says, we should be able to control our use of it and not let it control us.

Now I'd best give you back your comments box and be off, and catch up with some other aspects of life...

Dave King said...

A most valued and valuable post, there is much in it that I agree with - pretty well all of it, in fact, the preceden e you give tosociability and human involve,ent, for example and the value of personal experiences and the support of others on the web. I also am like you in that I tend to compose first by hand and only later on the keyboard - poems, for example, I nearly always start in handwritten form (the keyboard, I find is great for tinkering with the lineation). Almost the only point where we slightly part company is in the possible effect that the way in which we work (not confining this to hyperlinking) might have on the developing (ie continually modifying) structures of the brain. I do not see any modification as being irreversible, but feel that logically we must expect some to take place. It is a subject I would love to explore, and you have made my appetite for it a little sharper. Thanks for that.

Marion McCready said...

Interesting essay though like Lucy I'm not convinced our faculties are being fundamentally impaired either.
Students from school age and beyond are taught the necessity of skim reading, I don't think I would have made it through my degree if it wasn't for the fact that I'm great at book skim reading!

However for leisure reading I have to consciously choose to read thoroughly. Sometimes I catch myself skimming a couple of pages - normally happens at the start of a book while I'm still trying to get into it - then I force myself to go back and read it 'properly'.

I think reading poetry is the antidote to skim reading, you have to read a poem so closely to get the full impact of it, and I like to read a poetry book right through from front to back rather than flicking throughout - that requires full concentration.

I love the huge amount of information available to me on the internet, it makes researching for poems a far quicker / easier job.
I often think past poets would think we have an unfair advantage over them.

I've never got around to War and Peace but I do love Anna Karenina, and I'm fond many of the great 19C Russian novels.

I do find the internet addictive though and quite often skim and jump from page to page but I normally stick to one topic at a time.
As far as writing on the computer, the majority of the work in my poems is done on the computer, at uni I wrote all my essays straight onto the computer so writing things out on paper is a bit alien for me, plus I've got really messy hand-writing! I apologise for going on at length.

Jim Murdoch said...

The brain is an absolute bugger, Dave. I used to be able to read at a ferocious pace but now it takes a huge amount of concentration which is why more and more I drift towards shorter works and read in blocks of no more than an hour. I also only work on my blog in short spurts when my brain is clear which is why I only post a couple a week.

As for your data, information, knowledge, wisdom section ... what about understanding? A man may know what an atom bomb is but may not understand how to make such a thing and it's unlikely he would have the wisdom to discern when one might use such a thing. Don't ask me where insight comes into the equation.

I'm glad you've picked up on the hyperlink idea. I got into the habit writing my Beckett entries for Wikipedia and since I treat my blogs like articles it seemed the sensible way to go. It's hard not to get carried away though. I keep imagining some kid running across one of my blogs and not knowing anything. It also keeps the length to something half-manageable.

Haley H said...

Congratulations on finishing War and Peace. I sat down to read the book when I was 14 and only made it through a third of it. That was back in the days when I finished every book I started, and I started a lot of books. I haven't contemplated attempting the book again.

You raise some interesting points. I agree that as we're bombarded with information from all angles, our attention spans become shorter.

As for how computers have changed the way we think? My best frame of reference on that is journalism.

I went to journalism school in the late ’80s. When I was there, the college where I studied had become totally computerized within the past few years.

I remember my journalism professor posing the question even then about whether computers caused us to write a news story differently. Pre computers, a reporter had to collect all his data and organize his story before even sitting down at the typewriter. The reporter had to know the lead first. With computers, a reporter could transcribe his notes, move things around, add new information at any time, and wait to the end of the process to put in a lead. The story could morph and evolve on the computer, and a reporter could declare a story finished without even truly understanding what all the collected bits of information meant as a group.

Elizabeth said...

Congratulations on finishing War and Peace! I have found, just this year, that I am thirsting for classic literature. I just finished reading Oliver Twist, which is no W&P, but it is certainly deeper than the typical "beach read", and I am six or so chapters into David Copperfield. I am thinking about making a list of all the books that I want to read, but for now I'm exploring Dickens. I think, to some extent, that these types of books need some maturity to read in our time, even if they were read by everyone when they were first published. Sometimes, it is a matter of having the desire to truly understand the references that the original audience would have comprehended easily. I used to read in a mush hastier manner...drawn on by the plot and not worrying too much about the details. Lately, I keep a dictionary nearby for quick reference. Bibliophiles will never become extinct, and as long as one loves to curl up on a rainy day with something other than a laptop, books will continue to be printed!
Blessings, E
PS. You'll notice that I got so much reading done lately because the computer was down.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, I think I have the same Penguin edition you have of War and Peace, I dropped it after some chapters because I felt it demanded total attention and dedication.
Did you read anything else, any other shorter novel, while reading it?

Than you for your comment to my latest post.

Best wishes, Davide

Dave King said...

Thanks for that. I did not actually mean to imply in my post that our faculties might be impaired, though I think Carr, in his article, did imply that. I do feel they are (must be?) changed, though not irreparably - and not necessarily for ill - but that we should be aware of what we are/might be doing. I think skim reading is probably different (I was never taught it, which I much regret) as the critical hyperlink aspect is the discontinuity that it creatyes. The resulting information is fragmentary, having come from multiple sources. (You could probably argue that organising it is good for our neurons!). I agree with you about poetry as a possible antidote and also wonder what past poets might have made of it all.
Thanks again for a stimulating response.

Dave King said...

A phrase from Hancock's Half Hour that often comes back to me, and still makes me laugh is Hancock saying to Hatty Jakes "Do you know, that could have been me talking!" Of course, it was the contest and the contrast between the characters that made it funny. I felt I could say the same of your comment, and most particularly of the first para.
Moving on a bit, understanding comes, I think, with the ordering of information into knowledge. Insight is outside the tent - completely neural!!
Thanks for making me rethink.

Dave King said...

I had a "to read" list once. Chucked it when I got my reading list from The Istitute of Education, then was told by our professor that there was only one mandatory read on it - "Lives in Progress", it was called. Case studies of how individual differences - even peculirities - influenced life choices e.g. a compulsive hand-washer became a surgeon!!! (maybe the hand-washing restructured his neurons?)Seriously, though, it was a fascinating read. I have never forgotten it.

Dave King said...

Try the penguin edition of War and Peace. It's a new translation. You could read it on the beach!

Dave King said...

Yes, I did read other books along the way. A lot of poetry and some biography and others. I chose War and Peace as bed time reading - hence the tendency to drop off!

Dave King said...

I see I misspelt your name. Humble apologies.