Caring for Words, VI: The Internet

I’m hardly the first to write an internet post to warn about the downside of the internet. For the record, the irony is duly noted. The internet is not intrinsically bad. Developers of any newly available technology understandably emphasize its benefits. “This,” we are told, “is a tool to do something desirable,” even if we hadn’t previously noticed that particular desire. When, with use, downsides are discovered, we are often reminded that tools are morally neutral – it all depends on how and to what end they are used. Such reassurances, however, obscure the moral complexity of any technology that makes some actions easier – and more likely – than others. When obstetricians started using ultrasound technology in the 1960s, no one predicted the effect it would have on male:female birth ratios in Asia.

With all the benefits digital connectivity brings, I know from experience what a time drain the internet can be, with some attractive new diversion always a click away. The parallels to other addictions are manifest. I know the ways my use of search engines and social media makes me an unpaid worker for Facebook and Google. I know that otherwise courteous people post or text personal attacks they wouldn’t dream of saying face-to-face. I know internet comment boxes are where reason and civility go to die. I know how text abbreviations and emojis make it easier to write unimaginative or just plain bad sentences. I know frequent internet use makes me a poorer reader. I know all of this, but I have yet to learn how to use this technology without falling into its traps. I have reason to believe I’m not alone.

“The faster we surf across the surface of the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Its advertising system, moreover, is explicitly designed to figure out which messages are most likely to grab our attention and then to place those messages in our field of view. Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention—and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible.”

  • ― Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
  • “The digital learner seems particularly well-suited for a life of activity and a life of enjoyment. The emphases of digital media on efficient, massive information processing; flexible multitasking; quick and interactive modes of communication; and seemingly endless forms of digitally based entertainment encourage such lives. These emphases, however, can be less suited for the slower, more time-consuming cognitive processes that are vital for contemplative life and that are at the heart of what we call deep reading. By deep reading, we mean the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight. The expert reader needs milliseconds to execute these processes; the young brain needs years to develop them. Both of these pivotal dimensions of time are potentially endangered by the digital culture’s pervasive emphases on immediacy, information loading, and a media-driven cognitive set that embraces speed and can discourage deliberation in both our reading and our thinking.”

  • – Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai, “The Importance of Deep Reading”
  • Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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