Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Tower of Brabble

(Brabble = "paltry noisy quarrel")

This article by David Sirota urges readers to "trash their smartphones," which might or might not be a good idea. I'm sympathetic to it -- I just have a basic cellphone, and the only upgrade I'm thinking about is to a phone with a QWERTY keyboard -- but on the whole I still disagree with his analysis.

Sirota begins thusly:
A miracle is occurring as you read these words - that's right, an impossible-to-explain miracle of the mind. Somehow, you just managed to read a complete sentence - and that's nearly inexplicable these days.
Oh, horsepucky. This is pure Occidental hyperbole. Since he published it at, one of the text-heavier sites around these days, he must know it's bullshit. Sirota gives no evidence for that statement; I suppose it's just one of those things that Everybody Knows. He continues:
There you sit, hammered by stimuli - on your computer screen, you're pounded by an overflowing RSS reader, twitching Facebook and Twitter feeds, an email box constantly chirping at you and IM bubbles doing their best pop-up video impression; off in the distance, your television frantically flits between images of explosions and a screaming, over-coiffed suit whose impossibly fat head floats disembodied above a never ending ticker-tape; and on your desk, face up, a cell phone perpetually spasming with text messages, photos from friends, yet more email and, of course, phone calls.
Well, there you are. It isn't just smartphones, it's what the media (the major perpetrators) call Information Overload. Instant messaging programs, Facebook, Twitter, most e-mail -- these are all corporate media, and being corporate they are enemies of your ability to concentrate. They want to shift your attention away from wherever it is now to something else, anywhere else as long as it's paid content. The more commercial links you click on, the more money someone makes. The more edits in the videos or tv shows or movies you watch, the more excited you'll be, and the more you'll find more leisurely-paced content boring. TV news is limited in time, so concision is at a premium, and of course complex thoughts can't be expressed in soundbytes, but complex thoughts are the Devil's playground, so it's all good.

The necessity to be connected at all times is partly habit, but it's also mandated by a lot of white-collar work, as Jill Andresky Frazier showed in her book White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America (Norton, 2001). As the crumbling economy has deteriorated even further and employment instability has made more inroads into management, you have to be on call -- accessible, available, connected -- at all times. If you aren't, someone else is willing, and will be happy to take your job.

None of this is news, of course. Various Jeremiahs have been yelping that television is destroying our attention spans for decades, and every new technology that affects information, from writing to printing to the telephone to electronic media, has been denounced as a threat to our civilization. But that was then and this is now, and this time, Sirota insists (along with others of his ilk), it's really true!

Maybe so. But where's the evidence? Sirota has nothing but anecdotes and what Everybody Knows. (Can't you feel your mind degrading right now? Did you even make it to the end of this sentence? You see! I told you.) But then he says this:
The science is pretty clear in showing that the Internet is rewiring our cerebral circuitry and re-melting our plasticky gray matter in ways that can addict us to the short information bursts that the Internet specializes in.
Those two links at "pretty clear" go to two articles by Nicholas Carr, a writer at The Atlantic. One article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", offers no scientific evidence at all about the effects of the Internet on our brains -- none. Carr admits that "we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition," and then provides a link to one study of "online research habits," in which researchers
examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.
This proves basically nothing. Imagine a study of the old library card catalogs and printed journal indexes that scholars used to use before such resources went online. I know from my own experience that someone observing my own use of such tools would have found the same pattern of behavior: skimming, hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source I'd already visited. That's because only a small amount of the material I skimmed over was useful to my work. And this is the sum total of Carr's evidence for the deleterious effect of the Internet: he says that the study he cited "suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think." "Suggests" is a far cry from "pretty clearly showing."

I wouldn't be surprised if researchers behaved like this, but again, it has more to do with economic and political pressures in academia than with anything about the Internet. In the good old days an academic could get tenure with barely any publications at all; but since the explosion of higher education in the US since World War II, with more and more Ph.D.s being ground out by the universities, and fewer and fewer jobs for them, they've had to compete with each other by publishing more. This produces vast numbers of articles, dissertations, and books, far too many for any human being to read and digest. Nowadays in the humanities you need at least a book published by an academic press, and some articles besides don't hurt. That's the economic pressure, but it's buttressed by political pressure from state legislatures to provide "objective" evidence that you, O pointy-headed intellectual, deserve your job. A scholarly book or article needs to include citations of other scholars' work, another "objective" criterion of quality. The Internet makes it easier to track down references, and produce that all-important paper (or increasingly, electronic) trail that will get you a secure job, and possibly free you to think instead of collect material for the footnotes.

The other article by Carr that Sirota linked to is an interview in which he expands on his concerns without any new evidence, much less "science." At best this "suggests" that Sirota is guilty of the same sloppiness he decries, and I suppose he can blame it on the Internet, but writers and scholars did the same thing long before there was an Internet.

Of course, ignoring structural and political factors is another feature (not a bug) of the corporate media. I agree with Sirota that ramping down one's use of rapid-fire media is a good idea, though for the reasons I've mentioned, it may not be as easy as exercising a little willpower. Sirota does admit that for some people a smartphone may be a "genuine necessity, by virtue of one's work," but claims that most who justify it on that ground are just trying to excuse their "addiction."

So what about someone like me, whose "addiction" is to print, to sentences and paragraphs and longer strings of text? C'mon, gimme a little taste, I need just a little, please... Sirota doesn't mention e-readers, and whatever my reservations about them, there's no doubt that people are using them to read, you know, books. The concentration of publishing into fewer and fewer conglomerates, like that of media into fewer and fewer media consortiums (consortia?) is connected to the success of e-books, but it's not the fault of the Internet either.

One other factor might be worth mentioning here, and that's the magical thinking that underlies a lot of the celebration of computers and the Internet. Recently I read something that reminded me that many people expected word processors to do more than just make it technically easier to compose, edit, and format text: on some level they expected it to produce content as well -- just sit back and let the computer write your novel for you! The same consideration applied to graphics and video software: you still had to come up with the content yourself -- it's so unfair! Other people expected the Web to do their "thinking and communicating" for them:
It turned out that the internet wasn't an advanced, processing brain, after all, nor an agent of meaningful change. In the political realm, it has revealed only had one enduring value: as a propaganda tool.
They too were disappointed when they found out that it was just a tool for transmitting information: they were still going to have to do their own thinking. Still other people thought that computers would be pets. Still no go. And these fantasies were harbored and promulgated by computer geeks themselves, though of course they were useful in advertising as computers caught on among non-geeks. In the end, there's no real escape from what is for so many people the misery of being human: computers and the Internet are not saviors, though they could be useful tools for those who want to save themselves. That's hard work, though.