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An interesting article here on how quick internet reading is dulling our capacity to think and reflect.  Is the answer “slow reading”?

An excerpt:

“If you’re reading this article in print, chances are you’ll only get through half of what I’ve written. And if you’re reading this online, you might not even finish a fifth. At least, those are the two verdicts from a pair of recent research projects – respectively, the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack survey, and analysis by Jakob Nielsen – which both suggest that many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion.

The problem doesn’t just stop there: academics report that we are becoming less attentive book-readers, too….

So are we getting stupider? Is that what this is about? Sort of. … we are now absorbing short bursts of words on Twitter and Facebook more regularly than longer texts.

Which all means that although, because of the internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other…..”

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10 Comments

  1. Rob says:

    Die Wüste wächst, and I seriously doubt there’s much to be done except find creatively mournful ways to register the losses before we’re completely swept away from ourselves by the rising tide of cheerful oblivion.

    A good despairing interview with Nicholas Carr (28 minutes):
    http://www.radioopensource.org/nicholas-carr-in-the-shallows/

    What really galls me is the guileless internet-age-cheerleading by folks old enough to have had their inner lives shaped before by a pre-internet culture.

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  2. Source says:

    I’m not sure this is such a new phenomenon. People have always read for reference and understanding, though not always both. Multiple purposes for reading are a classic part of professional writing theory; the article’s author shouldn’t be surprised that so many people will skim his article. That’s why, after all, journalists developed the inverted pyramid structure. Carr might have some interesting information in his book, but without it this seems like a mostly hollow trend article. (I’m not sure if the internet is to blame beyond making reading more like a buffet and less like a single course meal–maybe more available information leads to an increase in total interesting pieces of information, which leads to less time being spent with each interesting piece of information?)

    Have you professors noticed a decline in student’s ability/willingness to read? I think I’ve heard Kleiner say something about this.

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    • Kleiner says:

      I don’t have the study ready to hand, but I saw a study a year back or so that looked at writing habits. While 20 years ago students would tend to write in pages (that is, they would sit down and write out a page or more at a time), now students tend to write in paragraphs or even sentences. What happens is that they write a sentence but then get a text, write a sentence and then check their email, etc etc. Some might say that what these students are good at is “multi-tasking”. But in reality this is another instance of the phenomenon discussed in the article – the inability to sustain a thought for very long.

      I’d have to think more about whether I have seen a decline in student’s ability or willingness to read. Huenemann has a longer track record so might have a better sample size. I have certainly seen an increase in cheating (copy and pasting from websites), and my sense is that loads of students are reading wiki articles instead of the assigned reading. Maybe they were all reading bound paper CliffsNotes before, for all I know. But I did not teach for long before the digital explosion, so Huenemann will have a better sense of this.

      Things happened so quickly. I graduated from college in 1996 and did not use email (there were rumors on my campus of this “electronic mail” and a coming “information superhighway” (I distinctly recall telling a friend “who wants a letter over a computer? – that will never take off.”) I got my first email account in 1998 and hardly used it. But within a few years of that it had already exploded to the point that now I cannot imagine college life without the internet and email.

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      • Mike says:

        I’ve heard multitasking actually makes you worse at multitasking. Apparently concentrated thought over a period of time actually better prepares you for times when you need to multitask. Can’t remember where I read that, wish I still had the source.

        Here’s a related article on technology and addiction and a few specifics related to Internet addiction.

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  3. Rob says:

    I still vividly recall my horror at learning of email, back in ’95. Heidegger’s essay “The Thing” immediately came to mind. And even though I regret the amount of time and intensity I devoted to him as an undergrad, and can no longer bear his turgid and humorless prose, his grim prescience cannot be denied, and I resignedly defer to his godless sigh that “only a god can save us.”

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  4. Rob says:

    Apparently, most college students cheat, especially those at the top and the bottom:

    “The top’s cheating to thrive, the bottom’s cheating to survive, and those in the middle are content with their grades and just go along in life and are happy.”
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128624207&ft=1&f=5

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  5. Clay says:

    Thank you Rob. I am an average student and now I can feel better about it.

    Cheating is more prevalent then I thought it would be at the college level. I’m pretty disappointed about it.

    My brother who went to school in bio-chem had a lot of students that would cheat in his classes in order to preserve a pristine GPA before they applied for medical school. He felt especially bothered when he thought of them as the next generation of medical doctors.

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  6. Rob says:

    In a physics class my senior year in high school twenty years ago, I remember one of the two people vying for valedictorian trying to intercept his rival’s quizzes throughout the term. And this guy had already secured a full scholarship to Georgetown.

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  7. Howard McPherson says:

    The idea of short articles is nothing new. For some organic chemistry journals the following page sizes are typical:
    Chemical Communication 2
    Chemistry Letters 2
    Tetrahedron Letters 2 or 4
    Angewandte Chemie 2 – 4
    Synlett 1 page
    The Angewandte usually take several hours to read through.
    One time a medical student in Buffalo told me that he was amazed to find that there was so much cheating in medical. The Dean told him they were aware of the cheating but made sure all of the doctors met at least the minimum standards.

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  8. Michael Thomas says:

    I can’t help but think again of incentives. If journals only published articles by people that had read deeply in their subject, then promotion and tenure would dictate that only those that are deep readers would be academics.

    The question I can’t answer is: What purpose academics that are functionally illiterate serve? I understand why they exist, the need to publish dominates all, even the love of reading deeply. A CV is measured by lines, not content (who has time to read a CV?)

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