By Michael Albert at Dec 13, 2010
Note: apologies. I had to post this well before I would have liked. This because I am going to be away from computing for a bit, at least from anything beyond very meager contact, and I wanted to get this done before the holidays. So - here goes…
Some days back I put up a post titled "Facebook versus Civilization." My selfish hope was that some folks would say, more or less, “hmmm, this is interesting - is this apocalyptic worry warranted or unwarranted? I think I will look into it.”
Then the people who took up the task would do some research and report their findings. With the findings in place, we could all proceed however our reactions moved us.
Well so far my hope hasn't panned out. People say I didn’t prove anything. But of course I didn’t prove anything. I merely raised an alarm, hoping that others with better skills for the task, and with more time for the task, would investigate and either see that my worries were warranted and deserved still further attention, or debunk the worries if they were found unwarranted.
Feeling a need to try again, I looked back at the earlier blog post to see if I needed to correct anything. Despite all the critical comments and discussion the first post engendered - I decided I didn't need to change its message, especially given all that I added in the comments area. But perhaps it would help if I were to look at least a little bit deeper and provide a little more support for the message or, hopefully, if I could do so, torpedo my own worry and say, “never mind.”
So here is the link to my earlier blog that vents quite aggressively about the internet worries that are currently vexing me: Facebook Versus Civilization.
Reading that piece my be essential to having sufficient motivation to wade through what is below. It was certainly essential to my having sufficient motivation to write what is below.
By way of reintroducing the subject, one part of what I was trumpeting in the earlier piece should be totally obvious to any serious critic of current social relations. A second part of what I was trumpeting was, however, unfamiliar to most, and indeed almost the opposite of widely held feelings. Both parts require investigation to assess their substance and determine their implications.
Issue One - The Obvious Problem
Our online information practices are overwhelmingly defined by the choices and agendas of a relative few massive information corporations. They directly govern the most widely used parts of internet communications and exchange. More, by their scale, they acclimate users to designs, styles, and approaches, and inculcate habits and expectations. The spread of these habits and expectations among users in turn cause nearly all information providers to make decisions that trend toward replicating, ratifying, and reinforcing - or at least accommodating to - the decisions of the dominant few.
Information corporations of all sizes, dominant and not, deal with digital content. That does not, however, make information corporations, whether large or small, benign, humane, or even neutral. Rather, information corporations seek profits and to continually reproduce the conditions of making profits just as banks, construction companies, and auto companies do this. Markets and private ownership impose the behaviors on all corporations.
Yes, the domain of information is certainly different than the domain of hedge fund investment, construction, and car manufacturing - so the specific practices of Google, Facebook, and Twitter are different than those of Bank of America, Bechtel, and GM, often in interesting and consequential ways. Yet, the overarching aims from sector to sector in the economy are indistinguishable. Google, Facebook, and Twitter - not to mention Amazon, Microsoft, Sony, and Apple, are not guided by a desire to edify, inspire, or uplift humanity. Instead, they all seek firstly and overwhelmingly to enrich and aggrandize their owners and powerful CEOs, managers, etc.
This typically means that information corporations are either using their online assets to amass audiences that they can turn into revenue, rather like a TV network does, or they are using their online assets to directly sell their own products for revenue, rather like any wholesaler does.
The latter and more typical selling pattern is familiar. Apple and Amazon get people's attention and sell them a product. This could be a book, program, song, video, or other information. The aim, however - and is anyone confused about this? - is not the consumer's well being, but profit.
But Google, Facebook, and Twitter - what do they sell? It seems like they sell nothing. We use their offerings, but we don't pay them. Well, that's because we aren't their consumers. We aren't buying their product. Instead, we are their product. We are what they sell.
Like TV, radio, and to a very large extent print media, online information corporations like Google, Facebook, and Twitter very typically sell - or try to sell - access to their users to other corporations and also, taking it another step, access to information about their users to other companies. Or sometimes they use that access themselves, or they do both. For example, they sell ads that reach their users to companies seeking to sell what their products to that same audience - and they sell additional personal information about the potential buyers to raise the price and the volume of advertisements.
You might reply: So what? Nothing is profoundly new in that. Newspapers, magazines, and TV do it too. True enough, though the scale has changed, but mostly it means Google, Facebook, and Twitter want to attract lots of users, and they want to keep those users coming back, but they also they want to show the users lots of ads or sell access to the users to others who will show them ads, and therefore they also need to have their users in the mood to respond positively to the ads, and they don’t want the options they offer in order to attract users to incidentally empower the users in such ways that the users will tend to buy less or even stop buying at all, or worse yet, even challenge the conditions of profit making per se.
The above should be utterly and uncontroversially obvious for any serious leftist. The only reason I can see to deny the above is that we don’t follow through our analyses and understandings when they tell us something we would rather not hear.
So here are a couple of contending possibilities for our assessment of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other information companies -
- Information companies driven by market competition, and after years of carefully considering the situation and testing their options and offerings, and honing them in light of findings, are still following paths utilizing new technical capabilities in ways that are largely beneficial to enhancing real and valuable social ties and critical consciousnesses - two pursuits that are incredibly dangerous to existing social structures.
- Information companies have instead in light of their own researches and learning from others about past efforts, steadily and very heavily perverted the use of new technical capabilities in a manner aimed toward overwhelmingly enforcing existing or new profit making relations, partly intentionally and explicitly and partly also by various unintended byproducts that they are, however, exploiting rather than countering… a point I will get to below.
If someone on the left urged that car manufacturers are first and foremost trying to expand people’s freedom and people’s knowledge of their environments, or they are seeking profits but incidentally doing so much good that we don’t have to pay careful attention to how they are perverting our way of getting around (and I bet that nearly everyone said things just like that, quite confidently and forcefully, when cars began appearing and seemed like a tool of freedom that were spreading mobility through society), other leftists would simply laugh at their naiveté.
Well, I contend that even just similar very familiar and uncontestable observations about all corporations seeking profits and to reproduce the conditions of profit making ought to motivate leftists to be very openly and vociferously investigating, as social critics, what the implications are of information corporation's motives for our information activities. And, in light of the findings, it should be motivating us to think about how to do something about Google et. al.’s dominance and whatever bad implications it has for our ways of producing, accessing, and even using the information we access. This kind of critical assessment is happening - but not enough, I think.
Issue Two - The Less Evident Problem
The new approaches to online information exchange that are currently sweeping the planet largely entail quickly perusing small nuggets or snippets of information, with constant flitting between options and almost no in depth, immersive attention to anything. This type of communication is steadily encroaching on and even replacing longer uninterrupted more immersive approaches such as reading books and even articles that one gets deeply into without jumping to and fro, and even reading longer letters, longer email, seeing longer videos, and soon, I bet, even playing attention demanding games.
What is emerging in place of all these is a new dominant style of interfacing with information. We move quickly from item to item. We examine items always with other items clamoring for our attention. We get better and better at and we get more and more comfortable with quickly evaluating content arriving in nuggets and snippets. However, we get steadily less practiced at and less comfortable with reading and otherwise engaging more deeply and continuously with information.
To accommodate and then reinforce our new practices, our attention spans decline. This is not something anyone intended. No one, large or small, neither Google nor any little blog site, set out to have this byproduct of inducing declining attention spans and increasing snippet processing abilities. But, those who do command the shape of internet outcomes abetted the result by pursuing their desires to move people quickly from page to page, or even to garnet people’s attention at all, and now by piggybacking on the tendency. And so it snowballs into more and more realms.
If we become habituated to very fast and jerky focus on short nuggets and snippets, we get good at that kind of perception - which is a very real skill. We naturally start to increasingly want to exercise and employ that skill. Indeed, after awhile if we don’t exercise it, we miss it, sort of like an athlete not getting any exercise misses that. And as we do more and more flitting - we also start to feel less and less good doing the type of information perusal which we are becoming less good at and less inclined toward, which is whatever requires sustained and in depth focus.
And the big information companies see this trend in our preferences and habits and they don't care much about the broader implications. They only want you using their offerings, and flitting from ad to ad on their pages - not on someone else’s. They see that the lowering of attention span, which nobody sought, is however, good for that aim, and at any rate, must be accommodated.
So big information companies start to consciously address changed preferences - or maybe they are just reflexively copying trends - but, in either case, more and more of them, online and off, pursue designs and practices favoring flitting, and the practices start to imperially spread. Print media, video media, audio media - all of it recognizes the necessity to change if they are to survive and prosper in the world of audiences that have increasingly short attention spans coupled with very high flitting skills. They thus trend their own practices in the same directions as big outfits are trending - freely, because, in the stampede, for their purposes, nothing else seems sustainable, much less maximally profitable.
Is the trend real? Will it snowball in online domains? How much will it spread to offline practices too?
Will the trend, in the worst case, make books seem like ancient artifacts? Will it make it unlikely that most people can or will be willing to pursue a line of thought that deviates so much from what’s familiar that it requires real attention to comprehend much less to apply?
Will it undercut art and literature? Will it even undercut conversation?
And, if this is happening, and if it is on track to get worse, are there additional effects? Does a short attention span and nugget like social networking produce mostly expanded and healthy social ties - or does it produce just a bit of that and mostly reduce social ties to near meaninglessness? Does it produce social empathy, or more often, rudeness? Are people gaining a hundred or a thousand friends? Or are we redefining what it means to be a friend drastically downward?
If we investigate these questions and find that yes, the negative trends and possibilities exist and are even unfolding, then we would need to investigate to see where we think they might wind up. And we would need to think about how digital intercommunication would have to change in order for it to contribute more positively in a good society. And we would need to think about what can be done, even now, to create seeds of a better future in the present, not least, by our own online practices and offerings. And then we would need to explore what demands can be made of existing operations, what ethos can be urged for existing users of existing practices - to make things better?
In the next section I provide some information that arguably bears on understanding the motives of information companies and their practices, and on worries about attention span. This is not a comprehensive survey or research report. It is, rather, just a taste of what can be found, I suspect.
Some Chaotic Nuggets of Evidence Bearing on Internet Concerns
Here is a little survey of print magazine design, for which I looked pretty quickly at one issue of each of the following… and asked myself, are they better designed now than ten or fifteen years ago?
First we have two highly intellectual offerings...
The New Scientist I am currently looking at is 48 pages plus 4 sides of cover. No article exceeds three pages, and there are only three of that length. Three more go cover two pages. On most pages, however, there are from two to four and sometimes six or even eight separate nugget articles - with little call outs all over, as well. Ads aren't too plentiful, the magazine is probably subsidized, is my guess.
The Scientific American I am looking at is 108 pages plus four sides of cover. Up to page 54 the only things that exceeded two pages, or even reached two pages, were ads. Then comes a six page article - and that's it for something approximating serious in depth reading. The rest are at most three pages - and even when they are that long, the pages are broken with ads and include boxed call outs, etc., all of which attract and reward flitting eyes. The density of ads is enormous, demanding attention, even if just to decide to not examine them, on virtually every page.
Now we have and example of news and commentary for the “masses”… People magazine is 152 pages of which 89 are advertising. With ads, multiple stories, and call outs, fact boxes, etc. there are no pages that you actually read, in full - none - though a few articles do have content on as many as three different pages. The snippet influence is incredibly pronounced - to say that one reads this magazine would be almost like saying that when you go to the supermarket and scan shelves you are deep reading... the issue is not just the content - it is the delivery…it is a brilliant design - but not for serious communication.
Okay, how about the opposite extreme, at least in theory, or a magazine meant to provide real social substance. The Economist is about 100 pages, and 50 are ads. Much to my surprise, there were no four page articles, a couple of three pagers, an endless stream of one pagers, or of half pagers, or of quarter page baby nuggets, plus many call outs and sidebar boxes, etc., but not quite so obviously catering to attention deficit as People does.
The Sports Illustrated I am looking at, not surprisingly has length like the others, and ads like the others, and part devoted to short articles and one pagers like the others - BUT - it also has many more in depth essays and much more informed journalism than the others...sports fans are still serious about their focus...
The above survey claims to be no more than indicative - but I think what it indicates and what anyone can see at any magazine stand, if they are open to noticing, is that the desire to capture and retain receptive audiences of people who are assumed to have steadily declining attention spans to be sold to companies in turn seeking to sell their products, is causing even print media to move away from in depth reading toward nuggetizing whatever is delivered.
Enough of that - though it could go on and on.
The following critical nuggets - irony intended - were accumulated in a period of a few hours from totally innocuous and apolitical sources such as Ideas and Discovery Magazine (I&D) which I happened to find on a newsstand - had never before seen - when collecting some other magazines for the above survey - on the one hand, and a recently widely touted book titled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains (which I highly recommend as a very well written and accessible piece of work) and another book, titled You Are Not a Gadget, which is a bit more flighty and not as compelling, at least for me, save in a broad and general way, though it also has some striking insights. I have barely even tried to organize the excerpts and quotes below. I give names to help those who want to look people and thoughts up. Make of all this merely indicative data what you will.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt says "I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next." Does anyone else find this incredible - he is the head of the most powerful and influential information corporation, and perhaps most powerful corporation of any kind, in the world.
Here is Schmidt again, “…because Google would know “roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are”, it could remind users what groceries they needed to buy when passing a shop.”
He adds, as a defense of mining everything we do, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
The magazine I mentioned above points out that “The gathering of information about people, and processing of it, is now a gigantic pursuit. It’s use to decide who can be permitted to do what in businesses is already widespread - info from credit card use, browsing, etc. Not only do large firms with huge databases gather information - but other companies literally develop algorithms and software for using the data - see Cataphora.com as but one example.”
What does it mean? Well, Google just put a new app on the iphone and their own phones, etc. It is a map that displays where your friends are in real time. It seems impressive, it seems manageable. We can turn it off, after all, so where we are isn’t visible. And it is fun. The thing is, think about their amassing a record of where you go, whenever you have it on, or forget to turn it off. Go a bunch of times to various sites, parts of town, etc., and Google can easily deduce many things about your tastes, habits, etc. Then they can use that knowledge to better direct ads, to sell at higher rates, and so on.
Stephen Baker, a prominent computer analyst, writes, "We say reality mining because the process increasingly involves information that we generate in actual situations and in near real time."
In other words reality mining is about gathering and then processing into profiles the information that is culled from people’s personal purchases and from their messaging - with the pioneers who are acclimating us all to this intervention being Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook - and now also from their travels around town.
As the magazine notes, “Phones are an increasingly important source of such data, via following information trails left by messaging, tweeting, etc.”
From their self description the company "Sense Networks, Inc. indexes the real world using real-time and historical location data for predictive analytics across multiple industries. Sense Networks has developed patent-pending machine-learning technology to index and rank real world places, based on movement data ... collected in bulk and real-time from devices with GPS or WiFi positioning technology, such as mobile phones and automobiles. The result of this analysis is a rich profile of each location in a given city, at any given time, that can then be used to better understand visitors and anticipate their needs.”
The company is funded by Intel Capital, Javelin Venture Partners and “prominent technology and hedge fund angel investors." The same technology can obviously be used not just to get data on sites, but on those moving from site to site. Knowing where you go, how often, in what patterns, what you tweet, and so on - is an advertisers, and a psychopath’s, and a dictator’s dream. What is quite incredible is that we all are not just not protesting it, we are welcoming it.
The magazine notes that, “The facial images placed on sites like Facebook are scanned by software to generate assessments of personality, creativity, and many other attributes,” which in turn “join assessments based on where one goes online, how often, how long, where one goes while carrying a phone or gps, and what one tweets, posts, etc.” Thus emerges a picture of potential customers.
Tim O'Reilly a famous internet innovator and capitalist writes, "A growing number of people are never offline, even at night... People search the web several times a day for information on the same topic, because the flow of data is constantly expanding, changing, and transforming itself. All of this happens too quickly for most people to simply stop. This hyper-networking of people is fueled by what appears to the the unstoppable ascendancy of social networks like Facebook. It is also driven by short and terse communication in a network environment that is increasingly doing away with its user's private sphere.”
The magazine reports that, “People not only tweet about what they are doing, leaving a cyber path that is mined for selling them to advertisers,- but they do things so they will have something to tweet about. To not tweet is to not count. Then you lose your followers.”
Nova Spivack, a prominent sociologist writes, "We can present our opinions to a global audience even as we think them. In this sense, we're moving through a new dimension of time. Nowism, or the predominance of the present, has never been as pronounced and influential as it is today." "These days just one minute of Twitter can overload us with important messages and associated links."
Christine Greenhow at the Univ of Wisconsin tells us "Clever will become a synonym for networked, at which time the word intelligence will express the ability to condense widely distributed bits of information into a coherent form." This is probably meant neutrally, as observation, but notice that it matches perfectly with the idea of one new skill rising - while an old skill dissipates.
Nicholas Carr is the author of the Shallows, the book I mentioned. He writes “Intelligence can be redefined to emphasize how quickly you can find information, rather than how deeply you can think about it.”
Mitch Kapor, programmer, entrepreneur, and advocate of net neutrality: "Getting information from the internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant."
Eric Jamet from the Univ of Rennes writes, “People in the future will no longer be capable of absorbing information in a static and attentive manner for long periods of time."
I&D reports, “A test conducted with students found that the subjects' ability to remember, understand, and reproduce a diagram declined dramatically the more the depiction of the diagram resembled the multimedia presentation formats common to the internet. ... The sense of direction and focus of individuals who continually use real time communication systems was also 25% less pronounced than occasional users or nonusers of such services.”
Sergey Brin, Google partner with Schmidt says he wants Google to become the "third half of your brain."
Nicholas Carr writes, “Text messaging now represents one of the most common uses of computers, particularly for the young. By the beginning of 2009, the average American cell phone user was sending or receiving nearly 400 texts a month…the average American teen was sending or receiving a mind-boggling 2,272 texts a month. Worldwide, well over two trillion text messages zip between mobile phones every year, far outstripping the number of voice calls.” There is something happening here…
Nicholas Carr adds, “Interestingly, as net viewing has gone up most statistics suggest television viewing has either held steady or increased, with the time Americans watching going up during the whole period of growth of web viewing.”
However he adds, “Young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 saw a drop in time given to reading printed works between 2004 and 2008, of 30%, to 49 minutes a week.” 30% in four years is an incredible rate for anything social.
Carr notes, “Rolling Stone, once known for publishing sprawling, adventurous features … now eschews such works, offering readers a jumble of short articles and reviews. There was no internet, publisher Jann Wenner explains, “back when Rolling Stone was publishing those seven thousand word stories.”
Michael Scherer in the Columbia Journalism Review, notes that “Most popular magazines have come to be filled with color, oversized headlines, graphics, photos, and pull quotes… The gray text page, once a magazine staple, has been all but banished.”
Nicholas Carr pursues the same point, “Many newspapers, including industry stalwarts like the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, have over the last few years moved to trim the length of their articles and introduce more summaries and navigational aids to make the scanning of their contents easier. An editor at the Times of London attributes such format changes to the newspaper industry’s adaptation to ‘an internet age, a headline age’.”
Carr also points out, “In March 2008 the New York Times announced it would begin devoting three pages of every edition to paragraph long articles abstracts and other brief items. Its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the “shortcuts,” would allow harried readers to get a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the ‘less efficient’ method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles.”
Carr, again: “Television networks have added text ‘crawls,’ and ‘flippers’ to their screens and routinely run infographics and pop-ups during their programs - even moving toward emphasizing brief segments emulating YouTube clips.” And “cable and satellite companies offer channels allowing people to watch multiple shows simultaneously, using their TV control like a mouse, to move between audio tracks.”
On another front, Carr adds, “A new trend is movies that sync with Facebook and allow chatting while watching, flitting between options rather than immersing in any one.” And “During a 2009 performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony At Wolf Trap in Virginia, the National Symphony Orchestra sent out a stream of Twitter tweets, about the performance…while…another example was a symphony having their audience vote via their phones for an encore.”
Eric Schmidt, remember, Googles head man, who wants to know everything about everyone so he can anticipate their desires and tell them what they want, notes that “The most obvious use of Twitter” can be seen in situations where “everybody is watching a play and are busy talking about the play while the play is under way.” Of course the record is then there for Twitter to use as they like.
In Japan, a very prominent cell phone novelist (this means she writes a novel as a sum of snippet cell phone messages…) writes about the public: “They don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them.” Really. First numb us, then exploit it, then say it is our fault.
Steven Johnson notes, “Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors. Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to see how well they rank.”
Kevin Kelly who loves internet trends, says, “Once digitized books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books.”
Carr reports that “Professors writing in an annual review of sociology tell us that The era of mass book reading was a brief anomaly in history. ‘We are now seeing such reading, return to its former social base, a self perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.’
Alright, but still, does any of this imply people’s attention spans are diminishing, feeding the dynamics. Can’t we just reorient a bit, as we have to do on many social fronts?
Carr reports that “Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it is possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that not the type of thinking the technology [read, social practices] encourages and rewards.”
He adds, “It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net [as currently constituted] delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli - repetitive, interactive, addictive - that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”
And, “Today’s teenagers typically send or receive a message every few minutes throughout their waking hours…If they stop sending messages, they risk becoming invisible.’’
And, “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli.”
And, “Just as neurons that fie together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time spent scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflections and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives, but lose old ones.”
Gary Small at UCLA tells us “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.” Our internet practice “stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening old ones.”
Carr reports that, “In 2008, Small and two of his colleagues carried out the first experiment that actually showed people’s brains changing in response to internet use. What they found, was that ‘after just five days of practice, the exact same neural circuitry in the front part of the brain became active in the Internet-naive subjects (as in frequent users). Five hours on the internet, and the naive subjects had already rewired their brains… If our brains are so sensitive to just an hour a day of computer exposure, what happens when we spend more time…’”
Carr and the researchers claim that when browsing if there is a multitude of choices in our path, even on pages that are articles, “whenever we, as readers, come upon a link (as compared to reading a book or article without such intrusions, as in the old days), we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us - our brains are quick - but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it is repeated frequently.”
Carr’s book offers lots of examples, research studies, etc., and is peppered, as well, with attempt to hammer home the implications. Carr reports, “We’ve reached the point where a Rhodes Scholar like Florida State’s Joe O’Shea - a philosophy major, no less - is comfortable admitting not only that he doesn’t read books but that he doesn’t see any particular need to read them. Why bother when you can Google the bits and pieces you need in a fraction of a second:”
Carr documents both sides of the coin. Increasing capacity to rapidly imbibe and move on from nuggets, and to know when they should be skipped - on the one side - and declining capacity to focus on more than nuggets, on the other side.
Small, one of the main researchers notes that his studies reveal that regarding browsing “our brains learn to swiftly focus attention, analyze information, and almost instantaneously decide on a go or no go decision.” However, he adds that the flip side is that we “are developing neural circuitry that is customized for rapid and incisive spurts of direct attention.”
Carr reports that Jordan Grafman a very promient cognitive neuroscientist “explains that the constant shifting of our attention when we’re online may make our brains more nimble when it comes to multitasking, but improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively.” Grafman notes, “The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.” He even adds that you become more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought.
There is researcher after researcher quoted in Carr’s book.
Here is Carr himself, however, and he is, as far as I could, see not remotely leftists - and with no attention to property relations hierarchy, etc. - offering another observation. “Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters - the Googleplex - is the Internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism. The company, says CEO Eric Schmidt, is ‘founded around the science of measurement.’ It is striving to ‘systematize everything’ it does. ‘We try to be very data driven, and quantify everything,’ adds another Google executive, Marissa Mayer. ‘We live n a world of numbers.’ What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is going for the work of the mind.”
Carr, “In one famous trial, the company tested forty one different shades of blue on its toolbar to see which shade drew the most clicks from visitors. It carries out similarly rigorous experiments on the text it puts on its pages. ‘You have to try and make words less human and more a piece of the machinery,’ explains Mayer.”
Carr offers a multi page dissection of Google in light of analysis of Taylorism that is really quite eye opening, particularly coming from someone who knows the internet and has little if any left background. He explains and explores the logic of Googles business plan - its revenue stream being entirely based on selling audience to advertizers and click through success - and its effects on their choices.
It leads to this assessment, “The intellectual technologies (I would say practices) it [Google] has pioneered promote the speedy, superficial skimming of information and discourage any deep, prolonged engagement with a single argument, idea, or narrative. ‘Our Goal,’ says Irene Au, ‘it to get users in and out really quickly. All our design decisions are based on that strategy.’ Google’s profits are tied directly to the velocity of people’s information intake. 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. It’s 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.”
Regarding the negative trends affecting attention span, etc., Carr offers that, “the greatest acceleration has come recently, with the rise of social networks like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. These companies are dedicated to providing their millions of members with a never ending ‘stream’ of ‘real time updates,’ brief messages about, as a Twitter slogan puts it, ‘what’s happening right now.’ By turning intimate messages - once the realm of the letter, the phone call, the whisper - into fodder for a new form of mass media, the social networks have given people a compelling new way to socialize and stay in touch. They’ve also placed a whole new emphasis on immediacy.”
They strive, according to Mark Zuckerberg, to “increase the pace of the stream,” and “continue making the flow of information ever faster.” Google actually talks about helping readers to “explore a book in ten seconds.”
The young novelist Benjamin Kunkel reports his own experience of online life: “The internet, as its proponents rightly remind us, makes for variety and conveniences; it does not force anything on you. Only it turns out it doesn’t feel like that at all. We don’t feel as if we had freely chosen our online practices. We feel instead that they are habits we have helplessly picked up or that history has enforced, that we are not distributing our attention as we intend or even like to.”
There is much more in Carr’s book - including eye opening discussions of helpful software, versus taking away the helpful elements, and the impact of each on users - more on taylorism and the logic of programming, and more studies, etc.
The above is snippets - longer than Tweets, but way shorter than the book. So, try the book, and see what you think then, and if you are as concerned as I am, at that point, and you have the time for it, explore further!