Not Stupid, Just Inattentive

Nicholas Carr’s article on the cognitive style of the Internet has been linked and discussed quite a bit. Ironically, I found that his article was an ostensive refutation of his own point. I liked the article the first time when I skimmed it. But when I read it in detail and thought through it, I think that he was incorrect on most details. I think that the low attention span that he is talking of is actually a manifestation of three factors:

  1. It is difficult to read on screen. People’s eyes hurt.
  2. It is easy to get distracted when you are on the net. This may be related to point one. If you get physically tired when you read an article, it is easy for your mind to wander and look up something else.
  3. People read more actively on the net. Reading paper books is enjoyable. But just because you enjoy something it doesn’t mean that you are thinking. Carr’s article is nicely written and it flows well. If I were reading it on paper, I would be lulled into complacency by the flow. But because I was reading it online, I was also actively thinking about which parts I agree with and which parts I don’t. For example, I was thinking “Hmmm… Jakob Nielsen has written about writing for the web. I should head over to to compare.”  It was all I could do to stop myself from giving in to the temptation immediately, thereby proving Carr’s point. (Coincidentally, his current article is on the same topic.)

On the whole, I think that 1 and 2 are bad, while 3 is good – though I suppose that actively thinking without actually reading an article and understanding something is counterproductive.

By the way, this mandatory “Commercial interests are conspiring to make us stupid” completely misses the point:

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

This gets it exactly backwards. Google is investigating our behaviour precisely because we won’t sit still. If we had followed the information categorization that sites wanted us to or if we had lovingly pored over the page and noticed every ad, as the publisher of the Atlantic no doubt wishes, there would have been no need for all the rocket science research that Google and other companies are doing. It is because surfers are doing their own thing and not fitting into the commercial straitjacket that the crumbs of data are being investigated.