Wednesday 7 May 2014

So, You’re Reading the Title of This Blog Entry

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Though a limited series, it was one from which he had acquired more sound information by diligent perusal than many a man of opportunities has done from a furlong of laden shelves.
— On Gabriel Oak’s tiny library in Far from the Madding Crowd

Now you are continuing on to read its first sentence. Before you go any further, stop and ask yourself what are the chances that you will read every sentence of this blog article, right through to the end, without checking your email, looking at Facebook, texting a friend, following a hyperlink, or interrupting in any other similar way. If you are like me and are honest with yourself, the chances are small! How many online articles do we merely skim, glance at, or half-heartedly scroll through, desultorily highlighting random snippets of text?

I have been thinking recently about how I read online, particularly after finishing Nicolas Carr’s thought-provoking book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr’s basic point is that the internet encourages shallow engagement with its content. Clicking through hyperlinks provides access to lots of information, but despite providing a quick stimulus, the benefits are usually not deep. Unlike reading a codex (i.e., a bound, paper book) in which we more easily immerse ourselves and engage the imagination, reading online is generally a much less focused activity.

Carr cites many examples of research which, unsurprisingly, support such claims: claims which I warrant we are all familiar with from our own experiences. He also draws on advances in neuroscience to explain how our interaction with technology (both books and the internet) not only provide data to our brains but also shape the way our brains work. As Marshall McLuhan told us sixty years ago, the medium by which content is delivered is not neutral. It is an extension of our senses.

This being said, we are not entirely at the caprices of the internet when it comes to reading online content. Our native senses—sight, hearing and so on—influence our thoughts, and yet we can exercise control over them. The same ought to be true of their extensions, including the internet. We can be attentive to how we use online media. Are we doing the easy but ultimately unrewarding thing, flitting from page to page without purpose? Or do we deliberately choose to read certain pages and to give them our full attention? This does not necessarily mean that we can attend to webages as one attends to other media—the web browser will never be the codex—but perhaps we can train ourselves to be fruitful in the way we use online videos, news services, blogs and social networking.

Part of this discernment will likely lead to a less-is-more approach. It might be better, for example, to actually read two important news articles all the way through in the morning rather than to skim ten. I’ll even tell you a secret: I find I am actually more efficient online when I do read rather than skim. I spend less time and I get more out of it.

Finally, it is helpful to recognise that there are “submedia” within the internet. Email is not video; social networking is not blogging. Each of these submedia have interfaces that deliver content in different ways. The sub medium of the blog with which you are engaging now has great utility. It is like a newspaper column or a magazine article, but more readily available. It is not as formal as a journal but can still be intelligent. It generally encourages reflexion on topical subjects, but the best blogs are considered and articulate. It is worth thinking about whether the way we read blogs coheres with these properties.

This is the end of this post, and congratulations if you actually took up my challenge to read it without interruption. Now you may feel free to go back and follow some of the hyperlinks. And more importantly, you can click the “like” button with the satisfaction of knowing that it will be based on a well-informed opinion.


  1. I think we can overstate the dangers posed to rational, intellectual, and personality development as a result of the new media. Every culture that has transitioned from one media to another has discussed its anxiety concerning its impact. For example, although I cannot find it at the moment, I recall reading accounts of concerns over what the advent of the telegraph and telephone would do to family and business relationships. There were studies on the impact that violent comics would have on young people and how comic books "dumbed down" youth.

    For every problem listed concerning the impact of the new media, you could list benefits. At issue is how we are going to incorporate the new media into our lives. We should be teaching youth (and ourselves) how to use it intelligently.

    As far as pithiness and brevity contributing to shallowness consider that Jesus spoke in brief parables to convey profound truths. There is the tradition of Zen koans and even in science, there are certain bullet points metaphors to aid in communicating. What is knowledge? What kind of representation is a valid way of testing whether we have the requisite knowledge? What is representation of knowledge and is there more than one way?

    The internet forces us to make our points in less time and also photos, and videos are also part of the exposition of information and knowledge including theology. Plus it makes knowledge accessible and available to a wide audience thereby democratizing education and knowledge.

    Finally, and briefly, remember when the Pope Benedict lifted the sanction against the bishops of SSPX and then the information concerning Wiliamson's holocaust denial and anti-semitism came to the fore. The Vatican was caught flat footed and unaware. A 15 second google search would have confirmed and provided sufficient PUBLIC information to make them pause.

    The moral of the story is that the internet is here to stay and I don't see becoming a Luddite as a viable solution. That leaves learning to navigate this medium. We are in a culture where we have not yet figured out how to appropriate this technology in our lives and that creates some anxiety. Of course Kuhn on paradigm shifts is useful to read in this regard.

    1. I hope my post isn't misunderstood as being anti-internet. That would involve me in a performative contradiction, since the internet is indispensable to the scientific research I do every day—and as you might be aware, the World Wide Web was invented by scientists at the CERN laboratory in Europe. It is also an astonishingly good resource. For example, I am sure that I consult the dictionary (generally the OED) far more than I would if I had to go to a book.

      However, the basic point I was trying to make is that we need to be attentive to how we use any medium, and I think Mr. Carr has done a great service in amassing a plethora of research on how the internet shapes the way we think. In our culture, we are forever extolling the benefits of the internet, so I think there is a need to point out its negative effects. The fact that we tend to react against such criticism probably reveals that we have secretly been avoiding serious reflexion on the matter in the first palce.

      To respond, for example, to your fourth paragraph, brevity of expression is often useful, but it should not replace longer and more discursive forms of argument, such as the essay. Where would we be, for example, if Kant had tried to express the arguments of his Critique of Pure Reason in a Youtube video?

      But I think in the end we pretty much agree: as you say at the end, we need to figure out how to appropriate proper use of the internet. And a little anxiety from time to time might remind us that there is still work to be done!

  2. PS

    Usually the purpose of comments on a blog is to stimulate discussion on particular ideas. They also build relationships (granted they are often anonymous and shallow but still...) I have posted a few and I notice no response from the author(s) or readers.

    This goes to the purpose of a blog in the new media. I am not criticizing as you all can operate it as you see fit. I am just saying, as a participant, on other blogs, they are generally interactive, collaborative, and oriented to dialogue and growth not just information exchange.

    1. Thanks for this reminder—I'll try and be more attentive. On the other hand, it depends on the reply: sometimes a comment simply stands on its own.

  3. Thanks Adam! I hear you and enjoy reading most all of the posts but comment rarely.

    But I must respond to this:

    if Kant had tried to express the arguments of his Critique of Pure Reason in a Youtube video?

    And he still managed to get it wrong! (at least according to Gilson and maybe even according to your older brother Lonergan!) :)

    that is a joke need to engage..LOL