The Atlantic is asking Is Google Making Us Stupid? They quote a pathologist at the University of Michigan School of Medicine:
“I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print... I can’t read War and Peace anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
Can we still think in the age of online distraction?
When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.
That pretty much sums up my attempt to read the article - every few minutes, my email program gives me the new mail ding, I remember an online article I wanted to read, I realize I haven't checked the weather forecast this hour, or I just have to go look at Google reader. All of this is actually changing the way we think, argue several scientists in the piece. That's an interesting idea, one that still needs to be tested. An interesting question the Atlantic piece brings to mind is how this all affects the practice of science. We have the stereotypical scientists: Einstein, Darwin, Bohr, Heisenberg - people who liked to have big chunks of uninterrupted time to do their work. But there are other examples, especially experimentalists: multitaskers like Ernest Lawrence, who built Berkeley's pioneering radiation lab, and Ernest Rutherford, who ran a fairly large lab that did many of the key early experiments probing the structure of atoms. But are we more distracted today than even the busiest multi-tasking scientists of the 1930's? One problem is the sheer volume of scientific papers and their easy access. I can go to Google Scholar, pull up 50 papers on a topic I'm interested in and download them all in a few minutes. The result is a 'paper downloads' folder with thousands of items, almost none of which I end up reading because I've been distracted by the titles of the next 50 or 100 papers that catch my attention. There is so much information, so easily available, tempting us to just "power browse". The result is that we forget how to concentrate and how to follow a long or complex argument. Part of being a smart reader is to be ruthlessly selective about what you read, but today that task is harder than ever before, demanding the kind of focus that our society might not value so much anymore. On the other hand, some might view the incessant distraction as a good way to take out the competition: people today who can effectively use the mass of easy online information, as well as develop their ability to tune out the online world and focus, are likely to be just as successful as the scientists of previous, less distracted generations.