Web-induced A.D.D.

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009 @ 12:34 pm | Culture

Lordy knows I got it. Haven’t even been able to focus on blogging lately!

Reading on the web is almost certainly affecting the way we process information, but it’s not making us stupid. Instead, it’s changing the way we’re smart. Rather than storehouses of in-depth information, the web is turning our brains into indexes. These days, it’s not what you know — it’s what you know you can access, and cross reference.

In other words, books taught us to think like they do — as tools for storing extensive knowledge. Now the web teaches us to think like it does — as a tool for recall and connection. We won’t be so good at memorizing everything there is to know about a particular small-bore topic, but we’ll be a lot better at knowing what there is to be known about the broader category the topic fits into, and what other information might provide insight and context.

That this is happening to many people is indisputable. What is fun to argue is whether this is a “good thing” or not. One of the commenters impressed me with this:

Consider that the vast majority of human history has been an preliterate or illiterate experience. Knowledge was empirical and acquired in the field, through different social associations and culture. Our forbears may not have been bookish, but neither were they imagining less. They kept a different model of the world in their heads, as complex as any we imagine today. The abstract world allows for testing connections — trying out possibilities before actually attempting them. It allows for comparative analysis — discussing ideas with peers. It could be about the optimal method of tracking gazelle, killing barbarians, or forging metal. In all cases, the amount of mental abstraction involved is roughly the same.

If we are moving to a mental model where survival is dependent on information access through digital nodes rather than recording the actual information in our wetware, we are still keeping a rich, complex abstraction of the world in our heads, as we always have done. Our world model is simply morphing yet again to accommodate survival node changes in the world.

Much is lost by abandoning the old mental models; but much is gained by creating new ones. It makes little difference if we celebrate it or lament the change by clinging to our paper books, any more than we should cling to our spears and arrows. If the data points of our mental model have become less clustered around the bush, the farm, the village, or the city library, but have dispersed across the planet, then so be it. We will survive by the same timeless means as always before: by imagining the rich, complex world that we live in, in its current form.

This is the belief that we’re just as awesome as we’ve always been, just in different ways.

Still, that feeling of my brain being pureed confetti nags. I would like to read more books, and I would like to write more full-length works…but I have become somewhat paralyzed by the million pieces my brain has shattered into. So I think the argument mostly rests on control, and how much you voluntarily surrender. I don’t want to give up everything I’ve lost. Yet I am, apparently, even more afraid of losing the constant feed of new information and ideas I encounter every day on the internet.

-jb

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