Discipline and Distraction

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I missed this David Brooks column last week (and frankly, I'm not always looking for him), but he points to an interesting discovery. Researchers at the University of Tennessee gave disadvantaged students 12 books at the end of the summer, and found that they had significantly higher reading scores than other students when they returned to school. Brooks makes the leap to connect this to the current conversation about how the internet is rotting our brains, led by Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows.

I'm reading The Shallows right now, and while Carr's research and observation are spot on at times, when he talks about how terribly distracting the internet is and how he can't concentrate on more than one paragraph when reading online, I think to myself, "Not on the internet I use." I read long articles online all the time, and half the books I read now are e-books. Maybe it's just practice, but it doesn't seem like much of a different experience. In fact, it's often more convenient because I can always find something to read on my iPhone or iPad. Carr makes the assumption that in order to be online, you have to have every messaging program on your computer open and every blinking alert and pinging sound enabled. Of course that's not an efficient way to do things. But it's also pretty easy to close your instant messenger, email client, Twitter and Facebook tabs and sink your teeth into a long article. Just because our computers can multitask doesn't mean we have to.

Carr also assumes that you are required to click on every hyperlink on every web page. I probably shouldn't admit this since I blog in a style dependent on links, but I rarely click through links in a text article, and if I see too many I tend to skip over them. Again, it's a matter of user behavior, not the technology forcing us to behave a certain way. You can choose to read the links like any other text. You don't have to follow them down the rabbit hole.

In trying to defend the traditional literary world over Carr's assumed internet world of constant distraction, Brooks actually makes a point about what I'm trying to say:

But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.

The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message. But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities.

Just like those kids can choose to see themselves as readers because they have books, you can choose to focus and concentrate on long text online. You don't have to repond to every bell and alarm. You can even turn them off.