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The Velocity of Thought

The book is perhaps one of the last of human inventions to succumb to the onslaught of technology.

When Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, introduced the Kindle, he realized the device might alter the way people read forever: “It's so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as a book and improve on it. And maybe even change the way people read.” The Kindle and iPad certainly change the medium by which some of us consume books, but how will these changes affect us?

Marshall McLuhan, an obscure Canadian, arrived well ahead of the Internet with a thesis. His best selling book from the 60's, Understanding Media, turned him into a one hit wonder. His central thesis was, according to Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brain, “that the technologies through which we take in information—the media, broadly defined—become “extensions” of our bodies, exerting a profound influence over how we think and act. When an important new medium arrives, it can reshape who we are as individuals and as a society.” Or, as McLuhan famously put it “The medium is the message.”

Steven Johnson reported in the Wall Street Journal that “the migration to the digital realm would not be a simple matter of trading ink for pixels, but would likely change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways.”

Johnson continued “It will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time make it easier to stop reading them. It will expand the universe of books at our fingertips, and transform the solitary act of reading into something far more social. It will give writers and publishers the chance to sell more obscure books, but it may well end up undermining some of the core attributes that we have associated with book reading for more than 500 years.”

What happens when we change the medium for reading?

Christine Rosen had been reading a worn copy of Dicken's Nicholas Nickleby when her Kindle arrived in the mail. Reflecting on the experience of reading with a device for the first time she said “Although mildly disorienting at first, I quickly adjusted to the Kindle's screen and mastered the scroll and page-turn buttons. Nevertheless, my eyes were restless and jumped around as they do when I try to read for a sustained time on the computer. Distractions abounded. I looked up Dickens on Wikipedia, then jumped straight down the Internet rabbit hole following a link about a Dickens short story, “Mugby Junction.” Twenty minutes later I still hadn't returned to my reading of Nickleby on the Kindle. I found that despite the ability to change the font size and scroll up and down the screen, reading was much slower on the Kindle than in book form. I'd want it on a long trip, but not for everyday use.”

The internet is the best recent example of how a medium has helped shape our brains. Unfortunately, the news is not positive.

The less constrained reading afforded by the internet encourages us to multi-task. While it can be argued that books also allowed us to multi-task, the way we use this freedom has no doubt changed. We're clicking on a lot more and understanding a little less.

In the process, our ability to think critically and apply our brains to a problem has been reduced.  In the race for our mind's attention, nuance and thoughtful prose are losing to quick summaries. When summaries become to long, we shift to soundbytes.

We're constantly distracted and interrupted online, our brains are, in the words of Carr, “unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We've become mere signal processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and out of short-term memory.”

The picture emerging from the research is deeply troubling, at least to anyone who values the depth, rather than just the velocity, of human thought. People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.

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