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Business - Written by on Wednesday, June 11, 2008 14:01 - 6 Comments

Jeff DeChambeau
Dumbness: Maybe Not So Generational After All

Nicholas Carr has written an unreadably long article (just kidding, it’s worth the read) about the effect that the Internet is having on our ability to concentrate. His argument is that for the Internet to be useful, it needs to appropriate new content, and integrate this content its existing body of knowledge. This newly assimilated content is then changed by the Internet to be displayed as all media online is displayed: surrounded by ads, on top of layers of other content, and endlessly interlinked with other content. The process of gathering and processing information has become an exercise in distraction.

Carr continues: Google is enabling a revolution of information much in the same way that automation gave us a revolution in turn-of-the-century industrial manufacturing. Instead of automating assembly, the process of researching and identifying useful information is being mentally outsourced. Carr argues that we aren’t as capable of reading dense texts as they used to be (covered previously by Denis), because we have gotten used to Google and the Internet aggressively distilling ideas down to their most granular level; when we see ideas presented in their native context — mingling with other ideas — we are no longer well equipped process them. The extension of this, I think, is that the information that we receive from Google is therefore divorced from its original context, and information without context can be very dangerous.

I  find his argument to be convincing, and completely in line (albeit a bit scarier) with the New York Times article from last year The Outsourced Brain.

While whether or not this is good or bad is still a hot topic of debate, (though our research and writing has concluded that the skills and habits that we’re developing in a digital world are, by and large, very positive) it’s clear that there is a very fundamental change going on in how we access and assess information — a change that affects everyone who’s plugged in, regardless of their generation. I don’t think that this change is going to destroy society, but I think that this ability to examine a complex system and figure out what’s important is itself important, and a skill we’d be wise to avoid losing.

Does technology make you feel empowered? Has the Internet taken away your ability to do the work of discovering facts and subtleties in primary sources? If it has, is that good?

I think that there’s a lot to debate to be had here. I’d like to hear what you have to say.


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Nicholas Osborne
Jun 11, 2008 15:06

This is a scary concept as someone still has to be able to process the original information so that it can be formatted for the masses. An interesting analogy would be that of Jules Verne’s time machine: where the time traveler visits a post utopian society where technology has evolved so far that no one understands it anymore, and when it breaks they are incapable of fixing it. Will the internet limit humanity’s ability to consume knowledge? Is there a peak on ‘progress’ curve where a total dependence on underlying technologies will impede future innovations?

Sonya Starnes
Jun 11, 2008 15:19

I identified with Carr’s article. I do feel that my attention span is shorter. I am more easily distracted. I do think that we lose something when people no longer wallow in books but spend their time frenetically surfing from here to there. However, I don’t know the answer to this problem. I see the benefits of the revolution we are undergoing as well and would not suggest that we move backwards. I thought several articles in that issue of the Atlantic all related to the theme of distractedness. That same week, I heard a radio interview of someone who had written a book about the need to increase children’s ability to be attentive.

Jun 11, 2008 16:08

This is one of the areas I spend a lot of time thinking about for work, so I won’t say much about that, but without denying the validity of the doomsday aspect of thinking about old media, decline in thinking, reading etc., let me try to point at some of the ‘brave new world’ aspects.

1. Meta-reading: We’ve never had the opportunity to rapidly course through vast amounts of information, guided by efficient associational links in left and right-brained ways. This is a new kind of thinking that may in some cases add more value than the opportunity cost of people not doing as much scuba-dive reading, to use Carr’s term. I’ve myself experienced moments of StumbleUpon epiphany as ideas come together suddenly due to the parade of related ‘jigsaw piece’ stimuli. Certainly not the use case the authors of the individual pieces intended (or appreciate), but value delivered nevertheless.

2. The 80-20 argument: A lot of end-to-end reading in the past was motivated by having little better to do. Much as authors like to think their every word is sparklingly original, it is actually possible to extract 80% of the value of most articles by cherrypicking 20% of the substance. It could be a different 80-20 for every reader.

3. A New Kind of Writing — the Buffet: You can recognize point 2 as a writer, and actively write to support that mode of cognition (it is harder to intentionally support meta-reading as a writer, but I have some ideas there too, for later). Make it easy for people to access your thinking, offered up in lego-block format.

4. The Art of the High Concept: One unambiguously good effect the Web has had , through its viral dynamics, is to cultivate in writers a fantastically sophisticated sense of design and efficient communication. Dan Pink really gets this (Whole New Mind, Johnny Bunko etc.)Ten years ago, this piece would have taken me 1000 pedantic words to articulate. Today, I’ve slowly learned the craft so I can have the same impact on my intended reader with a single graphic as stimulus. Maybe the sophisticated non-fiction comic book is the medium of the 21st century, and will add more value in 1 century than the novel did in 3? Who knows?

5. Better reactive/opportunistic thinking: Yes, perhaps our capacity for deliberative thought has diminished, but undeniably, our capacity for rapid reactive and opportunistic thought has increased.

6. Maybe information overload isn’t: The ‘attention economy’ framing is tired, and Herbert Simon possibly got it half-wrong. There are ways to think about attention that undermines the apparently axiomatic status of the ‘information overload’ assertion.

Jun 19, 2008 10:53

I remember 30 years ago wading through “Future Shock” and thinking that the entire book could have been condensed to 20 pages.

Now that the internet gives me an almost infinite number of alternatives, I have insufficient patience to read such a tome again. Is that an improvement?

Not for Mr. Toffler. But it works for me.

Wikinomics » Blog Archive » Another great piece on the literacy debate
Jul 28, 2008 10:02

[...] and more specifically our collective reading skills. We’ve recently written about it here, here, here, and here, Nicholas Carr had a great piece published in the Atlantic Monthly called “Is [...]

Wikinomics » Blog Archive » Sorry Carr, the Cloud Looks Silver from Here
Aug 11, 2008 14:41

[...] 11th, 2008, 02:41pm Nicholas Carr is a well-respected thought leader who we have agreed and disagreed with in the past (see here and here). A few weeks ago, he posted The Cloud’s Not So [...]

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