Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Brain fog. Continuous partial attention. Who doesn't suffer from these two maladies nowadays?

In The Fall of the House of Forbes, author Stewart Pinkerton, while discussing Forbes's ambitious plans to go digital, refers to the work of an expert on the subject of what and how people read online, and we also get to understand what Web addiction can do to our brains.

We first learn that a Columbia University new media teacher, Anne Nelson, is not optimistic about the contributions of users to Websites or blogs by way of comments or editing assistance. It is foolish to expect engaging conversations, she implies, and backs up her assertions with statistics:

“Only about 0.02-0.03 per cent of English-language Wikipedia users, for instance, actually wind up actively contributing to the Website,” she says. For viewers of YouTube, she adds, “Only about 1 per cent comment.”

Then, we get an insight into what and how people read online...

...Nelson cites the work of Danish Web consultant Jakob Nielsen, who has done studies of eye tracking of Web pages. Unlike print readers, whose eyes tend to zigzag across the page and scan most of the word, the eyes of people reading on backlit screens move in an F pattern: They first look at the top of the content, reading horizontally, usually not all the way across, then scan again lower down the page, but this time not reading as far, followed by a vertical scan to the bottom of the page. The result is that what’s on the middle and/or the right side of the page typically isn’t read at all.

Nelson also shares with Pinkerton the results of a unique experiment she conducts with her students:

Each year in class, Nelson gives her students two long articles to read, often from The New Yorker one online and one in print. Few students can really sum up what they’ve read online, if they can finish the piece at all. Those who read the print story did so to the end and had far higher retention and appreciation for what they’d experienced. “It’s the difference,” Nelson says, “between surfing fifty Websites and retaining very little the next day, and reading War and Peace and remembering characters and scenes ten years later.”

Pinkerton follows up with a brief digression into the nature of Web addiction, what’s productive and what isn’t:

Increasingly, studies at Columbia and elsewhere show that what UCLA psychiatrist Gary Small calls “brain fog”, a condition stemming from so much continuous partial attention that nothing is really ever absorbed it never moves from the in-box to the file cabinet is becoming more prevalent.
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, writes that constant Web usage seemed to be changing “the very way my brain worked”. How? He was having trouble paying attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. My brain, he realised, “wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it
and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became.” The Internet, he sensed, “was turning me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine, a human HAL. I missed my old brain.”

Brain fog. Continuous partial attention (or CPA, which I have talked about often in my class). Who doesn't suffer from these two maladies nowadays?

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