Disclaimer: I work in Google's Policy Team, developing multistakeholder cooperations for internet governance & policy themes, hence I want to point out that all the opinions and ruminations on this blog are mine, not Google's.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Concetrated multitasking and lost linear comprehension - what's cognitively happening when we are online

Some reflections on Nick Carr's pretty good article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?":
In general i have to commend him for writing a thought provoking article and I agree with his core argument: "The more [we] use the Web, the more [we] have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing."

But Scott Karp gives a good counter argument - in his reflections about the Atlantic's piece: "Maybe the reason why Nick and so many other literati are losing their patience with long form information is that it is so fundamentally inefficient and inferior to connected bits of information."

What i would like to add is that the even more fundamental shift is not the way we perceive information (surf the net) but how we are engaging and participating in the discourse (by blogging, etc.), hence not only taking in, but creatively processing the info. The web has the potential to transform couch-potatoes in creative activists!

But coming back to reading and concentration: I think Nick has a point in saying we don't read linear and the text must also keep us interested - in fact i have read at least 6 comments embedded in the article by an web-annotation service called diigo, and one of the comments send me off to read half of Scott's response to Nick quoting him. My point support's Scott's: We are searching, identifying and continuously critically assessing all the information opportunities we have in front of us - as I see it: the amount of relevant info processing is really high while on the other hand it is true that this type of learning/experiencing information has become my dominant style and it costs me to following one long linear experience.

After a quick google search resulting in a wikipedia lookup to confirm that my conceptualization is reasonable, I would like to also critique Nick's use of the term concentration: He writes: "Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text." Again I agree in principal, but it is attention span that is shorter, because there is a related/networked task or piece of information that draws the attention. Nevertheless i claim that when i - like now - working with 16 tabs and 8 programs open (involved in about 4/5 different work tracks) i am in a very concentrated (alert) state of mind. What's happening is I am jumping between tasks to maximize my productivity. While working on a task I am either instigated to switch to another by a thought triggering idea i perceived, or there is a certain boredom or lack of creative thought which drives me to look through the options running on the machine. No matter what is exactly going on with Being online (i am reflecting on these themes in the Cyberphilosophy classes @ SupercoolSchool) i would describe my state of mind as concentrated multitasking.

On a side note - I really grumbled when i read the following taylor'ist quote in Nick's article: “In the past the man has been first,” Taylor declared; “in the future the system must be first.
Wow - know your enemy: This is exactly the contrary to what John Seely Brown, Howard Rheingold and myself are writing about in an article about the use of technology for humanistic education.

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