In July 1945, Vannevar Bush (pictured) published a landmark essay in The Atlantic entitled As We May Think. In his article, Bush put forward his vision of the future of information technology, most famously describing something that he called a ‘memex’ machine which brought together information from a wide variety of sources and was the intellectual predecessor of the world wide web. The essay turned out to be influential in numerous ways, and has been acknowledged by Doug Englebart as having contributed to his development of hypertext. Fast forward 55 years and hyperlinks are ubiquitous. Hat’s off to Bush: it is a rare insight that blossoms for decades after being conceived, and even rarer to have it thrive as something that is used by millions of people worldwide each and every day. And, if you are like me, you really like them.
But as with candy, there is the possibility that too much of it will leave you with a belly ache. Well, perhaps not a belly ache. But there is the very real possibility that hyperlinks will affect your physiology with undesirable consequences.
The issue was recently highlighted by Nick Carr who brought his concerns about hypertext to widespread attention with his 2008 article in The Atlantic called Is Google Making us Stupid?. Based primarily on his introspective experience that after years of reading on the internet he was having difficulty reading long-form literature of the type featured in the Atlantic, to say nothing of entire books, Carr concluded that internet reading was changing his brain. It is notable that Carr singled out the allure of multitasking, with hyperlinks as key enablers, as a major culprit. Lamenting the effects that multitasking has upon our ability to concentrate and elaborate deep thinking, Carr’s argument is now available in book-length form under the title The Shallows.
I had a copy of Carr’s book on my desk last week, and one of my graduate students was in my office, using my computer to do some routine maintenance work on our office computer system. The student is a notorious multitasker, and true to form, he glanced at Carr’s book while waiting for the computer system to complete its updates. He ended up reading a fair bit of Carr’s book in fits and starts in the down time that came along with his intended task. Sharp as he is, the exercise allowed him to digest some but not all of what the book was written to convey, ironically confirming in an N=1 experiment the precise point that Carr was making. But, of course, this is just anecdotal data – what about the science?
It is, surprisingly, still early days in the study of this phenomenon, but in one high-profile study by Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, and Anthony Wagner it was shown that cognitive control, the ability by the brain to control and determine where attention is directed, is substantially impaired in people who are heavy media multitaskers (both Nick Carr and my un-named graduate student come to mind). Despite a reasonably thorough treatment of the neuroscience of multitasking by Carr in The Shallows, my skeptical reflexes tell me that there is much yet to know: multitasking is as likely to enhance some features of cognitive function as it is to impair others.
For me, multitasking with hyperlinks represents one of those remarkable innovations that is a powerful advance that arrives at our doorsteps with unintended consequences. In many ways, it has strengthened my ability to search out both relevant and obscure information. Sitting at my desk, or even better in my favourite armchair, I am able to obtain articles on nearly any topic of interest; for reading the scientific literature, it allows me unfettered access, with information arriving at breakneck speed. But am I reading the articles, or merely skimming them? More importantly, how is this new mode of information trolling affecting my ability to think a topic through, to mine the depths, to develop deep expertise? Might it be an issue of quality versus quantity? I suspect that I know what the answers to these questions are, but being a slave to data, I await further experimental results.
The neuroethical concern is not just that the hyperlinked world in which we live is changing our brains, because every encounter that we have with the environment around us changes our brains (members of the Core, as well as my wife, will be rolling their eyes about now, thinking “Peter always says that”. But it happens to be true. Even reading this blog post, in some way, is changing your brain.) The nub of the issue is this: there is an important distinction between encounters which change the informational content of your brain and those that change the way your brain processes information. Most importantly, these changes are going on without anyone having intended them to come into being. Young children are growing up in an environment in which multitasking is the norm and not the exception, and we are still unsure of the effects. We put more effort into insuring the safety of toys than we have of the way that people read on the internet. This might be imprudent.
So here at the Core we are embarking upon a small experiment. For the next little while, we will try not to distract you from reading our blog posts in their entirety by writing them without hyperlinks in the main body of the text. We will still refer you to relevant posts, papers, etc., of course, but we will do so at the end of the post. Oh, the horrors, you might say, but really it is not so bad. One of my favourite science writers, Olivia Judson, regularly writes lovely articles for the New York Times in which she cites the relevant literature at the end of her article, and rarely includes links. If you have not read her posts, I highly recommend them.
It would be great if you could share your experience of reading sans hyperlinks. Do you find it irritating? Does it allow you to read an entire blog post without skipping off to some other corner of the internet? Do you jump to the bottom of the post to get at the links anyway? Feel free to let us know.
And now for the relevant references.
Vannevar Bush’s article in the Atlantic As We May Think
Nicholas Carr’s article in the Atlantic Is Google Making Us Stupid?
Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, and Anthony Wagner’s paper in PNAS Cognitive Control in Multimedia Multitaskers
The image is of Vannevar Bush looking at his ‘differential analyzer’, the first large-scale analog computer. Photo credit: Universiteit van Amsterdam Computer Science Museum