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


13 thoughts on “Hyperlinks

  1. I enjoyed your hyperlink-free posting, Peter. One thing that I hadn’t realized until I read your text was that when I see a hyperlink I often feel obliged to click it. When I don’t, I feel like I’m ‘cheating’ and reading the text in a superficial way. For your piece, I was able to just enjoy following your ideas. I look forward to more posts that are free of embedded hyperlinks.

    On the issue of data on the effects of multitasking, I was thinking about a recent study on “momnesia”. Momnesia, also known as “baby brain” is when a pregnant woman cannot seem to remember information (“where did I park my car?”, “who was I supposed to meet today for coffee?”). One question has been whether momnesia is a real condition or an urban myth. In a recent study (reported on in the media but not yet published), researchers at the University of British Columbia gave pregnant women and non-pregnant women two tasks. One was a memory test in the lab where they could concentrate fully, and the other was a memory test in the world after they left the lab (to mail back a form). In the lab setting there was no difference between pregnant and non-pregnant women. However, there was a striking difference in the “in-the-world” task: 25% of the pregnant women completed it compared with 70% of the non-pregnant women. The researchers speculate that when in a distraction-free environment (like a lab), pregnant women can bring their full attention to a task. But there is something happening when “in-the-world” that affects pregnant women differently than non-pregnant women. They conclude that further investigation on momnesia should be set in-the-world rather than in the lab.

    Perhaps pregnant women would be a nice sub-population to study on the effects and limits of multitasking?

    For more information about the momnesia studies see: http://www.vancouversun.com/life/Blame+harried+life+dumb+syndrome+researcher/3000364/story.html

  2. For me, this new format (links at the end) is not much different from how I usually use hyperlinks, which is to right-click them to open them in a new tab, and look at them later (typically, after I’m done reading -sans interruption- the original article).

    I guess I’m not a very good candidate for this unofficial study.

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  4. I enjoy being able to read an article from start to finish without the distraction of hyperlinks tempting me off on another trail. Don’t get me wrong. I love the ease and speed of hyperlinks. But, I like them at the end. I can pursue further aspects about the message after I’ve received the author’s complete thoughts from the original message.

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  6. I usually do the same as Julie Robillard mentions. When reading an article which contains hyperlinks, I click on those hyperlinks with my scroller, so it opens up in a new tab. Most of the time I’m reading articles with so many hyperlinks that I, when I read the article, forget what all those links are about. So in that way, it could be a lot more usefull when the hyperlinks were placed at the end of a post, with a little description to it.

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  8. I love it. It’s incredible how much better I am able to focus. And knowing that the most important links are going to be at the bottom of the post, I can continue reading comfortably, being sure not to miss anything.
    In the end, when looking at the links all at once, I may be skipping a link or two that I’d have clicked on within a paragraph simply not to miss anything.

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