Escaping the Net: How Our Media Environment Poisons the Life of the Mind

Escaping the Net: How Our Media Environment Poisons the Life of the Mind

But my eyes are toward you, O GOD, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; leave me not defenseless! Keep me from the trap that they have set laid for me and from the snares of evildoers! Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I pass safely” (Psalm 141:8-10 ESV).

Hegel, the famous idealist philosopher of the 19th century, believed that the consciousness of each era has its own peculiar shape. Individual thought is articulated within a particular linguistic and cultural context, one embedded in history. Hence, the intellectual concerns of ancient Greece and the thoughts thinkable within it, differ, for example, from those of medieval Europe or contemporary America. These various shapes of consciousness are born of different socio-historical contexts and nurtured within distinct conceptual traditions. They thus differ both in the questions they can ask and in the kinds of answers they can provide. In short, for Hegel, just as “each individual is…a child of his time”, so too is philosophy “its own time comprehended in thoughts” [ihre Zeit in Gedanken erfasst] (Philosophy of Right, Preface). Unfortunately for us, a radical re-shaping of consciousness has been carried out in the contemporary world, one which threatens to render philosophical inquiry as such unthinkable. Neil Postman traces the roots of this technocratic revolution in his famous 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Postman begins by noting, in Hegelian fashion, that our thoughts are mediated by language and culture, and that, as a result, the media we use to communicate constrain the kinds of contents we can express. For example, one would eschew lengthy philosophical discussions when employing smoke signals, since it would be hard, if not impossible, to pack the content of something like The Critique of Pure Reason into a simple puff of smoke. The medium of communication thus limits the kinds of messages that can be efficiently sent and received through it. And this is true not only on an individual but also on a communal level. It shapes the discourse of a culture as a whole. This is why Postman focuses on “the forms of human conversation” and argues that “how we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.” Our tools, especially our tools of communication, are by no means neutral. For “in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.” As a medium, technology “employs a particular symbolic code, as it finds its place in a particular social setting, as it insinuates itself into economic and political contexts.” The medium is “the social and intellectual environment a machine creates.”

And, according to Postman, a culture’s central medium of communication will provide the invisible metaphors which shape that culture’s thoughts. Hence, the medium a culture uses will dictate its core metaphors about mind, world, and their relation. “Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility.” They are the implicit, yet central, metaphors that control the thoughts of a people. “Our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it.” Following Lewis Mumford’s observation in Technics and Civilization, Postman illustrates this point through the example of the clock. Before its invention, humans experienced time through the natural sequence of day and night and through the cycle of the seasons. But, after the fabrication of the clock, we began to experience time abstractly—in terms of seconds and minutes. Postman explains:

“In manufacturing such a product, the clock has the effect of disassociating time from human events and thus nourishes the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences….Beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers and then time-savers, and now time-servers. In the process, we have learned irreverence toward the sun and the seasons, for in a world made up of seconds and minutes, the authority of nature is superseded…. With the invention of the clock, Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events.”

By stipulating the central metaphors for thought, a culture’s medium of communication will thereby also dictate its implicit epistemology. A people’s theory of knowledge, truth, and intellectual virtue will be articulated in terms of what they can conveniently say. An oral culture, for example, might honor traditional proverbs as exemplars of knowledge and, consequently, define the wise man as one who can memorize and apply them. In contrast, a print based culture might extol detailed argument and objective analysis as its ideal of knowledge. Memory would not be prized as highly, but instead the ability to construct and evaluate abstract arguments. The adoption of new technologies of communication thus require trade offs. Something is gained, but something is also lost. Postman’s central thesis is that, when American culture replaced books with television, the ensuing losses have far outstripped any putative gains. He contends that “as typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity, and above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines.”

Perhaps unbelievably given America’s current reputation, American culture was once a culture of the book. Postman contends that “the Americans… were as committed to the printed word as any group of people who has ever lived.” Moreover, unlike many European countries of the time, reading was a practice that admitted of no class distinctions. Reading was not conceived as “an elitist activity” in early America. So, by the time of the revolution, no one doubted that Thomas Paine, a man without formal education, was capable of composing a literary work like “Common Sense”. And America’s love for the book was also evinced by the formation of the Lyceum movement for adult education (a venue which gave birth to many of Emerson’s famous essays), the founding of colleges, and the formation of American jurisprudence. Even advertising had a literary character in early America, since businesses sought to rationally persuade their customers of the value of their products. America, on this view, “was founded by intellectuals”, and its culture was a culture of the book. “Public business was channeled into and expressed through print, which became the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse.” And this, in turn, shaped the consciousness of the nation. For example, crowds would gather to attend the Lincoln Douglas debates, verbally and logically complex discourses that lasted over seven hours. Though hard to imagine now, Americans once thought such debates were vital and could follow the twists and turns of such arguments. “These were people who regarded such events as essential to their political education, who took them to be an integral part of their social lives, and who were quite accustomed to extended oratorical performances.” The culture of the printed word thus brought forth a public discourse both serious and rational. For:

“To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and over generalizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text.”

Public discourse thus came “to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas.” Citizens in this era possessed:“A sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance of delayed response.”

And the famous men and women of the age were famous on account of what they had written. They were famous for their ideas, not their looks. Indeed, they probably would have been unrecognized had they been encountered on the street. This stands in marked contrast to today, where our leaders and even our intellectuals are known primarily by how they look. Note, for example, of what comes to mind when you think of Bill Gates, Donald Trump, or Einstein. What comes to mind is likely an image. This, contends Postman, is but one consequence of the shift from the age of print, to the age of show business.

The shift was brought about, according to Postman, by the adoption of two new technologies: telegraphy and photography. Prior to the telegraph, information traveled at a human speed. Even at its fastest, by train, the time it took to convey a message was the time it took to transport a human messenger to a location. There could thus be a considerable delay between the sending of a message and its receipt. But the telegraph sundered information from the human world. For, now, “space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.” This divorcing of information from the human Lebenswelt, spawned a new discourse characterized by irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.

“These demons of discourse were aroused by the fact that telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to a function it might serve in social and political decision making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.”

And with the birth of the Associated Press, an unholy alliance was formed between the information raging through the telegraph’s wires, and the newspapers which disseminated it as “the news of the day.” To test whether the daily news continues to be characterized by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence, Postman invites us to ask ourselves how often we have changed our plans for the day, undertaken a novel action, or solved some problem we were already intending to solve in virtue of listening to the news. In my case, the answer tends to be infrequently, if ever. “Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.” And, since it has no bearing on our actions, the information delivered by the news also tends to concern things over which we have no control. It conveys information about situations we are impotent to change. Postman calls the news cycle the great loop of impotence:

“the news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.” This ever foaming sea of information without context created an incoherent universe of discourse. “It brought into being a world of broken time and broken attention.”

In contrast to the book, which demands time, attention, and a focus on history, the news of the telegraph is perpetually updated and calls on us to discard old news as stale as soon as it is out of date, that is, as soon as new news arrives. Postman explains:

“It takes time to write a book and to read one; time to discuss its contents and to make judgments about their merit, including the form of their presentation. A book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past. Therefore, civilized people everywhere consider the burning of a book a vile form of anti-intellectualism. But the telegraph demands that we burn its contents. The value of telegraphy is undermined by applying the tests of permanence, continuity or coherence. The telegraph is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up to date message. Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.”

The telegraph thereby bred a new kind of public discourse. “Its language was the language of the headlines—sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch.” And it reshaped how people understood knowledge. “Knowing the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, backgrounds, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing a lot of things, not knowing about them.”

The second technology to subvert American public discourse was photography. A photograph, unlike a printed word, is geared toward the representation of particulars. If I write the word “tree” you can understand this representation as referring, in general, to all kinds of trees. But if I show you a picture of a tree, I give you the image of a particular tree at a particular point in space and time. Moreover, unlike words, pictures have no syntax. Each picture is an individual atom requiring no further context for apprehension.

“The photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable.” Yet, it could still be used to supply an illusory context for the barrage of information shooting through the telegraph. One could, for example, pair a random fact with a random picture to provide the appearance meaning and coherence. Postman explains: “Imagine a stranger’s informing you that the illyx is a subspecies of verformplant with articulated leaves that flowers biannually on the island of Aldononejes. If you wonder aloud, ‘Yes, but what has that to do with anything? Imagine that your informant replies, ‘But here is a photograph I want you to see,’ and hands you a picture labeled Illyx on Aldononjes. ‘Ah yes,’ you might murmur, ‘now I see.’”

But, in fact, you would not have seen at all. The bit of information is just as useless to you with a picture as without it.

Indeed, the communications revolution brought about by the telegraph and the camera compelled people to invent a variety of pseudo contexts for the trivial information that came to clutter their minds. They did this by creating a variety of amusements: the crossword puzzle, the cocktail party, and the quiz show. According to Postman,

“A pseudo context is a structure invented to give fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use. But the use the pseudo-context provides is not action, or problem solving, or change. It is the only use left for the information with no genuine connection to our lives. And that, of course, is to amuse. The pseudo-context is the last refuge, so to say, of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence.”

In the wake of such changes, claims Postman, a “peek-a-boo world” was born. Just as an adult hides his face before a bemused child and then shows it again, saying “peek-a-boo” to the wide eyed infant, so too does each new bit of information conveyed through our mediated reality strike us as something novel, disconnected, and wildly entertaining. We have lost our sense of object constancy, and, so have been rendered infants once more.

It is this world of infantile amusements that has come to fruition in the age of television. Indeed, the revolution is now so complete that the peek-a-boo world seems utterly natural. Postman laments

“there is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic and graphic revolution than this: that the world as given to us through television seems natural, not bizarre.”…. “We have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane. And if some of our institutions seem not to fit the template of the times, why it is they, and not the template, that seem to us disordered and strange.”

The world of peek-a-boo is a world of entertainment. Television, as a medium, creates this entertainment culture by aiming primarily “at emotional gratification”. Television is “a beautiful spectacle” whose enjoyment requires only minimal background skills. And, because it has become the default mode of communication in the West, television has made entertainment our “supra-ideology”. It “has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience” in virtue of its very nature as a medium. For, through its visual mediation, it does not lend itself to the activity of thinking. “Thinking does not play well on television….There is not much to see in it.” Postman observes, “it is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business.” Thus, in light of television’s hegemony over communication, entertainment has come to replace all other forms of discourse. “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.” In short, in the age of the television, there is “no business but show business.”

Television, by employing a novel grammar governed by the ubiquitous new conjunction “now this”, has amplified the incoherence telegraphy and photography introduced into our public discourse. Postman explains:

“ ‘Now…this’ is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘now…this.’”

“We are no longer struck dumb, as any sane person would be, by a newscaster who having just reported that a nuclear war is inevitable goes on to say that he will be right back after this word from Burger King…”

In a world mediated by television, nothing is serious. Television thus represents a form of “anticommunication,… a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence, and rules of contradiction.” It is, according to Postman, dadaist, nihilistic, schizophrenic, vaudeville. Because of this, people no longer care when their leaders are caught in obvious lies and contradictions. For this would be disturbing only if one cared about consistency, something of which television is unconcerned. On television, it is more important for a politician to look authentic, than to speak the truth, or even to refrain from uttering logical contradictions. “Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies. All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.”

In this manner, Postman contends, there is no mode of public discourse that television has not cannibalized and converted into its own monstrous body of entertainment. It has refashioned religion into the spectacle of the televangelist, politics into the political commercial, and education into Sesame Street. Indeed, the implicit psychology of the television commercial has even spawned many of the central axioms of therapeutic and coaching industries. Postman observes,

“the commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast, and that they are solvable through the interventions of technology, techniques, and chemistry. This is, of course, a preposterous theory about the roots of discontent, and would appear so to anyone reading and hearing it.”

Unfortunately, things have gotten only worse since Postman’s day, given that many today no longer see this theory as preposterous, but as the self-evident key to self-improvement.

In regards to its effects on education, television has imposed its curriculum by commanding “the time, attention, and cognitive habits” of our children. And Postman notes that “in so doing, it competes successfully with the school curriculum. By which I mean, it damn near obliterates it.” And it has thereby also created the new dogma that education is entertainment, since, what is presented on television is always presented as entertainment. The television program presupposes no prerequisites for understanding its content, induces no perplexity, and avoids arduous practices like exposition and critical thinking. Thus, “television’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses, from Confucius to Plato to Cicero to Locke to John Dewey.”

“Educational philosophers have assumed that becoming acculturated is difficult because it necessarily involves the imposition of restraints. They have argued that there must be a sequence to learning, that perseverance and a certain measure of perspiration are indispensable, that individual pleasures must frequently be submerged in the interests of group cohesion, and that learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young but are hard fought victories.”

This shift, now taken to be self-evident, from education to entertainment, has been monumental. Postman observed that, in his day, “a massive reorientation towards learning was taking place.” He was correct. Today the revolution he warned of already stands accomplished. We now only wait to see its inevitable result: cultural death. For, as Postman contends,

“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”

What Postman saw as an alarming possibility, we can now experience as a dire actuality. One might object that Postman’s grim prophecy was misguided. We, after all, have the Internet, a technology which seems to have ushered in a new era of the literacy. People apparently now read more than ever. Everywhere you look you can see people staring at their phones, busily scrolling through their text messages or twitter feeds. Unfortunately, the advent of the Internet did not restore the literary mind, but has actually exacerbated the trends inaugurated in the television era. Nicholas Carr has made a good case for why this is so in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. He was inspired to write the book after noticing a disturbing trend in himself and his educated peers: He had lost the ability to read a book or concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time. He confesses,

“What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information in the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”

And he he further explains that,

“Sometime in 2007, a serpent of doubt slithered into my info paradise. I began to notice that the Net was exerting a much stronger and broader influence over me than my old stand-alone PC ever had…. The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I’d figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, 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. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check email, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected. Just as Microsoft Word had turned me into a flesh-and-blood word processor, the Internet, I sensed, was turning me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine…. I missed my old brain.”

And others, he found, were having the same kinds of experiences. Carr cites one blogger, formerly an avid reader and literature major, who now confesses that he cannot read deeply. He ponders “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed.” Similarly, a professor at a school of medicine confesses: “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print” and notes that his thinking now has “a ‘staccato’ quality” as he skims through various online sources. “ ‘I can’t read War and Peace anymore,’ he admitted. ‘I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.’” And, from the perspective of educators, the startling refrain has become “I can’t get my students to read whole books anymore.” This statement came from a literature professor. Even students who have decided to major in literature, a field whose ostensible content is literary texts, refuse to read books. What we have, then, with advent of the Internet, is merely an amplification of the forces already described by Postman. Carr explains:

“We seem to have arrived… at an important juncture in our intellectual and cultural history, a moment of transition between two very different models of thinking…. Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants in needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster the better.”

Though Carr makes much of his case through citing research in cognitive neuroscience, the crucial point was known to Aristotle long ago. Our characters, and the moral virtues that they either exemplify or fail to exemplify, are created largely through our habits. Aristotle maintains:

“Virtues…we acquire, just as we acquire crafts, by having previously activated them. For we learn a craft by producing the same product that we must produce when we have learned it, becoming builders, e.g., by building, harpists by playing the harp; so also, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions and brave by doing brave actions.” (NE 1103b 1 trans. Irwin).

And again:

“To sum up, then, in a single account: A state [of character] arises from [the repetition of] similar activities. Hence we must display the right activities, since differences in these imply corresponding differences in the states. It is not unimportant, then, to acquire one sort of habit or another, right from our youth; rather, it is very important, indeed all important.” (NE 1103b 25).

To put this in Carr’s preferred neurological terms, our brains are plastic; the connections between our neurons are changeable. By regularly engaging in some activities we create and strengthen connections between neurons (we create habits), and by failing to engage in other activities previous connections are destroyed (we lose habits). As the saying goes, “use it or lose it”. And, as argued previously, the intellectual tools we employ will encourage particular kinds of mental habits. The book encouraged a quiet, focused, and rational mind. The Internet, on the other hand, addicts us to another kind of behavior entirely. “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” It bombards us with sensory information and encourages us to continue interacting with it to get new rewards. Carr observes:

“One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions. With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”

We quickly repeat various actions when interacting with the Net. We type at the keyboard, or the virtual keyboard on our phones. We swipe. And we rotate. And, in response to our actions, the Net supplies us with a myriad of sensory inputs. We see new recommendations and messages, we hear dings and chimes, and various items on the screen call to be manipulated–there are forms to be filled, posts to be liked, emoji’s to be selected. And, Carr observes,

“the Net also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards— ‘positive reinforcements,’ in psychological terms—which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions. When we click a link, we get something new to look at and evaluate. When we Google a keyword, we receive, in the blink of an eye, a list of interesting information to appraise. When we send a text or an instant message or an email, we often in get a reply in a matter of seconds or minutes….The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”

Far from solving the problems introduced by television, the Internet exacerbates them. Indeed, “the Net commands our attention with far greater insistency than our television or radio or morning newspaper ever did.” But, it “seizes our attention only to scatter it”. It “returns us to our native state of bottom-up distractedness, while presenting us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to contend with.” And this state of distraction prevents us from engaging in deep thinking, creativity, or even basic human empathy and compassion.

Though the Internet provides us with more information than ever, it provides it in a way that virtually guarantees that it will never get translated into deep understanding. For, Carr observes that, to truly grasp the import of a subject matter, we need to be able retain it in long term memory, since our overall cognitive schemas, the frameworks that allow us to rationally relate various bits of information to one another, exist only therein. But, because we are flooded with information, our minds are overwhelmed, and welter of data never makes it from working memory into long term memory. Carr explains:

“Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas. With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We’re able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.”

When we read on the web, not only is our attention divided between various items on the screen, but these items are also constantly calling for us to make judgments. Should I follow this link or not? Should I click that tab or not? Should I read the new email in my inbox that just sent a notification? This means that our mind, instead of focusing on the content of the text, rapidly multitasks between various operations.

“The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeting sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information. Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us—our brains are quick—but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently.”

And this has been confirmed by eye tracking studies demonstrating that the kind of ‘reading’ done online is different than the focused line by line reading of a printed page. “Readers” online, merely skim, tracing out roughly the shape of an “F”. Reading the first line or so and then skimming for keywords. As a result, when one researcher was asked how people read on the Net, he replied “they don’t.” Worse yet, this form of “reading” has even permeated academic research as it has been displaced online. Such cursory reading cultivates superficial thought and a deference to accepted opinion (#follow the science). The more we multitask, the less we can, as Kant urged, use our own understanding without the external guidance of another. The distracted scholar is “more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought.” And again, “automated information-filtering tools, such as search engines, tend to serve as amplifiers of popularity, quickly establishing and then continually reinforcing a consensus about what information is important and what isn’t. The ease of following hyperlinks, moreover, leads online researchers to ‘bypass many of the marginally related articles that print researchers’ would routinely skim as they flipped through the pages of a journal or book. The quicker the scholars are able to ‘find prevailing opinion’… the more likely they are ‘to follow it, leading to more citations referencing fewer articles.’” If, then, we want to think deeply and undertake the traditional practice of philosophy, we must find a way to unplug our televisions and extricate ourselves from the Net ensnaring us. For, if we do not, we will continue to “train our brains to pay attention to crap” and “the consequences for our intellectual lives may prove ‘deadly’”, both on an individual and cultural level. At his trial, Socrates once contended that the unexamined life is not worth living. If, as Postman and Carr have argued, our current media world renders thoughtful examination impossible, what should we say about the value of the life lived within its digital walls?

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is Holbein’s The Ambassadors and is in the public domain. It can be found here:]

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