Sunday, April 29, 2012

Internet as fast food for the brain

Internet is fast food for the brain.

Content on the Internet is easily available, quickly consumed, providing an instant high, forgotten after a few minutes, but leaving you hooked and hungry after the effect has worn off.

I came across this epiphany of sorts today morning.  During my morning cup of tea, I was reading the latest Sunday column by SA Aiyar on India.  It was quite pessimistic, in effect asking the government to introduce reforms by stealth.  With the S&P downgrade of India's economic outlook, and a real risk of the rupee crashing, my thoughts wandered to investing in gold and whether it is a good hedge against India.

That's a topic for another post.

Immediately, as I thought of the gold market in India with its frauds, low acceptance of banks' gold offerings, the jewelery-shop scams, the VAT on gold, and so on, I became painfully conscious of my ignorance as a relative outsider.  I wondered if I could find an FAQ on buying gold in India, somewhere on the net.

Before I could proceed on the search, however, I reflected on what I was doing: I was searching for distilled wisdom, quick solutions, instead of spending years and learning the nuances of this particular domain.  In effect, I was aiming to be an expert without wanting to spend the effort.

As I reflected more widely on this, I realized that that's what FAQs do: They make a neophyte feel like an experienced fellow with years of experience, one who is aware of the common issues and gotchas.

They lead to a "cognitive high" without the "cognitive roughage".  They give you a fast effect (akin to the insulin high), without the cooking or digestive effort.

As I reflected even more, I realized that the cycle of attention deficit leading to quick punch-lines and shorter/easy-to-digest articles/videos leading to even shorter attention spans is a vicious cycle which is going to be extremely hard to break.  Unless you realize this malady in yourself and in the environment.

A photo on FB is a quick social attention winner, an aphorism the next best, a small article/anecdote is next, and a "ten best list" etc. is still readable.  But share a long, carefully argued article and you might as well have no audience at all: who has the time and the mental space?

In recent years, there is an increased occurrence of the "tl;dr" phenomenon.  For the uninitiated, the phrase means "too long; didn't read".  In amateur writing or forum posts, when the writer is aware that a long article is going to bore/stress the reader and compete with other juicy stuff competing for the reader's attention, the writer provides a very short summary at the end of the post: The tl;dr.  In effect, it indicates: "I understand you are pressed for time, but I want your attention too.  Maybe your interest will be aroused after you read the summary."

Familiarity with a subject that is gained after months or years of study is quite different from the one gained after reading a list of FAQs.  Which kind of familiarity is the Internet encouraging?

After going through a few sites on the Internet, am I going to be a knowledgeable gold investor, or one who merely THINKS he is a knowledgeable gold investor?  Sure, maybe I will avoid a few common pitfalls, and that may make me feel smart, but that is not the same as being intimately familiar with this field.

I've heard that doctors are complaining about their patients having an excess of superficial, or just wrong, information from the Internet after they try to find out more about their "symptoms".  Let's leave aside the diagnosis.  The fact is, in most cases people are wrong even about the symptoms.  They are unable to distinguish between an abdominal pain and a pain in their appendix, between heartburn and a heart attack.

A long, carefully written article, or a long educational video (TED lectures generally limit themselves to 18 minutes) are going to lose in the battle for attention.  Newspapers, which have an online presence, are dumbing down their content to attract more Internet readers.

One of the main features of the Internet, compared to traditional media, is "choice" and "availability".  If you got a newspaper at home and that was your only world-news input for 24 hours, you might find yourself browsing through the editorial page as well.  But Internet, like cable TV, offers you instant choices through-out the day.  Why will someone ever switch to a one-hour lecture on TV, or to a three-thousand-word essay on the Internet?  Even the availability of Internet at home means there is immediately a RELATIVELY lower incentive to read a long novel or an editorial essay.  Why not just log on to Facebook and see what latest gossip is going on?  For most people, it requires a great deal of will-power and focus to do otherwise.

Even if you're interested in a topic, I'm saying, Internet works against your gaining an in-depth knowledge about it.

The very syntax of web pages, the central feature of HTML, the language of the internet, prevents an in-depth study.

The one difference, and I think one of the most important, between Britannica and Wikipedia is that while reading the latter, you are constantly urged (via hyper-links) to click and read something else.  Holy hell it is distracting!  I think it might be useful to read Wikipedia with all hyperlinks converted to plain-text, but then again, maybe not.  Wikipedia wants its articles to be narrowly focused and not too long.

Wikipedia articles, say about Democracy,  ask you to read another article (in this case, Criticisms of Democracy), if you are interested about a nuance, whereas Britannica would probably include the other article within the main one.

Too much choice is always going to lead to people choosing the pleasant over the insightful.  A veiled distraction is always going to attract a click, compared to a long article for which the pay-off is still far off.

The brain will get fat with all this fast-food like content, and like an overweight body, unable to hike or trek to a meaningful discussion, but only wanting more of the same.


Anonymous said...

I think, a lot depends on the reader himself. If I am focussed, it helps me achieve many things. For example, it doesnt replace an expert, but it helps me to check someone take me for a ride - be it a doctor, a lawyer, etc. etc. Of course, as you rightly pointed out, it helps me to avoid many common pitfalls.

If I were to use some jargon, the net helps in breaking some "information assymetry", in many cases.

One thing, which I try to be careful about is that the most "liked" or the most "viewed" thing may not necessarily be the most "correct" thing. If I keep it my mind, the net helps me a lot.

yours truly.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who mistakes words for knowledge is bound to have a thick fat brain (heard of the term "bookish knowledge"?)

Knowledge goes beyond the word - you need to go under the surface to get to the root too. This means you have to dig deep to understand.

Whether the word is from the internet or a book unless one understands the action associated with the word - As Rajaji said - "such knowledge is useless tinsel".

Yes you have a point - the internet has made access to words too easy. So one hears a lot of jargon being thrown around in conversations and people often mistake that for knowledge. To get knowledge you still have to dig deep - the deeper you dig more knowledgeablw you'll be - if you can dig beyond the word itself then..........................................

Sridhar said...

Your comment about Wikipedia and the tangents it leads one on was spot-on. As much as I love the wide and varied information that I have at my fingertips with the internet and smartphones, I often turn to the good old book (fiction or non-fiction) for reading pleasure. Depth versus variety.

I think this quote by Jonathan Franzen is quite relevant - "It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction".

Anonymous said...

If Facebook existed during Galileo’s time, his post may have read: “Nicolaus Copernicus is right…Sun at centre of solar system. Ooops, forgot to un-friend Pope.” Galileo would have got one ‘like’ from Copernicus and endless torrent of invective from powerful dogmatists, who would have imposed themselves on Galileo’s friends’ list.

Unknown said...

Like all technology, the internet is a tool—and the usage is up to the wielder.

Time-management writer Merlin Mann says similar things about those who think they're an expert after reading a wikipedia page on a given topic. They're stuck at the "advanced beginner" stage—people who think they know more than they actually do. Who knows the most about karate? A green-belt. Just ask him/her.

Humans are weak-willed and need constant reminders (just based on my own experience). The more we think of the internet as a tool and less of an cure-all entertainment device, the better we can control our lazy tendancies. Or perhaps we can use a constant-reminder app that takes-over the screen asking "Is this how you really want to spend your time?" periodically.

In short: more books, less wikipedia/lists/etc.

"We procrastinate when we've forgotten who we are." —Merlin Mann