Thursday, August 07, 2008

Is the Internet Rotting Our Brains?

On another blog, I recently encountered a link to an article promulgating the familiar complaint that the Internet has undermined our ability to read complex material. The author of the article says his capacity for “deep reading” and focusing on long books has degraded since he began heavily using the Internet. I haven’t experienced that problem myself (nor had most of the people who posted comments in response on the other blog). I spend an hour or two online almost every day and continue to read three or four print books in an average week. (Any loss of concentration and retention can be attributed to my age; I’m still waiting for that “post-menopausal zest” I was promised.) Doom-mongers have been warning for decades that modern technology has shortened children’s attention spans. TV was getting blamed for that effect long before the Internet existed.

Now, I can concede that electronic media might have different effects on us middle-aged late adopters and young people who’ve grown up with those media. On the other hand, though, the author of EVERYTHING BAD IS GOOD FOR YOU maintains that contemporary television demands more intellectual effort than previous generations of TV programs did, because of the need to follow numerous characters and multiple, complex plot threads extending over an entire season (or more). So we might contend that the new media require just as much mental focus as the old, but of a different kind. Moreover, the popularity of such works as the Harry Potter series and, currently, Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” YA vampire series demonstrates that young readers haven’t lost the ability to absorb long, complex books.

What about the effect of computers on writing? I’ve seen it claimed that computers encourage sloppy writing because text appears in continuous scrolling rather than discrete pages. (As if the screen couldn’t be set up to show page breaks!) Also, some editors gripe that word processing makes it too easy to write, and to accept the result as polished because it looks good on the screen, and therefore authors are more likely to submit work that isn’t ready for public view. Personally, I believe computers have improved my writing significantly, for one main reason: It’s so much easier to revise than on a typewriter. I don’t have to consider whether a small change is worth retyping an entire page, and if a large rewrite becomes necessary, chunks of text can be painlessly moved.

If you belong to a pre-computer generation, has the new technology changed your reading and writing habits? If so, for better or worse?


  1. It can rot the brain, just like Twinkies can rot your teeth if that's all you eat. If parents read out loud to their children from the womb or adoption placement, their children will grow up avid readers whose time on the computer will be in healthy balance.

    P.S. Everyone pop over to for Linnea Sinclair's Cyber-Launch Party all day today, August 7th.

  2. Anonymous4:03 PM EDT

    I'm not of a pre-computer generation, but I use good old tree-tech a lot. I think differently on paper versus screen, so when I write or edit I iterate between longhand and typing.

    I'm currently experimenting with reading ebooks, and I find that it's not the medium but the screen size that changes my reading style. I read differently when all I can see is a small text fragment (as on an iPhone). I much prefer to interact with the text in chunks at least a conventional "page" long. The Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle are large enough to allow whole-page reading, but paper books and full-size monitors are still the only ways to see two pages of text at a time.