Cutting through the Internet’s Clutter

Student on the Internet Ashford University

Have you ever wondered how hours can go by in what feels like minutes when you’re surfing the web? How you can follow a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of links from Facebook to a news article to a video to a blog and back again, yet are unable to recall much of anything after you finally manage to step away from your computer (or your smartphone or tablet)? With bleary eyes and a slight headache, you realize you just ate up the two hours you were going to spend reading your textbook or completing a paper.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (and its predecessor on Atlantic.com) explored the sometimes disturbing reasons behind this phenomenon, and other books with similar themes like You are Not a Gadget, Hamlet’s Blackberry, Overconnected, The Net Delusion, and Alone Together have since followed suit.

Although the Internet and online tools have inarguably made life more convenient in many ways, Carr asserts they also have negative neurological consequences everyone must be aware of. The book’s title refers to the way he believes these tools encourage us to think: on a more shallow surface level rather than deeply, contemplatively, and critically.

While online, “small, rapidly dispensed pieces of information” and “never ending ‘stream[s]’ of ‘real-time updates’” constantly distract us, leading us to believe there is always something better just a click away. Friendly software also makes it so that not only do we not have to worry about spelling, we only have to enter the first letter or two of a word and then choose from suggestions. And although GPS makes it so we’ll never again be lost, many of us can no longer get around without it.

This dependence is because, as Carr points out throughout the book, neglected neural pathways in our brain simultaneously weaken as new ones are formed; “we gain new skills or perspectives but lose old ones.”

Plus, lest we forget, the Internet is ultimately designed to make a profit. Although we benefit from its fantastic search engine, Google’s main business is selling and distributing ads. Therefore, most websites are laid out in a way that supports this goal, and more clicks mean more money. “The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought,” says Carr.

Sure, this idea might not be a problem for someone with free time surfing the web, but those using the internet as a learning environment, including the millions taking courses online, will need to find online tools and develop habits to better accommodate a more reflective and critical style of thinking in order to come away with knowledge that will stick.

Online learners in particular should also be aware of a study Carr writes about that was conducted by sociologist James Evans, who analyzed the citations of articles published in academic journals from 1945 to 2005. Although it would make sense to assume that the articles written since the invention of the web would include a greater variety of citations from one another, the results showed the opposite to be true: many of the same citations are now being used across the board because most of us ultimately get the same top results when we search online for something, and most don’t go much further than that. Although it may feel we are in control when we search online, we are actually being directed to the most popular and recent information – perhaps even, as Carr puts it, “following a script.”

So what’s an online learner to do? As an online MBA student myself, here are my resolutions after reading this book (which I came to using critical thinking!):

  1. Use tools like Evernote Clearly, which eliminates distracting ads and links and makes it easier to focus when reading articles online.
  2. Dig deeper when searching for sources. If you use Google, check out the Search Tips and Tricks. Use research based search services provided by your school. You can even go offline and work with librarians at the library.
  3. Accept that you can never possibly read or watch everything you’d like to on the Internet. There is always going to be another link beckoning you to open it – but installing Instapaper’s “Read Later” bookmarklet allows you to save it for later and continue to focus on what you’re doing.
  4. When it’s time to study, turn off your email and phone so you don’t get distracted – and by all means, stay off Facebook and Twitter until you’re done.

Happy studies!

Written By: Lorelei Plotczyk
Lorelei is a regular contributor to the Ashford University blog.

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