Does reading online make you dumber?

There is a theory, discussed at length in the Guardian, that those who read a lot online are reading books less and becoming stupider. I just don’t buy that (though, considering the way standards are falling at the Guardian there might be a grain of truth).

I read a lot online – I also write a lot. None of that has changed my offline reading habits one iota, and I deeply resent the suggestion that I’m getting dumber simply because I read a lot online.

It has, though, changed how I write, particularly in terms of shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs –- simply because they are easier to read on-screen than a great slab of text**. That, though, while making it more accessible, has not diminished the quality of content (he said, modestly!).

** I stumbled upon a blog a couple of weeks ago, written by a guy who seemed never to have heard of paragraphs – it was horrendous.

Unlike some people, though, who print stuff out to read, I tend to read on-screen – if I print something out it’s liable to be set aside and forgotten. Plus, I find a bunch of A4 pages, stapled together, irritating to read. Mind you, I’ve avoided the curse of the wide-screen monitor (incessant scrolling), by buying one with a 4:3 aspect ratio (think pre flat-screen TV), which makes on-screen reading much easier – it’s also the same aspect ratio as my d-SLR, enabling better photo presentation.

Technology sage Nicholas Carr (the Guardian’s description), believes that “our hyperactive online habits are damaging the mental faculties we need to process and understand lengthy textual information,” along with much else but, oddly, he seems to believe himself immune to this. So, if him, why not others? And why does he make a connection between being online and being hyperactive? I’m sure as hell not.

If reading online actually is making people stupider (and a couple of generations ago, TV was in the dock on that charge and, more recently, video games), I suspect the people deemed to be affected were, perhaps, intellectually compromised to begin with (Homo Facebooki, anyone?).

I abandoned my Facebook account about a year ago, because it’s such a massive torrent of trivia and pointless drivel, and I have no desire whatsoever to interact with a seemingly endless stream of total strangers who want to be my “friend”. Facebook offers me nothing I can’t do by email, text, or even the telephone – the urge to engage with virtual farms, or mafia wars, or any other components of the endless stream of total crap that flows through Facebook is zero.

NB: I know some disabled people who find Facebook invaluable for maintaining contact with the world at large, but they are a minority.

Likewise Twitter. Yes, it can produce benefits – the Trafigura affair, for example – but what Twitter wants us to do is record the minutiae of our lives, and for the most part that’s just mind-rottingly dull for anyone except those who are so self-obsessed they think people actually care. I have a Twitter account, I admit, but it serves as an outlet for my blog, not as a medium for communication. I can think only rarely of anything useful I want to say in 140 characters or fewer (you might have noticed ;) ).

There may be, I think, certain aspects of reading on the Internet that aid in the dumbing-down of society as a whole – and I’d be inclined to put Facebook and Twitter in the frame (as, indeed, do others) – but I don’t think you can extrapolate from that and claim, categorically, that books are good and the Internet is bad. The argument is fallacious. Both have their place in any normal person’s life.

My personal view, though, is that such massively-sweeping generalisations should always be viewed with suspicion. One academic – a believer – complains that he has had to shorten his students’ reading lists of late – how one makes the leap from that to claiming that then Internet makes people dumber, I have no idea. Perhaps students, in general, are becoming unwilling to spend their evenings slaving over books? Perhaps the prof’s reading lists have been too long in the past? Or – possibly more likely – more students need to have part-time jobs these days, which eats into study time? Who knows? Nobody seems to have asked the students.

Looking back over the two and a bit years I’ve been writing this blog – and, in consequence, reading a hell of a lot online – neither my reading nor my book-buying habits have changed over that period. It’s quite likely that, for most people, this is also true. Simply because some people might be intellectually impaired by how they use the Internet (though there seems to be no research to support that, just opinion), it does not mean that anyone should ramp that up into an all-embracing theory – it doesn’t work that way.

Let me sum this up with a personal anecdote. Two years ago, I became convinced I was showing signs of early-onset dementia – all the classic signs were there, though the normal tests for diagnosis were a walk-over (personally, I feel that a person would have to be severely impaired to fail those tests, they are so simplistic). So I applied myself to my blog – in a frantic bout of use it or lose it – and I wrote, and researched, a huge amount, often publishing 3 or more posts a day (and not everything I wrote made the cut).

That was when my blog became more focused on COPD, disability and benefits, something – the COPD work in particular – which has brought me a small collection of accolades and, last week, a request for permission to republish one of my posts in an academic publication.

More importantly, it pushed back the clouds of what I’d thought was incipient dementia (I’m not entirely convinced I was wrong), to the extent that I am functioning better, mentally, than I was previously. I still can’t hold a conversation without losing words**, or forgetting what I’m saying, but I believe that’s a part of my ME/CFS, and has been for a long time.

I have a “dead zone” (pace, Stephen King), into which words – even entire concepts – disappear. They come back, sometimes after a few minutes, but it can take days, or weeks, sometimes (you can see this in some of my posts, where there seems to be an overuse of one particular adjective, for example – it’s because other are hiding).

So, what does that do to Carr’s ideas? Obviously, I can’t apply my experience to the wider population, but – aside from the fine detail – I have no reason to suppose my experience is unique. I’m not saying I’m more intelligent than I was previously, but I am certainly making better use of my faculties, and that is entirely due to reading – and writing – online.

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4 thoughts on “Does reading online make you dumber?

  1. Any article that justifies its existence by claiming ‘An increasing number of experts say…’ arouses my immediate suspicion. How skimming and scanning online text can in any way impair a person’s intellectual abilities is beyond me. Let’s not forget that most of the stuff out there in the ether (including on newspaper sites) is drivel, and therefore not worthy of full attention. Sussing that out and moving on quickly is an invaluable intellectual skill, I’d say.x

  2. To the contrary of Mr Carr’s perusal,I’d say as you Ron that my comp.has given me more knowledge than I would otherwise have gleaned from reading papers etc.

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