You probably shouldn't read this article

You probably shouldn't read this article

CultureDecember 22, 2016 By Brian Frederick

The sporadic nature of the Internet forces us to process everything differently, and its influence is pushing everyone into a place where we don’t belong.

We read more now than at any time throughout our rich history. Street signs, price tags, status updates, news, text messages … words are everywhere. They’re practically inescapable. Despite this, what we are reading is generally worthless and falls short of enriching our lives in any calculable way.

For that we mostly have the Internet to blame. It’s not only bombarding everyone with mindless filler, but it’s also physically altering the way our brain works to keep up. Spoiler alert: We’re hardly in control of our own mental capacities. The online culture is changing us — and the future implications are alarming scientists.

Up until the 1970s, most everyone believed our brains to be hard-wired; or whenever a neural pathway (how our brains talk to our body) was naturally created, it stuck. But through ongoing advances in scanning technologies and specific studies observing the mind, the theory of neuroplasticity (a plastic brain!) was proven. We now know everyone has the ability to alter their brain patterns with repetition and focused stimuli.

What this means is that teaching old dogs new tricks isn’t only possible, it’s actually the norm. Because while we do get stuck in habits and repetition as humans, directing efforts to realign the neural pathways that enact them happen all the time — even when we don’t manage it on purpose. The brain is always adapting to its environment.

This is where cognitive neuroscientists are getting worried. Because of the Internet, our brains appear to be evolving into digitally manipulated orbs of new circuits built to process the chaotically strewn information online. Our old way of reading deeply is taking a backseat to the new format.

In the grand scheme of things, the Internet is a young lad. Some millennials never spoke on cordless phones growing up, and certainly never had the ability to talk to anyone, at any time, throughout the day on a pocket-sized device. Researching at the library was the world’s Google, a pocket-full of change was communication, and time was something no one really paid attention to — lest the streetlight blinked on and everyone had to book ass home before mom got pissed.

Now everyone is attached constantly. Knowledge, communication, entertainment: An entire life structure is all right there in linty little pockets. At. All. Times. Some think of it as a blessing, to be so interconnected; others feel the whirlwind is ruining everything unique about us and will eventually rip away certain facets of humanity.

Author Nicholas Carr analyzes the effects the Web has in his book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains — a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. He says we’re losing our ability to attentively read and critically process information. To fill the void, we replace important skills with obsessively clicking to whatever links are at our disposal and scan pages for simple buzzwords or “good enough” results for instant gratification.

He notes, through outlining various scientific studies, that when we read on the Internet, we’re forced to be distracted. It’s how the system is built after all; to pull us away from what we’re doing and click on something else to satisfy a hunger for visit numbers via ad placement. The constant scrolling and clicking is molding us to be nothing more than lab rats sitting on a button for treats. And while the distracted practice becomes the norm, our control over old habits of deep reading are being pushed to the side.

“The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing,” says Carr. “It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.“

  • On average, users only read 20% of an article’s text online.

  • 79% of users scan web pages, 16% read word-for-word.

  • 10 - 20 seconds is the normal length of time spent on one page. *

When we were told to read before, we’d pick up a book, flip its every page and run our eyes across the spread word for word, line by line, until we were done. This is known as linear reading. Point A to Point B. What we do now, however, is considered to be the complete opposite, or non-linear reading. Our attention runs up, down, left, hyperlink, up again, now down, new tab, new page, christ another email … overload!

Carr describes this type of intake as an open faucet blasting information into a tiny thimble. The thimble desperately tries to haul its contents to the brain for storage, but simply can’t keep up. The flow is our “cognitive load” — or the necessary information to be stored in our long-term memory to develop and decipher complex ideas. Once the cognitive load is put on blast, it’s useless.

“Experiments indicate that as we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise,” says Carr. “We become mindless consumers of data.”

Mindless as we are, consuming the data isn’t exactly what we do with our time online, either. In Slate.com's article titled You Won’t Finish This Article, writer Farhad Manjoo compares the site’s social media share numbers to some of its more popular pieces.

As it turns out, most of the site’s readers hardly scroll past a few hundred words before they begin sharing, and an extremely small amount actually get to the end of the writing. “Both at Slate and across the Web,” says Manjoo, “articles that get a lot of tweets don’t necessarily get read very deeply. Articles that get read deeply aren’t necessarily generating a lot of tweets.”

What that type of landscape does to journalism — easily one of the most abundant written forms on the Internet — is that it expects the headlines and first few paragraphs to be more important than the explanation therein. So long as someone agrees with the overall gist of a piece — developed in a short and often bait-like title — they share it online to build their electronic reputation and move on.

And who wants to be left out of the happy circle of sharing? If a story mildly pertains to someone’s life it will inevitably be linked to their own personalized list. People want others to know who they are and what they’re about. Forget looking it over first, because trusting Jeannie is a part of them; if Jeannie shares it, they’re going to share it, too. Besides: Too long; didn’t read.

It’s why lists and blurbs and nostalgic photo galleries are what rake in the massive numbers of clicks — and ad revenue — to online sites. Immediately sharing without deeply interpreting the content is easy. Taking time out of busy schedules to read for five minutes is difficult. Likewise, risk taking with written structures — as is also seen in contemporary music — becomes less sensible for content providers.

Does Buzzfeed, or any other site like it, really need a 10,000-word essay on the recruiting habits of ISIS, when 13 pictures of “hot man buns” will garner 10 times as many shares and clicks?

“As social concerns override literary ones,” says Carr, “writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style. Writing will become a means for recording chatter.”

The best writers in history would never be able to think up, develop, research, write and deliver a thoughtful piece in under an hour to keep up with the unrelenting pace of the Internet. That style of hurried journalism dilutes our understanding of topics. When watered-down articles go viral, they only become important because of popularity, not content. We’re inadvertently making dumb articles the basis of our historical footprint.

But we didn’t consciously make the choice to switch over to a reliance on technology — technology (and the businesses running it) chose to govern us. As a new and impressive platform crept into daily life, it made things wildly easier and slowly embedded itself into every possible facet of physical reality. Now there's hardly a distinction between the online sphere and what happens in the “real” world anymore.

Alcoholics are often told to take sobriety one day at a time. Release the crutches in small doses. Don’t look at the big picture. And if they ever want to start drinking again, booze will still be around, it’s not going anywhere. Just try it. The small moments of clarity away from addictions, however, can be all someone needs to alter a perception for a lifetime.

We can’t get rid of technology, and the Internet will always be around — it’s not going anywhere. But stepping away from it for moments of release to reacquaint with old habits may be the only thing that keeps us human. Skimming and scanning isn’t always a bad thing, but losing our ability to deeply process information is a debilitation we can’t afford.

Log off. Unplug. Step back. Breathe.

*Stats pulled from Nielsen Norman Group and Chartbeat