Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Internet vs. Literacy

As I sit here with my plastic container of left-overs before me, writing a blog post instead of finding somewhere to cozy up with a my copy of Vanity Fair, it is perhaps doubly ironic to write about how the internet and literacy interact. It has, however, been on my mind lately, because it's quite clear to me that the constant availability of the internet has significantly changed my habits, especially at work, and I'm not entirely sure if that's a good thing.

Back when I was first working full time, I'd generally take a book with me that I would read over lunch, and perhaps during a 10-20 minute break in the late afternoon. Half the time I didn't actually get around to reading the book, since if people were around I'd generally talk to them instead. But it was certainly relaxing and humanizing to have the brief mental exercise of reading something good instead of working on whatever I was doing. I tended to make a specific effort to pick slower paced, more intellectual books (whether fiction or non) to read at work, in part to make it more of a change from what I was doing otherwise, and in part because taking a page-turning piece of light fiction is a good way to make yourself want to massively overstay your break.

I still generally have some good reading material in the side pocket of my laptop case, but it doesn't see as much use now. I tend to read around the internet in short little blocks between tasks or during dull meetings. And since I know I spent a cumulative hour or more fooling about on the internet during the 9-10 hours that I am at work, I don't really feel I ought to go off and read as well.

Occasionally I do go take a lunch with myself, and read for 30-60 minutes over a meal. It's always relaxing when I do, but one can't afford to do such things every day -- either as a matter of time or a matter of money.

Thus, hour by hour, I probably spend more time rapidly clicking around the internet and reading in short spurts (seldom more than five minutes) than I do actually sitting down and turning the pages of a worthwhile book. Over the years, I've begun to notice that this has altered my work habits a bit, in that I like to have 2-3 tasks going simultaneously in different windows at a given time, and flip rapidly back and forth. Or if I have a task that doesn't absorb absolutely 100% of my attention, I find myself wanting some sort of additional intellectual input, whether good music or an audio book, or an article which I read a few paragraphs of after every five or ten minutes of working.

The internet, in short, (when used as a means of doing reading in dribs and drabs while working) encourages a sort of ADD approach to learning and reading -- and steers one towards the sort of reading matter that fits well with that sort of approach. In other words, nothing too complex or stylized. Don't bother trying to read John Henry Newman by this method. Don't try an economist like F. A. Hayek or a serious essayist like Samuel Johnson. Literary fiction? Poetry? Not a chance. Internet reading, especially at work, is to serious reading from a book what eating potato chips out of the bag is to sitting down to a five course dinner. You may get the same number of calories in the end, but both the experience and what you consume are quite different.

That's not to say that it's worthless reading. The internet makes it possible to interact with other people of like interests to an extent not possible before -- unless you were one of those 19th century wealthy gentlemen who was always going down to his club and his academic societies. And frankly, given the amount of time that work consumes, if I wasn't able to multi-task and follow the news while at work, I probably wouldn't have the opportunity to remain very well informed. Once I get home in the evening, reading is generally off the table until the kids are in bed. And then it is available only at the expense of not taking the opportunity to talk with my wife. Perhaps five to ten pages in bed before falling asleep. Little more.

And yet, at times I wonder if my habit of working an hour or so of recreation reading into the workday, in the background via the internet, simply results in my spending more time at work, and thus having less time to do more serious reading elsewhere. And even if it is the only way that reading can be worked into the day, it does seem that after a while this practice must fundamentally shift one's intellectual habits.

Addendum from MrsDarwin: Today's WSJ has a book review of Distracted, which deals with this very topic.

In the workplace, a distracted knowledge worker is a fallow asset. Thus current research into worker habits is especially valuable. In the spirit of Fredrick W. Taylor's scientific management, Ms. Jackson reports, researchers have found that workers "typically change tasks every three minutes" and "take about twenty-five minutes to return to an interrupted task . . . usually plugging into two other work projects in the interim." By one estimate, "interruptions take up to 2.1 hours of an average worker's day and cost the US economy $588 billion a year." Many distractions turn out to be self-initiated: It appears that we just can't wait to read the next email or blog entry or check to see what might be happening in an online discussion.

Ms. Jackson, a working mother and columnist on work-life balance, has a keen eye for the fractured dynamics of family life. One of the pursuits from which we are distracted, she finds, is the home-cooked meal, a ritual that used to focus a lot of family attention. Today, though, "food is fuel," and not very good fuel at that. "Just 47 percent of in-home meals," Ms. Jackson notes, "contain a 'fresh' item, such as a vegetable." Television may be the culprit, distracting adults not only from the kitchen but also from their kids: Researchers have found that when a TV is running in the background, parents interact with their children 20% less than they otherwise would and are likelier to give passive responses to whatever their children are doing or saying.

I'm particularly interested in the book's discussion of how the ability to delay gratification is more indicative of future success than high IQ:
Martin Seligman and Angela Lee Duckworth, two psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania, recently adapted a famous experiment that tested the willingness of young children to defer gratification: If you put them in a room with some prize – a toy, a marshmallow, an envelope full of money – will they take the prize immediately or hold out for a greater future reward?

Mr. Seligman and Ms. Duckworth turned their attention to eighth-graders, surveying the students about their habits and drawing on the reports of teachers and parents as well. They found that students' purported level of self-control – their willingness to delay gratification – proved "twice as predictive as IQ" when it came to "final grades, selection into a competitive high school, hours spent doing homework, hours spent not watching television, and time of day at which homework was begun." Yet for every article about self-discipline and academic achievement in the PsychInfo database, an online exchange for research papers, there are more than 10 about achievement and intelligence.


TS said...

Very true, I can relate to this post much. (I'd say more but I'm trying to do something in the background.)

Seriously, the thing I try to do, albeit only occasionally successfully, is be disciplined about setting aside a great span of time on Sunday in which to read. On Monday and Tuesday (at least) I feel about 50% smarter.

(Btw, I usually can tell immediately Mrs. Darwin's posts from Mr. Darwin's, but the Vanity Fair reference threw me.)

Darwin said...

That would be the Thackeray novel, not the fashion magazine...

mrsdarwin said...

You'll recall that while Darwin reads Vanity Fair, I was wallowing in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

I do read Vanity Fair over his shoulder sometimes, which I'm sure is highly annoying.

TS said...

That would be the Thackeray novel

Ah, that makes sense. :-)

Rick Lugari said...

I do read Vanity Fair over his shoulder sometimes, which I'm sure is highly annoying.

It is. Try just rubbing his feet or getting him another beer.


Kyle Cupp said...

Sorry, Darwin, couldn't finish your post. After two paragraphs online, I'm ready click or scroll.

Seriously, I love blogging, and it's undoubtedly good for me to be writing, but I don't read nearly as many books as I used to.

Patrick Braga-Henebry said...

I don't know if your mentioning it is related, but this same topic has been going around the tech blogosphere for a bit now, spurred on by Nick Carr's article in the Atlantic on the topic.

I've noticed myself thinking of Google Reader as an endless magazine. I'll often either skip long-form pieces if I'm not interested, or save them for later, when I'm in a different reading mode. I find myself trying to race down the screen; maybe it's a byproduct of a scrolling medium versus a page-turning medium.

Example: this post. I knew I wanted to respond to it, but didn't want to interrupt my quick-scan of the headlines, so I saved it until I was done with the headlines (and not at work)

Multitasking also comes into play: I usually have many tabs open: articles, tasks, email, and regularly switch between them.