Is the Internet dividing our attention? Are we so buried in technology that we ignore one another? The technology writer discusses the history and implications of the information age, from the mechanical clock to the iPhone
Let me begin by asking about this term ‘the information age’, which is bandied about as the successor, I suppose, to the industrial age. What precisely does it mean?
I’m not sure it means anything precisely. It’s a term we use in a vague fashion to get across that information has become in many ways the most important commodity in society. Many people’s work today consists of manipulating or otherwise processing information. Our media are constantly bombarding us with information, in the form of entertainment and news of various sorts. The term ‘information age’ gets across our sense that we’re engulfed in information in a way that is very different from anything that’s come before.
And what is this age we’re in enabled by? What were the catalysts?
The most important catalyst is technology, just as technology in a different form was the catalyst for the industrial revolution. In this case it dates back over 100 years to the development of the phonograph, telegraph and telephone, then later the radio, television, computers and most recently the Internet. These technologies allowed us to store and transmit information in more forms and at higher speeds than we were able to before.
“The term ‘information age’ gets across our sense that we’re engulfed in information in a way that is very different from anything that’s come before.”
I think it’s pretty clear that humans have a natural inclination, even compulsion, to seek out information. We want not only to be entertained but to know everything that is going on around us. And so as these different mass media have proliferated, we’ve gone along with the technology and consumed – to put an ugly term on it – more information.
Why do you think “consumed” is an ugly term?
I think it’s an ugly term when applied to information. When you talk about consuming information you are talking about information as a commodity, rather than information as the substance of our thoughts and our communications with other people. To talk about consuming it, I think you lose a deeper sense of information as a carrier of meaning and emotion – the matter of intimate intellectual and social exchange between human beings. It becomes more of a product, a good, a commodity.
You discuss other ramifications – ill effects, even – of the information age and the net specifically in your book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.
In The Shallows I argue that the Internet fundamentally encourages very rapid gathering of small bits of information – the skimming and scanning of information to quickly get the basic gist of it. What it discourages are therefore the ways of thinking that require greater attentiveness and concentration, everything from contemplation to reflection to deep reading.
The Internet is a hypertext system, which means that it puts lots of links in a text. These links are valuable to us because they allow us to go very quickly between one bit of information and another. But there are studies that compare what happens when a person reads a printed page of text versus when you put links into that text. Even though we may not be conscious of it, a link represents a little distraction, a little division of attention. You can see in the evidence that reading comprehension goes down with hypertext versus plaintext.
The Internet also is the most powerful multimedia technology ever invented. We get information not in one form but in many forms at once – text, sound, animation, images, moving pictures – whereas in the past you had to use different tools to get information in different forms. And it’s an interactive technology, incredibly good at sending messages and alerts. So as we read or take in information in other forms, we also tend to be bombarded by messages that are of interest to us – emails, texts, tweets, Facebook updates and so forth.
So you believe the ‘link economy’ and suchlike leads to attention deficit?
I think that all of those qualities of the net encourage the division of attention, and an almost compulsive gathering of information very quickly. We’ve always skimmed and scanned in some areas of our intellectual lives, and that’s an important capability. But as we begin to carry the Internet with us every day – with the proliferation of first laptops and now smartphones and tablets – I think it is influencing the very way in which we think.
We are losing the balance of our thinking in this constant bombardment of information – those times when we can screen out distractions and spend time concentrating on one thing, or engaging in open-ended contemplation, reflection or introspection. Those qualities of thought, up until recently, were considered the highest and most characteristically human forms of thought. But we seem to be quite happy to throw them overboard in return for the many benefits of our online lives.
What are you basing these cognitive points on?
There is evidence from studies that indicates that we behave in a very mentally scattered way when we’re online. If you look at studies about the way people browse web pages, for instance, most people look at a page for 10 seconds or less, then click off to the next page. There are eye-tracking tests of how people read online, and it tends to be very cursory reading. Studies of email use show that we glance at our inbox something like 30 or 40 times an hour. Or you can see it in the explosion of text messages. The average American teenager today sends or receives well over 3,000 texts a month, which is about one text every six minutes during waking hours. And then there’s the streams of information on Facebook and Twitter.
There are cognitive costs to having this constant stream of interruptions and distractions, and a constant division of attention in perpetual multitasking. When you don’t pay attention you lose the cognitive benefits that come with that, namely the [increased] ability to form long-term memories or to weave information into high-level conceptual thoughts – rather than to simply Google everything and get it in discrete chunks. There is a loss here that until recently we’ve ignored because we have been so enamoured of the benefits of these technologies. The type of thinking that they encourage is, I think, a scattered, superficial and shallow way of thinking.
We might have to agree to disagree there. Certainly at
Five Books, we
like to think we’re expanding knowledge rather than scattering concentration.
There’s no doubt that one of the great benefits of the Internet is that it makes a whole lot more information easily accessible to us. But when our trains of thought are interrupted by constant distractions, it reduces our ability to comprehend and think critically about the information that we’re taking in. And for people who multitask online, their ability to distinguish important information from trivia seems to be reduced. What draws their eye is simply new information, important or unimportant.
“There are cognitive costs to having this constant stream of interruptions and distractions, and a constant division of attention in perpetual multitasking.”
I’m not arguing that the Internet is changing everyone’s habits completely, overnight. I think there is an important and large audience for longer works online. And I’m encouraged by the recent development of tools like Readability, Instapaper and Freedom – all ways to screen out distraction, focus attention and engage in deep reading. Part of me hopes that we will reshape the technology itself to encourage more contemplative and attentive types of thinking. But at the moment I think we would be right to be worried.
Well I certainly hope it’s us shaping the technology, not the technology shaping us.
It’s always both.
Let’s get back to the history of the information age with your first book selection, The Victorian Internet. Will you tell us about this, and the origins of our modern technologies with the telegraph?
The reason why I start with Tom Standage’s book is because we tend to think of the information age as something entirely new. In fact, people have been wrestling with information for many centuries. If I was going to say when the information age started, I would probably say the 15th century with the invention of the mechanical clock, which turned time into a measurable flow, and the printing press, which expanded our ability to tap into other kinds of thinking. The information age has been building ever since then.
Standage covers one very important milestone in that story, which is the building of the telegraph system in the 19th century. The telegraph was the first really efficient system for long-distance, almost instantaneous communication. It’s a short book, a very lively read, and it shows how this ability to throw one’s thoughts across the world changed all aspects of society. It certainly changed the business world. Suddenly you could coordinate a business not just in a local area, but across the country or across oceans. It had a lot of social implications too, as people didn’t have to wait for letters to come over the course of days. And as Standage points out, it inspired a lot of the same hopes and concerns that we have today with the Internet.
He even thinks the telegraph led to the greater changes in our society, because it was a qualitative shift whereas the Internet is a quantitative shift.
I’m not sure I agree with him there, in fact. The telegraph was the first time that humanity had to struggle with the implications of instantaneous long-distance communications, so it set the precedent for a lot of things that we have gone through since – not only the Internet but also radio, television and so forth. But ultimately there were limits to the telegraph. It was quite expensive, so it tended to be limited to high-priority messages, and because it was expensive they were very short. Only particular kinds of information could be exchanged efficiently through the telegraph. Certainly the Internet is a much broader information technology, and is having ultimately a greater effect than the telegraph did.
You mentioned mechanical clocks as the beginning of the information revolution – before we move on I know you also want to recommend Revolution in Time by David Landes.
This out-of-print book, about the introduction of the mechanical clock, is a fascinating story of the enormous effects that a new technology can have on society and the way that we think. It’s amazing just to think how recent in human history that breaking down of time into measurable units is. Landes dates the initial invention back to the 15th century. It emerged from monks, who needed to coordinate their schedule during the day because they wanted to have a rigorous timetable of prayer. They developed the mechanical clock so that they could break the day up to schedule precisely their devotions.
This was a time in history when people were moving from a purely agricultural economy to an urban, more industrial economy. And when people congregate in mills and factories, suddenly they have to coordinate their activities in a way they never had to before. So this technology quickly spread across cities. Pretty soon every town had a clocktower, or a church or town hall with a clock, and people would synchronise their activities in all sorts of ways, both for work and leisure. In a way that is similar to computers today, the clock shrank to being a personal device – in your home, in your palm, on your wrist. And suddenly it began to regiment our lives in a way that was very different to when we measured time in a more natural, cyclical manner.
Let’s take in some more of the history of the information age with James Gleick’s book The Information.
If Standage’s is a small book focused on a particular technology and moment in time, Gleick’s is extraordinarily broad and sweeping. It’s a very large book, in which he tries – and succeeds in many ways I think – to tell the story of information in human history. Information breaks down into two different things in essence. On the one hand it is messages – things with meaning to human beings – and on the other hand it is an abstract good without meaning which we have begun to industrialise, by which I mean figure out how to get more information across a distance more quickly and efficiently.
The book begins with African talking drums, a very early form of technology that transmitted information further than was possible with the human voice. It goes from there through every major new technology, as well as every major mathematical discovery that related to the processing of information, all the way up to computers and the Internet. He even looks at other aspects of life and society that we’re beginning to think about in informational terms – quantum physics, our genetic structure and so on.
Does he identify any broader trends within this history of progressing technology?
It’s a history, but it’s also the story of our shifting views of information. The main character in the book is an American electronic engineer called Claude Shannon [known as the ‘father of information theory’]. He was the first to separate information from meaning. He realised that information takes the form of some kind of code. And because codes can be studied mathematically, you can use different algorithms and formulae to compress information and transmit it more quickly.
That becomes, in the end, one of Gleick’s main thrusts – that information is no longer simply meaning, it has become a commodity. While the story that The Information tells is a celebration of human ingenuity, it also leaves you with the question of whether, by industrialising information, we may be sacrificing the richness of meaning and expression that can’t be measured in terms of efficiency and productivity. So the book ends on an ambivalent note.
As you say in your review of the book, “What information theorists call redundancy… is also the stuff of poetry.”
That’s right. One thing that Claude Shannon and other information scientists wanted to do was get rid of all the redundancy that’s inherent in human communication. But there’s a lot of good things in redundancy. Much of literature and art is all about redundancy, ambiguity and ambivalence. I certainly hope we won’t lose that as we think of language and communication as something that needs to be measured, and made more efficient.
What are your thoughts on the phrase ‘information overload’? The sense that there is simply too much stuff out there to process, so we get information paralysis.
Well, if you look at how many scrolls there were in the library of Alexandria there were far too many for one individual to read. For millennia there has been more information than you could take in. So you could argue that we’ve been struggling with information overload for a long time.
But not everyone was in Alexandria. Now we all are.
Two things have happened. One, we are constantly reminded that there is more information than we can take in, and two, the Internet exposes us to a constant flow of information that is of personal and immediate interest to us. That changes the nature of information overload from “I’m never going to have all the knowledge of the human race” to “I’m never going to read all these messages that relate to people I know, celebrities I follow, news stories that interest me”. Even at that level of the immediately intriguing and important, we can’t take all of it in.
“Information overload may not be new, but the nature of it has changed.”
I think that encourages this almost compulsive information gathering behaviour that many of us – myself included – fall prey to. And in order to take in as much as we can, we tend to shrink every piece of information. We quickly look across many headlines, email messages get shorter and shorter, then turn into texts and tweets. So information overload may not be new, but the nature of it has changed.
Clay Shirky famously said “it’s not information overload, it’s filter failure”.
I actually have a different view. I thought Clay Shirky’s talk was interesting, but I think that information overload has nothing to do with filter failure and everything to do with filter success. We have developed filters that are very good at bombarding us not with extraneous, uninteresting information but with information that is immediately pertinent to us. So I think we’re going to get more information overload with better filters, because there’s no limit to the information out there that is interesting to us.
What arguments does Tim Wu, who coined the term “network neutrality”, introduce in The Master Switch?
If The Information is a sprawling, sweeping story of how information has changed over time, one thing it doesn’t get into is the commercial nature of information as a good that is bought and sold. That’s the story Tim Wu tells in The Master Switch. His basic argument is that whenever a new communication medium arises, a similar pattern occurs. The technology starts off as a hobbyist’s passion, democratic and open. Then over time, as it becomes more popular, it starts to be dominated by corporate interests and becomes much more formalised, before eventually being displaced by a new technology.
You see this with radio, for instance. In the beginning, radio was very much a hobbyist’s technology. When people bought a radio back then it wasn’t just a receiver, it was a transmitter. People would both receive and transmit information through their radio – it was an early version of the blogosphere in some ways. Then dominant radio corporations come in, and suddenly radio isn’t a democratic tool for transmitting and receiving information, it’s purely for receiving. Tim Wu tells a series of stories like this, and television. All of that history is really a backdrop for a discussion of the Internet, which Wu suggests will likely follow the same cycle.
So far, I think we’ve seen that. When the World Wide Web appeared 20 years ago, there was all kinds of utopian, democratic rhetoric about how it was breaking the hold of big corporations over media and communications. You saw a huge explosion of personal websites. But over time you saw corporate interests begin to dominate the web – Google, Facebook and so on. If you look at how much time a user devotes to Facebook, it shows a consolidation and centralisation of web activity onto these large corporate sites.
I know you disagree with that cyber-utopian rhetoric.
Whenever a new technology comes along that changes the way people behave, you always have a utopian belief that it’s going to solve all kinds of problems, create harmony in society, cure wars, hatred and all the bad things. And on the other hand you have fear and alarmism. Some people have accused me of being in that camp – I hope I’m not too far over into it. But you have both reactions, and I think utopianism short-circuits our scepticism and our critical faculties. We don’t think clearly about both the negative and the positive effects.
What happens then – and this is also one of Wu’s points – is that we’re so enamoured of technology that we don’t see how it can be controlled or reshaped by governments and corporations, and we don’t try to shape the technology into something that serves our best interests over the long term. Because over the long term other people will shape it according to their own interests of profit maximisation or political ends. If we want the Internet to be best suited for us, then we need to actively resist those interests and get involved at a political level.
Do you agree with Evgeny Morozov’s writings about the Internet as a tool for oppressive regimes?
I certainly think that the technology can be abused, for restricting speech and tracking people. On the dark side of the Internet, it’s an incredibly good technology for totalitarians. But I think Morozov underplays the other side of the equation, which is the ability of the Internet to allow individuals to communicate freely and to organise themselves. Because even though I don’t think uprisings we’ve seen in the Arab world and other places can be explained as purely technological, I do think that technology played an important role in them.
So the Internet has revolutionary potential, but there’s always going to be a tension between the way in which it encourages freedom and free speech and the way it can be used to squelch free speech and monitor, control and manipulate people – whether we’re talking about governments or advertisers or Facebook.
Where does Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft sit in this discussion?
With the last two books I tried to move away from the historical and commercial side to the more personal consequences of the information age. Matthew Crawford’s book is a bit of a surprise in this list, because he doesn’t specifically talk about the Internet. But he does talk in a broad and philosophical way about things which are very important in the information age. That is, the way our technologies and our society increasingly encourage the abstract at the expense of the physical.
Crawford argues that we’re losing our sense of importance of actual physical interaction with the natural world. He says that the richest kind of thinking that’s open to human beings is not thinking that takes place in the mind but thinking that involves both the mind and the body interacting with the world. Whereas when we’re sitting at our computer or looking at our smartphone, we’re in a world of symbols. It seems to me that one of the dangers of the Internet, and the way that the screen mediates all work and other kinds of processing, is that not only are we distancing ourselves from interaction with the world, but we’re beginning to lose sight of the fact that that’s even important.
So… get out more?
Not even that. As more and more of the physical world is operated by software and computers, we shut off interacting with the world. Crawford, in addition to being a political philosopher, is also a motorcycle mechanic. And a lot of the book is simply stories of being a mechanic. One of the points he makes is that people used to know how their cars worked. They could open the hood, see all of the parts of their engine, change their own oil. Now when you open your hood you can’t touch anything and you don’t know how the thing works. We’ve allowed ourselves to be removed from the physical world. We’re told just to look at our GPS screen and forget how the engine works.
A key point about the information age we should mention is that societies have moved from an industrial economy to a service economy, with more people in white-collar jobs and increasing income disparity as a result.
That’s absolutely true. More and more of our basic jobs, due to broad shifts in the economy, involve manipulating symbols, whether it’s words, numbers or images. That too serves to distance ourselves from manual manipulation of the world. We have offloaded all of those jobs to specialists in order to spend more time working with symbols.
Tell us why you’re closing with Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story.
I think that novelists, and other artists, are only beginning to grapple with the implications of the Internet, smartphones and all of that. Literature provides a different and very valuable way of perceiving those implications, so I decided to end with a novel. This book is both funny and extremely horrifying. It’s set in a future that is very close in some ways to the present. Shteyngart takes phenomena and trends that are around us but we don’t even notice, pushes them a little more extreme, and suddenly it gives you a new way to think about not only where we’re heading but where we already are.
The setting is a dystopian New York, with America on the brink of economic collapse, funded by its Chinese creditors – so not too far from reality.
Yes, the totalitarian backdrop of the novel is financial meltdown, with national guard troops all over. Yet everybody’s just staring into their cellphones, what he calls “äppäräts”. So it’s a mix of a dark, 1984-like political scenario with more of Huxley’s Brave New World to it, because everyone is so involved in themselves and pleasure seeking, wrapped up in media.
Pushing the satire to a further extreme, Shteyngart reveals how we’re enthralled not only by our media devices but in a world where we need to measure everything. The New York of the novel is full of screens which flash the credit rating of whomever passes by them. People determine their and others’ worth based on these measures of financial success and so on. So the book reveals a lot of trends that are already underway.
Here’s further evidence of the distractions of the online era. As you talked there I’ve just bought the book on Kindle in four clicks.
Indeed! In the novel itself books are referred to as “media artefacts” and considered smelly, weird things. Only very few people read books, and they’re looked at as weirdos.
Do you think we’re heading that way?
As is true with most dystopian science fiction, I don’t think it’s an attempt to portray what’s going to happen. It’s more an insight into how much we and our societies have changed in a very short time, without really being aware of it. If somebody from even 10 years ago suddenly dropped into the world and saw us all walking down the street staring at these little screens, hitting them with our thumbs, it would seem very strange.
It is becoming more and more normal to monitor your smartphone even while having a conversation with a friend, spouse or child. A couple will go out to a restaurant and the first thing they will each do is stick their iPhone or Android on the table in front of them, basically announcing that they’re not going to give their full attention to the other person. So technology seems to be changing even our relationships and social expectations.
In a hundred years’ time, what do you think the legacy of the early Internet will be?
I think the legacy will both be of enormous benefits – particularly those that can be measured in terms of efficiency and productivity, but also the ability for people to communicate with others – and also of more troubling consequences. We are witnessing an erosion not only of privacy but of the sense that privacy of the individual is important. And we are seeing the commercialisation of processes of communication, affiliation and friendship that used to be considered intimate.
You’re probably right to talk about a hundred years to sort this all out. There’s a whole lot of threads to the story that being in the midst of it are hard to see properly, and it’s difficult to figure out what the balance of good, bad and indifferent is.
What’s next in the immediate five or 10 years for the information age?
More of the same. Overall I think the general trend, as exemplified by social networks and the evolution of Google, is towards ever smaller bits of information delivered ever more quickly to people who are increasingly compulsive consumers of media and communication products. So I would say more screens, smaller screens, more streams of information coming at us from more directions, and more of us adapting to that way of living and thinking, for better or worse.
So we’re not at the apex of the information age? That peak is yet to come?
All indications are that we’re going to see more rather than less.
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