I think I might have confused some readers, as I’ve started placing links to articles mentioned in my posts at the bottom of the post, instead of embedding them in per regular Internet practices.
Reason is, perhaps the most compelling part of The Shallows is the section where Carr presents research on what reading hyperlinked text does to your memory and comprehension.
I don’t really buy the idea that hyperlinks force you to make subconscious decisions that then detract from your reading. (I’m sure they do force you to make those decisions, but I’m not convinced that they’re that distracting.) However, I do think there’s something to the idea that people tend to click over to the linked article before finishing with what they’re reading, and that tends to encourage scanning and create a kind of two-tiered form of reading where you’re switching back and forth, which quite clearly detracts from comprehension/memory.
I’m going to keep the Amazon links embedded for now since I think most of you don’t treat them like a typical link to an article. And if you have thoughts on any of this, I’m curious to hear everyone’s experiences of reading linked text vs non-linked.
Per Jeremy Hatch’s suggestion, I’ve been reading Scott Rosenberg’s blog posts about the perils (or not) of embedding links. I think he makes some good points; I am partly persuaded, but not persuaded enough, to start embedding links in the text. For my thoughts on the post Jeremy references (Rosenberg’s Post #1 of 3 on the topic), see my remarks in the comments field. Here’s my dissection of Post #3:
Post #3 completely ignores Carr’s points. It is essentially a defense of the value added links provide (e.g. citation, connectivity, collegiality, etc). Carr never argues that links don’t do this, and, in fact, Carr and Laura Miller and others still link, so their posts do all the good things Rosenberg attributes to links. In Post #3 Rosenberg makes no case whatsoever for the superiority of links embedded in the text above links provided at the end of an article.
Rosenberg also links to a Slate article purporting to place the concept of information overload into historical reference. This article seems to completely misunderstand the concept of information vis a vis postmodernism, and the various stages of capitalism. For instance, Vaughan Bell writes:
Gessner’s anxieties over psychological strain arose when he set about the task of compiling an index of every available book in the 16th century, eventually published as the Bibliotheca universalis. Similar concerns arose in the 18th century, when newspapers became more common. The French statesman Malesherbes railed against the fashion for getting news from the printed page, arguing that it socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit. A hundred years later, as literacy became essential and schools were widely introduced, the curmudgeons turned against education for being unnatural and a risk to mental health. An 1883 article in the weekly medical journal the Sanitarian argued that schools “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.” Meanwhile, excessive study was considered a leading cause of madness by the medical community.
Yes, all of that looks very quaint now, but that in no way is a rebuttal to the argument that mass production and the rise of virtuality associated with the middle and late stages of capitalism have produced a significant change in the amounts of information we are given and the cognitive requirements for dealing with it all. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m jumping on the worry bandwagon, but when American publishing alone produces roughly 100 times as many books every year as was produced in the whole of Western Europe in one year of the 16th century, such arguments as “yes, people have worried about information overload before” begin to sound absurd. It is quite clear that mass production and other phenomena associated with the rise of capitalism have produced a change in kind, and it is not enough to simply say, “oh, people had the same worries 100 years ago.”
Oddly enough, Bell also cites Socrates’ famous warning against the perils of writing on memory, which most reasonable observers would agree have been borne out.
Articles referenced in this post