Thursday, February 20, 2014

The "Fast Web" Impairs Thinking — or — Fear and Phaedrus Ride Again

The author has a point, sort of:
I don't doubt that some folks have the sort of trouble that Kevan Lee discusses: but a fast web isn't the problem. Not the underlying one, anyway.

Folks worrying about newfangled tech isn't new. About two dozen centuries back, one of the day's great thinkers warned that civilization was doomed by a new information storage technology called writing. Ironically, we know about his concerns because someone wrote about them, in Phaedrus. (January 25, 2014)

The Internet: It's Big

(From JaySimons,, used w/o permission.)
(Map of the Internet 1.0.; by JaySimons © 2013: poster available at

After a very quick read of Kevan Lee's article, I started an off-the-cuff response as a comment in a Google Plus post. (A tip of the hat to Jordan Henderson (February 20, 2014))

After about the fourth paragraph, I realized that the comment was becoming a post. Sometimes I rein in my impulse to write, but not this time.

Again, I think Kevan Lee has a point: but the problem isn't folks being distracted by technology. It's simply folks being distracted.

Impaired Judgment and Being Awake

A "fast web" can impair judgment. So can a clean window, a blank wall, or being awake.

I think these headlines from Kevan Lee's article are a good starting point: "Overtaxed + Overwhelmed = Vulnerable," "Decisions, Decisions, Decisions" and "The Brain Needs Alone Time."

The author points out that we need to sort through information: decide what's important and what's not; decide what's fact, what's opinion, and what's nonsense.

I'm quite sure that folks had those daily challenges when the latest cutting-edge technology was string. All that's changed recently is that instead of worrying about lurking dire wolves or cave lions on the way home, today's commuter worries about texting drivers. ;)

Learning how to focus on important information — and ignore both inconsequential information, irrelevant opinions, and nonsense — is still a vital skill. What's changed is how we receive information.

Learning How to Think

Not everybody has had my opportunities for learning how to think.

Instead of pursuing a successful career, I've been a college student, sales clerk, beet chopper, radio disk jockey, delivery driver, advertising writer and graphic designer, and "computer guy:" among other things.

I've spent most of my life sifting through information, applying what was useful at the moment, and remembering what made sense but didn't apply to the job at hand.

Not everybody is like me, thank God: but I think everybody can learn, and learn how to learn better.

Mapping the Digital Continent

The "digital continent" has grown since Catholic bishops in the United States said that social media was important, and useful for communication. I agree, and think folks can do as much good — or harm — with the Internet, as we could with movable type. (November 15, 2010)

Judging from Kevan Lee's article, some folks still don't know their way around the "digital continent." Some apparently get distracted by the wide open (virtual) spaces, and get lost.

Although I sympathize, a little, with folks who feel overwhelmed by access to an increasing portion of humanity's accumulated wisdom and folly: I don't think shuttering the windows, locking the door, and hiding inside makes sense.

I'd much rather learn how to not get lost.

By the way, that "Map of the Internet 1.0." may not help you find a particular piece of information: but I think it's a wonderfully attractive picture of the Internet. It's also a fine work of cartographic art by Slovakian graphic designer JaySimmons, available as 34 by 22 inch poster at

Here's a closer look at his map.

(From JaySimons,, used w/o permission.)
(Map of the Internet 1.0.; by JaySimons © 2013.)

Related posts:


Jordan Henderson said...

I don't think this is just ludditism or fear that new information technology will dull our abilities - the concern in Phaedrus.

These are not the concerns of those who are reflexively suspicious of technology and Science, on the contrary, there is a growing body of research results that indicate that New Media is affecting our attention spans in dangerous ways.

There's a lot about how attention spans have been negatively affected by Internet use in Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows. Here's an article that has some of this summarized.

The article on the "Fast Web" adds the angle that decision making is directly and negatively impacted by information overload. We may be becoming more able to take in a lot of information quickly, but less able to make good decisions based on this information.

kevanlee said...

Really thoughtful take on this. Thanks for taking the time to read and post. It's cool to see things from this perspective - learn how to navigate the Internet rather than shutting it off.

kevanlee said...

Really thoughtful take on this. Thanks for taking the time to read and post. It's cool to see things from this perspective - learn how to navigate the Internet rather than shutting it off.

Brian Gill said...

Jordan Henderson,

Agreed, today's information tech does affect our brains. It wouldn't be much use if it didn't: since learning anything requires change in our neural circuits.

It's possible that some folks are adversely affected by having access to large quantities of visual information.

People are not identical. We've long since discovered that some of us are more likely to become addicted to substances: even to behaviors like eating or washing, although that isn't a strictly physical addiction.

Individual differences affect me, in that I must drastically control my consumption of alcohol. An eighth of an ounce every decade or so, at events like weddings, isn't a problem for me, and neither is the more frequent celebration of Mass. But social drinking is something I simply must not do.

The problem, however, in my case is not alcohol. It's how I interact with it. I have no problem with folks who enjoy a pint with the boys on a regular basis: and I certainly will not emulate Carrie Nation.

I may be wrong about this, but I think individuals can still notice our personal strengths and weaknesses: and respond rationally to those perceptions.

I think kevanlee is right: learning to deal with reality is a good idea.

In the case of folks who discover that, no matter how hard they try, they simply cannot learn to control their behavior in shopping malls, movie theaters, parking lots - or the Internet - they should seriously consider avoiding those areas, virtual and otherwise.

My opinion.

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.