The Internet is extremely hard to get away from. It’s in shops, homes, schools, universities, phones, museums and TV programmes, a vital element of our daily life. Right now you are using the Internet to read this article, and I have used the power of the web to write it.
As our dependence on the net grows ever stronger, so does our usage. In 2009 it was reported that the average Briton spends 30 hours of every week browsing the Internet, and I would argue that for students it’s even more. Laptops are indispensable to university life and whether it’s researching statistics for an essay or relaxing by watching Eastenders on BBC iPlayer, we use the Internet more than we realise. But what effect does this have on other pursuits?
Do you find sitting down to read a book for a prolonged length of time difficult? Do you read a few pages but find your mind wandering? Do you find yourself reading a paragraph then realising that you have not taken any of it in at all? If so then you’re not alone.
In a recent article for The Times, writer Nicholas Carr highlights the dangers of long-term Internet usage on the mind. He states that the way in which we read an Internet page is different to how we read a book, skipping around the page scanning for relevant information rather than from left to right.
This selective ‘pick and choose’ method of obtaining information has improved our multi-tasking and decision making skills, but is slowly destroying our ability to concentrate and engage with a text for any meaningful length of time. The average amount of time a person spends on a webpage is between 19 and 27 seconds, even now you could be tiring of this article and clicking back to Facebook.
The decreasing capacity to concentrate is a gradual process, and one that usually goes unnoticed. Before the Internet was made available to me at 12 years old, I would devour several books a week, often sitting for a whole day lost in the wonders of a story. Nowadays, I find it hard to read for a long time, preferring to read in short bursts, sometimes feeling a sense of grudging duty as I turn off my laptop to continue my latest course book.
Of course I will sometimes get dragged into a plot, feeling completely immersed in the storyline, but these occasions are becoming rarer and rarer. As a student of English Literature, this is undoubtedly worrying, and yet it is harder and harder to escape from the Internet’s lure.
As the Internet becomes more prolific, it is easy to extol its virtues. One could argue that the Internet is in fact increasing our intelligence as so much information is available for us to use and learn that we would never have found so quickly if looking in a book.
This is true but the way in which we process this information is much more crucial to intelligence. If we cannot concentrate on any of the information which the Internet can provide us with, and only skim the surface of the words in a book when reading, we cannot say we are any more intelligent because of the Internet.
While it is unlikely that the Internet will get rid of physical books completely, it has certainly changed the way in which we read.
Originally published on The Yorker 17th August 2010