How not to use the Internet, part 2: the pernicious design philosophy of the Internet

<< Part 1: It's a problem that the Internet distracts us

2. The pernicious design philosophy of the Internet.

The way that the Internet is designed—not graphic design, but overall habits and architecture—encourages the widespread distractability that I, at least, hate.

This basic notion is not my idea; I freely admit that I learned it from Nicholas Carr. I did not quite notice some features about the Internet until reading Carr's The Shallows some time ago, and the following borrows from Carr. My analysis consists of two related parts, the first being about the nature of the Internet, and the second being about the design philosophy of the Internet.

First, consider what the Internet is, or the public side of it, so to speak. (Not the technical, "back end" part.) The public side of the Internet consists of (a) information of various media that is presumably of some public interest, together with (b) ways of repackaging, sending, publishing, and rating the information and, especially, of linking to it for public consumption.

Category (a) is rapidly growing to include all of the public information we know of, or at least all of it that can be digitized—and not just all extant information, but also all new information that arrives on the scene. This fact is of interest not just to "geeks," but to everyone who finds books, news, movies, and virtually everything else that we can communicate and share digitally. Category (a) is the concern of all of humanity, not just geekdom.

This makes category (b), what we might call the net's meta-information, all the more important to us. Google makes the inherently interesting information findable. Wikipedia tries to summarize it. Email, texting, and VoIP (like Skype) allow us to communicate it more efficiently. Twitter gives acquaintances and colleagues a way to share the latest and greatest with us. Facebook gives us easy, one-page access to information about our friends and families. Other sites, like YouTube and Amazon, offer us view counts, ratings, samples, and reviews that are crucial to deciding what long-form content worth pursuing.

Now I can explain a notion, which again owes a great deal to Carr, of the current two-part "design philosophy" of the Internet, to wit:

Interconnectivity: information that is of some inherent public interest is typically marinated in meta-information: (a) is bathed in (b). It is not enough to make the inherently interesting content instantly available and easy to find; it must also be surrounded by links, sidebars, menus, and other info, and promoted on social media via mail. This is deliberate, but it has gotten worse in the last ten years or so, with the advent of syndicated blog feeds (RSS), then various other social media feeds. This is, of course, supposed to be for the convenience and enlightenment of the user, and no doubt sometimes it is. But I think it usually doesn't help anybody, except maybe people who are trying to build web traffic.

Recency: the information to be most loudly announced online is not just recent, but the brand-spanking-newest, and what allegedly deserves our attention now is determined democratically, with special weight given to the opinions of people we know.

Something like this two-part design philosophy, I believe with Carr, is what makes the Internet so distracting. Carr found some interesting studies that indicate that text that is filled with hyperlinks and surrounded by "helpful" supporting media tends to be poorly understood, and we spend less time on each page of such text. As soon as we come across a link, video, or infographic sufficiently interesting to distract us, the surrounding mass of text becomes "tl;dr". Over time, we have largely lost the habit of reading longer texts, and this problem is apt to get worse.

Moreover, when we and our social networks place a premium on recency, we naturally feel a need to check various news streams and data feeds regularly, and coders oblige this tendency by providing us various distracting push notifications when the latest arrives. Even more, the Internet industry hungrily pounces on new tools and devices that allow people to share and be connected in ever more and newer ways. The Internet increasingly goes wherever we are, first with the advent of laptops, then smart phones, then the iPad—and eventually, maybe "Google Glasses."

The result is that, soon after we surf to a page of rich media, its interconnections lead us away from whatever led us to the page in the first place, even while our various alerts and, just as important, our habits of checking stuff, conspire to pull us away as well. Ironically, what might look to the naive to be an efficient, intelligent system of alerting us and giving us instant access to the latest and greatest online has the effect of making us unable to focus on any one thing for long.

Let that sink in a little. Back in 2000, what we were so excited about, when we thought about the potential of the Internet, was the sheer amount of knowledge that would be available and presented (and developed!) in all sorts of brilliantly engaging ways. Now it is 2012. Is that what we have? Yes—and no. Some of the dream has indeed arrived. Vast amounts of content are there. Frequently it is presented engagingly (although we have a lot more to do before we reach our potential). But it is also presented in a context that is so extremely distracting that we, even despite our best intentions, often do not really appreciate it. We are not encouraged to study, absorb, savor; we are encouraged to skim and move on.

I think there is something really wrong with this design philosophy. We ought to try to change it, if we can. But how, especially considering that it mostly grew organically, not as a result of any grand design?

Part 3: How the Internet's current design philosophy fails >>

Relevant links:

Nick Carr's blog, "Rough Type"

To see how SEO analysts (and many webmasters) think about recency, see "New Rules: Fresh Content Is King" (undated, natch!).

Of course, the Google Glasses that appeared in the video are probably vaporware, for now.

"Vast amounts of content" that is "presented engagingly"? Well, Wikipedia and YouTube, for just two examples. I didn't say presented perfectly, but their popularity is evidence of their being engaging. Their vastness is obvious. Many more examples could be given.


How not to use the Internet, part 1: it's a problem that the Internet distracts us

For almost a year, I've been at work on a very long essay about some problems with the Internet and social media in particular. I've worked on it now and then and occasionally I think I'm really going to finish it—but I never do. So, as a concession to failure, or partial failure anyway, I have decided to divide it up into several self-contained brief essays. I'll release an essay a day and see how it goes. Here is the first.

Note, rather than tempt the reader to click out of the essay, I've moved links to the end, and annotated them. This is an example of one way in which the Internet could change (although I'm not exactly holding my breath).

1. It's a problem that the Internet distracts us, dammit.

I too am distracted by ubiquitous digital media. This is a problem—a common, serious, and real problem—and I wish I could get to the bottom of it, but it is very deep.

In the last several years, like many of us, I've often felt out of control of my time. Following basic time management principles is more difficult than ever, especially when I'm spending time online and looking at screens generally. My situation is probably similar to that of many people reading this: I check my mail many times per day; Twitter and Facebook beckon, as do my favorite online communities (and I dread joining Google+); people push the latest news at me; people Skype me; and the time seems to slip away in spite of my better intentions to, you know, get work done.

What I think of as an unmitigated vice has been complacently described by some as "multi-tasking," as if allowing yourself to be distracted were some sort of advanced technical ability. We are told (though, I gather, not by most psychologists) that being able to multi-task effectively is one of the skills that should now be in every plugged-in person's toolkit. But the notion that multi-tasking is an advanced ability is merely an excuse, I think. When you are "multi-tasking," usually, you are not using your time efficiently; you are simply letting yourself be distracted, because you don't want to "miss out."

That's not all. As much as I hate to admit it, the Internet also seems to have made it difficult for me, as it has Nicholas Carr and Richard Foreman, to write and pay attention to long texts, and to think deep thoughts. To be sure, I still try and occasionally succeed. I seem to skim more along the surface of things, despite myself. Thoughtful insight is far from impossible, but it seems to require more deliberate effort. Creativity still flows, but less often and less spontaneously. Believe me, I wish it weren't this way. I fear that I, too, am becoming one of Carr's "shallows" and one of Foreman's "pancake people."

Many heavy Internet users have fairly admitted the same, often apparently with pride or without shame—or at least without hope of improvement. Do you feel the same?

The nature of these now-common problems—a mind ironically made poorer in spite of, indeed by, the Internet's riches—has been much discussed, for example by Maggie Jackson in Distracted, Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation (a much better book than you might expect from the title), Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, and Jaron Lanier in You Are Not a Gadget.

So why do we let ourselves get so distracted? Why are we so often incapable of sticking to a single task?

I think there is a simple answer, actually: we intensely feel the presence of all the world's information and people and the digital fun that entails, miraculously made available to us. Impersonal information made it bad enough for us early adopters in the earlier days of the Internet. But now that everybody and his grandma (literally) has joined social networks, the situation got a lot worse, for me at least. We are constantly available to our colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, so they may "interrupt" us at random times throughout the day, offering insights and telling us that some new website or blog post or picture or video is a "must read" or "must see," or simply reporting their own sometimes-interesting thoughts and news. We constantly feel pulled in a thousand directions. This general problem seems likely to worsen as our access to the world's information becomes more and more complete, speedy, and convenient. Before long, we will have virtually instant access to every bit of content we might want, always and everywhere, and with a minimum of effort (though not necessarily with a minimum of cost). We are nearly there, too.

This revolution—inadequately described as a revolution of "information" or the "digital" or the "Internet"—is wholly unprecedented in history. Not long ago I had to tell blasé skeptics that it is not "hype" to call it a revolution. But clearly, a lot of regular folks, not necessarily in the vanguard, have started to understand the enormousness of how the world has changed in the last fifteen years or so. It's a real revolution, not a mere fad or development, and even as we stare it in the face, it is still hard to grasp just how far-reaching it is. We have been swept up by the one of the most novel and dramatic transformations that humanity has ever undergone. We read about "revolutions" throughout history, the printing press, of religion, of ideology, of industry. This is another one; it's the real deal. It's more important than, for example, who will be elected president in 2012, whether the Euro will collapse, or Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Anyway, this revolution is so novel that it is not surprising if we act like kids screaming in a candy store, not knowing what to sample first. Maybe it's time that we started taking stock of the Internet's candy store more like mature adults and less like sugar-crazed children.

For some time, I've known that I would have to come to a personal understanding of this situation, and make some personal resolutions to deal with it. Like so much else, I've been putting this off, because the problem is massive and I haven't felt equal to it. I'm not sure I am yet. Nobody seems to—not even the above writers, who offer bleak reports and little in the way of helpful advice. The Internet bedazzles us. But for me, things have come to a head. I do not want to go through the rest of my life in the now all-too-familiar state of Internet bedazzlement, if I can help it. For me, it begins now. It's time for me—and maybe, for you too—to get over the fact that all of the world's information and the people that drive it are (or soon will be) accessible in moments. But how?

Some people won't admit that there is even a problem in the first place. They celebrate the Internet uncritically, leaping upon every new site, app, or gadget that promises to connect us in newer and deeper ways. But it is precisely the wonders of the Internet that we celebrate that have become a major distraction. Some people don't seem to want to admit that distractability is a serious problem; they do nothing but offer blithe predictions and analysis of how thinking, social interaction, education, etc., are moving into a wonderful new age. That is all very well as far as it goes, but I sometimes wonder if some of the recent economic downturn might be explained by the amount of time we waste online. Surely it's possible that the global economy is significantly less productive because we're distracting ourselves, and each other, so much, and with so little to show for it.

Other people seem to think that there's nothing that can be done about our distractability and "shallowness." Whatever their disagreements, Internet commentators Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr seem to agree on this: the brevity of information chunks, the pace of their flow, and the fact that they are mediated democratically by giant web communities are all inevitable features of the Internet; so we can't help but be "distracted." Or so Shirky, Carr, and many techie A-listers seem to think. This is where modern life is lived, for better or worse. If you want to be part of things, you've got to jump into the data stream and do your best to manage. If your distractability is making you "shallow" or "flat," that is just a new and unfortunate feature of life today.

I will not "go gentle into that good night." I can't help but observe that this sort of techno-fatalism might be why some Internet geeks are becoming anti-intellectual. I'm far from alone in my view that the overall tendency of the Internet, as it is now and as we use it now, is to make us less intellectual. So, many Internet geeks make a virtue of necessity and begin slagging intellectual things like memory (and thus declarative knowledge), books and especially the classics, expertise, and liberal education. At least critics like Carr and Lanier have the good taste and sense to bemoan the situation rather than mindlessly celebrating it.

As to me, I disagree with techno-fatalism strongly. Isn't it obvious that the Internet is still very new, that we are still experiencing its birth pangs, and that dramatic changes to how we use it will probably continue for another generation or two? Isn't it also quite obvious that we have not really figured out how to design and use the Internet in a way that is optimal for us as fully-realized human beings? I love the new universal accessibility of so much recorded knowledge. Over the last dozen years I have been a booster of this myself, and in my work I still aim to enlarge our store of free, high-quality knowledge resources. I also deeply love the free exchange of ideas that the Internet makes possible. These things are why I "live online" myself. I do agree with the boosters that all this will, in time, probably, change us for the better. But the idea that the mindless digital helter-skelter of the early 2000s is how things will always be, from here on out, is highly doubtful.

We simply can't go on like this. I think we can change, and we should.

Part 2: the pernicious design philosophy of the Internet >>

Relevant links

A good place to start learning about what psychologists say about Internet distraction would be via this search.

Nicholas Carr's famous essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in The Atlantic, is one of those articles you kind of wish you'd written. It focused many people's thinking about the effect of the Internet on how we think. I actually prefer his book The Shallows, however.

The "pancake people" reference is to a short essay by Richard Foresman in Edge.

For some of what I've said about the "revolution" that the Internet and digital media represent, see thisthis, and this, just for example.

When I think about the suggestion that it's not a bad thing that information chunks are getting smaller, I think of this Britannica Blog post by Clay Shirky, lauding short-form online communication as an "upstart literature" that will "become the new high culture." Perhaps an older, more widely-read introduction to this notion would be Small Pieces, Loosely Joined by David Weinberger--it's just that the pieces are even smaller and looser than when Weinberger published that book (2002).

"Go gentle into that good night" is, of course, a phrase from the poem "Invictus."

The surely absurd notion that there is a new geek anti-intellectualism is broached in this much-discussed essay.