For each channel surfer in a La-Z-Boy who thumbs the remote past Billy Mays trying to verbally assault America into a cleaning supply purchase, there are now probably three other “mouse potatoes” double clicking their way to Youtube videos of crazy dog tricks.
The remote control thumb has certainly met its match — the index finger on the mouse.
So, what is this doing to our brains?
Nicholas Carr asked the same question in an article this month in The Atlantic Monthly magazine titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
Carr and many others have pointed out that the development of the Internet is as revolutionary as Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press, which changed the world by allowing the written word to reach the masses.
Carr notes that Guttenberg’s invention was met with great anxiety by some who worried that “cheaply printed books would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes and spread sedition and debauchery.”
But the advent of books was certainly no plague on humanity. No, it enriched society as knowledge passed freely between people. People could appreciate the great thinking of others. Likewise, without books and the easy transfer of know-how, human technology wouldn’t be where it is. Our modern comforts probably wouldn’t exist.
The Internet has added jet power to that transfer of knowledge. You can find out most anything, and fast. For a reporter, this is truly wonderful. For instance, at the top of the column I referred to a channel surfer in a “La-Z-Boy.” Initially, I wrote “Lazy Boy,” but I had some doubt about whether I spelled it right. In the old days, I would have searched a phonebook. I remember how such simple verifications could turn into real headaches. Now, a quick Google search gives me the answer.
That speed is a true blessing, but there is a flip side to it, which I think many people miss — the exchange of patient contemplation for rapid-fire movement.
“Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” wrote Carr, referring to his love of books. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
The Internet is a great tool, but it’s not a place where nuanced thinking is encouraged.
Consider the economic structure of the Web.
While TV stations want to keep your thumb off the remote, web operators want your index finger jumping on the mouse. That’s because web advertising is generally sold on a per-click basis. A site that generates more clicks is going to fare better than one that doesn’t. So, it doesn’t make much sense for a site to draw a surfer to one page for very long. A long, well-reasoned piece that holds a viewer’s attention won’t keep that clicking going. Instead, websites want to distract you from what you are currently reading and make you jump off one page to another page. Over time, if web operators can keep enough people clicking on their sites, they can increase their on-line ad rates.
Under such a setup, it makes economic sense to have opinion pieces that drift toward the extreme, that inflame the passions and get more clicking traffic on the site. People also seem a lot braver on the Web than in person. They’re ready to fire off truly ugly things behind a computer screen. This ugliness is financially beneficial to the web operator, because it generates more web traffic as others get ticked off about what was just said.
Likewise, if you look at many newspaper websites these days, you’ll see that columnists often throw out a couple of paragraphs, then ask for readers to respond. This is a management decision, not a columnist’s choice. The columnist would probably prefer to complete his thought, but management is looking to prime the pump of web hits.
Don’t get me wrong. The Internet is truly revolutionary and mostly in a good way.
But if I could buy stock in Attention Deficit Disorder, I’d have a future fortune. Our fidgety fingers will surely keep on clicking as our eyes dart from one page to the next. It is the age of the mouse potato.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.