Who controls my brain?

January 1, 2018

I’ve been wondering whether the ways I read have changed with the advent of the internet, and reading onscreen and online. I’ve always been a fast reader, and able to speed-read when I need to; I followed a speed-reading course while I was at school at the urging of a teacher, and have never regretted it; it meant that as a student I was able quickly to scan and if necessary skim-read large amounts of text and pinpoint and extract what I needed for my purposes. This was obviously incredibly helpful when doing research. I’ve also been able to skim-read newspapers and magazines, glancing to see what it was worth spending eye-ball time on.

But I have the feeling that things have changed radically now, because of the ubiquitous hyperlink – the ability to click on a link in an e-text and instantaneously be somewhere else, relevant or not. It’s possible to come back, of course, but we don’t always – or even often do that: what is this particular possibility doing to my reading?

Glancing at a newspaper or magazine in the olden days, one’s eyes could always be caught by a headline: one might be drawn in. And headlines were crafted to attract the reader, but not in the same way as today’s clickbait seeks to entrap, because a click means a possible ad-opportunity and therefore fractions of a penny for someone. Once I’d paid for my old print newspaper, that was it; a good advert might sell me something, but otherwise there was no more money to be made until I bought it again the next day…

Clickbait is like a honey-trap, a bottomless pit if one is not careful; it seems to encourage and develop the butterfly mind to devour small gobbets of text and pictures, and most web-pages are designed with this in mind… reading lengthy articles can actually be quite tricky, and as for saving them for future reference, well. I know there are tools like Pocket, but even these try and ‘recommend’ things an algorithm imagines I might like.

Am I gradually being trained to be increasingly superficial in my reading? I know I can exert control, I can choose what I read, but there’s another issue, it seems to me, as well: information overload. Such an enormous array of information is now at my fingertips, via a search-box. I can find out about anything I like. And, of course, I can be interested in far more things than I used to be, if I choose to… but far more superficially.

Let me illustrate. When I researched science fiction, some thirty-five years or so ago, I had my topic. Initially, I read a scholarly text or two, scanned relevant periodicals in the field, and built a reading list, and then I had physically to visit libraries, hunt down books via catalogues, order them, perhaps consult them in situ; I had to make notes on paper, longhand, painstakingly, and collate them… Did I manage to find and read everything of significance in my field? I don’t think so. Today I could literally swamp myself in material, without ever leaving my study. And would this have done me any good? I don’t think so. It would have taken much longer to wade through all the material; who can say whether I would have discriminated adequately between the dross and the worthwhile? Would I have finished before the research grants ran out?

I produced – in the interaction between my brain and the materials I had access to, a thesis which passed muster. True, with a computer, the typescript might well have had fewer typos in it. But…

Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet and the access to information about all sorts of things I come across, that I couldn’t have looked up without major effort thirty years ago. So then, I didn’t bother, just got on with my life. Today, I just have a niggling awareness that things may be going on that I’m not completely clear about and not completely happy about, because I think my brain may be being manipulated. Am I paranoid, or what?

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