Posts Tagged ‘the internet’

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?

Newspapers: a digression

December 6, 2015

pravda39It occurred to me that I have spent a lot of time reading newspapers; I’ve been fascinated by them since my youngest years, and indeed have collected them since then, newspapers from all parts of the world bought back by friends and acquaintances who have visited far-flung parts, and newspapers recording great events during my lifetime. Note to readers: I’m still looking for a newspaper in Mongolian script, from that country…). I remember exploring derelict houses looking for old newspapers in my younger days, and finding them, too.

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Newspapers contain frozen glimpses of the past, and that’s one of the reasons I find them so appealing: a history book has an overview, the benefit of hindsight, reflection and analysis, whereas a day’s paper only has what is known up to the previous evening, along with the unknown. So, my copy of The Daily Telegraph dated 7 June 1944 tells us that the Allies have successfully landed in Normandy – that’s all. Yes, now we know that they weren’t flung back into the sea by the Nazis, but readers on that day didn’t, and their perspective was different, and it’s only by going back to the newspapers of the time that we can perhaps understand that.

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Newspaper history seems to me to fall into four eras. There is the period of print only, lasting from the seventeenth to early twentieth century: very sober-looking newspapers, with small print and small headlines, usually only the width of a single column. Pictures appear after the end of the Great War; there are what we recognise as headlines, there are greater efforts with layout and design, and often newspapers of considerable beauty. When we get to the 1990s, colour begins to replace monochrome, eventually driving it out completely, and often producing something rather garish, too concerned with being eye-catching rather than informative, desperate to be as good as TV when that wasn’t possible. And the most recent transformation is still ongoing, with the transfer from print to the web; no-one is sure how far this will go, whether print newspapers will survive or disappear, and whether this will be any great loss or not… Personally, I can’t see the daily print editions of newspapers surviving much longer; I think we may revert to weekly editions, perhaps more magazine-like; indeed this seems to be happening in some countries.

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Britain has some of the oldest newspapers in the world, such as The Times, The Observer and The Guardian; other countries have had to re-invent their press after the Second World War, such as France, where all the dailies had collaborated with the wartime regimes and were shut down; newspapers had to be re-invented in Germany too, many having disappeared voluntarily post-1933 and the rest having been assimilated into the Nazi press. Post 1989, many of Eastern Europe’s newspapers have managed to re-invent themselves after being government mouthpieces for many years… you can still get Pravda, though Lenin might not recognise it!

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Newspapers are ephemera. Many items in my collection are yellowing and crumbling. They were perhaps much more powerful in the past than they are now, sidelined as they are by television and the internet, with plummeting circulations and increasing irrelevance. But their disappearance would be a great loss, I think.

 

 

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