Much has been said about how digital media are changing how we write. Not surprisingly, reading is also changing. Eye-tracking experiments suggest that online reading does not progress in any “logical” way but unfolds like a giant-font letter “F” superimposed on the web page. We read in a horizontal movement across the upper part; move toward the bottom and read across in a second horizontal movement; then scan the left side in a quick vertical glance. Online reading seems just as foreign as the emoticons of online writing.
We scan and forage, rather than read, in part because of significant distractions from competing Web pages. Much of learning starts with a teacher imploring students to “pay attention.” Yet many kids are unable to focus for longer than it takes to write a status update. Studies of students suggest a link between attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Internet use. For example, in a study involving 216 college students, 32 percent of Internet “addicts” had ADHD, compared to only 8 percent of normal users. While this does not prove causality, it suggests that our virtual lifestyle may be making us crave Ritalin.
Another cornerstone of cognition is memory: What good are reading, writing and attentiveness without retention? But more students are asking: Why bother to remember when all information is at our fingertips and when a Gmail account arrives with 7 gigabytes of free storage? Memorizing has become a lost art as we have moved from cramming our brains to
cramming our hard drives and virtual stores.
Where does this leave us? Because information is power, we feel empowered, but this is deceptive if we are gradually becoming less smart. The digital trend is moving us toward more superficiality and brevity. E-mail is a bastardization of language, and texting is a bastardization of e-mail. Blogging is a step down from intelligent debate, and micro-blogging, in the form of status updates like “Ach . . . fridge is empty,” is a step down from blogging. Our ability to focus is compromised, which is one reason we love Twitter. But Twitter, in turn, further compromises our mental processing power and our patience, making us crave even speedier, less complex tools. This cycle, and this dumbing-down, may prove counter-democratic, among other important consequences. While the great equalizing effect of the Internet wipes out differences, instead of enhancing democracy, it may be moving us toward demagoguery. Demagogues’ sound bytes and propaganda require probing, dissection and analysis, but one is too distracted. One just got tweeted.