Sunday, December 19, 2010

Information Addiction

It has been quite some time since I’ve had a long stretch of uninterrupted reading. This isn’t due to lack of time. This is due to the availability of a computer with internet. As soon as I encounter a word or phrase that I do not understand I need to google its meaning. Coming across a reference to another book, author, movie or historical fact triggers another session of googling. And it’s only after several minutes of information consumption that I’m able to get back to what I was reading. Needless to say, the flow of reading is completely destroyed.

The internet has made us addicted to information. We have to satisfy our curiosity right now. We cannot wait even a minute!

This is changing the way we consume information in two key ways.

Breadth vs. Depth
Before the internet, information was difficult to obtain. You had to go to a library to look up information. Most information was available in long form – books and articles. The number of sources was limited. As a result, information consumption was depth first. We used to read something in its entirety, say a book. Of course, several things piqued our interest. But we decided to follow through with one or two of these curiosities. And so on. This led to a consumption pattern that led us depth first into a subject. Or at least our progression was linear.

Compare this to what happens with the internet. We search for something and a hundred results pop up. We open many of these in tabs. Each tab possibly leads to several more tabs. We quickly scan through the gist of each page, often being led far away from our original topic very soon. We learn about a wide variety of subjects which are only loosely related at best. We might even get distracted by lolcats and giving up our quest for knowledge altogether. That is, our consumption is shallow, breadth first. We learn a little bit about a whole lot of topics.

Since information is so easily available, we do not spend much effort into remembering stuff anymore. This makes our consumption even shallower. We learn a little bit about a wide variety of subjects and retain very little of it.


  1. I have to say that I don't agree with this post at all. For one, I don't see how memorization would make dealing with information more profound. In my teaching, for example, I have dispensed with all activities that require memorization. I tell my students that knowing all the dates and names by heart is useless because Google does this better than they ever could. Now, we can dedicate the time and effort that used to go into memorizing stuff into analysis. And that is truly great.

    As for interrupting your reading to Google unknown words, have you thought about getting a Kindle? It allows you to see the meanings of the words you need without interrupting the reading.

  2. @Clarissa: Does it not depend on what you're memorizing? For example, would you like it if people had extremely limited vocabularies? Words and their meanings are memorization too. Didn't you write a post lamenting students who didn't know what Latin America was? Isn't that memorization too?

    I guess what I'm getting at here is best described as 'fluency' with a subject.

    I have a nook. :) It does have a dictionary function and indeed offers a better reading experience.

  3. Clarissa, I agree with Vinod here. We may not need to know every single date or name as history lessons would have us do, but it is, in my opinion, important to have memorized a few basic details to be able to give context to things. Knowing that the second world war followed the Great Depression, or that Scandinavia is not a country in the middle-east does have its advantages despite the fact that these might be easily available on the internet.

    My examples here might have been too simplistic but the point is that without a basic knowledge base (that comes form in-depth reading as Vinod pointed out, as opposed to low-retention wide skimming of topics), intellectual engagement during conversations becomes more and more difficult. And to talk about your point, an in-depth rational analysis would be rather difficult without that retention.

    I do realize that you're talking about more specific, inane things that students are required to memorize, and I agree some of it we could do without, but largely speaking, I would concur with Vinod's point here.