The Blogger and the Mechanical Bull

Today I realized what one of my main aims is in every blog post---to get you, the reader, to stay with me more than ten seconds and actually focus your attention on one thing. It occurred to me as I was reading Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows, that every time we jump on the Internet, we are in a sense saddling up on the mechanical bull. “The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention” (132). Carr reveals study after study documenting how the internet really is changing our brains, making it much more difficult to retain information, comprehend what we are reading, and discover its meaningfulness.
You see, I’ve probably already lost you. Hang on, dang it! If you’re still with me, I know you’ve probably read that last line because I also learned how we have adapted to reading online by skimming in an “F” pattern. And that line would probably count for the second horizontal stroke, so I will try to make sure I put all the other important stuff on the left side of the page.
Anyway, what’s going on is that every time you see a notification pop on your screen, notice a hyperlink in the text, or any other Internet-ninja distraction occurs, it’s like the jolt from the mechanical bull. It’s almost as if we are having little mental concussions all day! “Every time we shift our attention, our brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources” (133). “Research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links” (127). And so, when we hop on the bull, we begin strategizing the ride.
A team of German researchers conclude, ”Most Web pages are viewed for ten seconds or less. Fewer than one in ten page views extend beyond two minutes, and a significant portion of those seem to involve ‘unattended browser windows…left open in the background of the desktop’…[These] results also reinforce something that Nielson wrote in 1997 after his first study of online reading. ‘How do users read the web?’ he asked then. His succinct answer: ‘They don’t’” (135-136).
Of course, I’ve revealed my bleak chances as a blogger to have you still reading this article. But if your head hasn’t been banged around too much today, and you are one of the internet cowboys who can persevere longer than 10 seconds, this all leads me to a point other than blogging. These studies show how completely differently we read digital words from words on a physical page. In fact, Carr goes into great detail about how our online activity is actually changing our brains. And he reasons, “Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together” (120).
As a group of Northwestern University professors wrote in a 2005 article in the Annual Review of Sociology, the recent changes in our reading habits suggest that the “era of mass [book] reading” was a brief “anomaly” in our intellectual history: “We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.” The question that remains to be answered, they went on, is whether that reading class will have the “power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capitol” or will be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of “an increasingly arcane hobby.” (108)
Are readers the ones who are going to be viewed as stuck in the superannuated, Pony Express method of receiving content, while the risk-taking mechanical bull riders happily flail from one link to the next? How can we better participate in both mediums?
And my big question, what does all this research suggest about our ability to meditate on Scripture and the preached Word? I also wonder if there have been any studies on the focus, retention, and comprehension of those who come to church with their Bible downloaded on a cell phone or iPad versus those of us who walk in with our bulky, printed copies? How do we approach God’s written Word differently on a shiny, mechanical screen opposed to the worn tactile pages? Because clearly, the medium does affect the message. Furthermore, what kind of social networking is really going on within the walls of the church?
**Congratulations if you made it to the end, you are a bull-riding master.
***This article is a repost from January 31, 2014

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