If you love the smell of the library stacks, the look of a leather-bound book, or the feel of crisp paper as you turn pages, you probably prefer physical text to reading on the web. Although there are several advantages to digital technologies that enable you to read from your computer screen, including the quick links made available by hypertext, there are also negative aspects to reading on the web. As Nicholas Carr, Christina Lupton, and Tony Schwartz note in respective articles, digital reading can quickly turn into distracted reading.
Let’s face it, as helpful as the internet can be, it can also be incredibly distracting. Pop-up ads, Facebook alerts, that “ding” noise your email makes when you’ve received a new message; they all take away our focus from the task we have at hand. To even further complicate the matter, colleges continue to offer more and more online classes. Traditional, in-person classes are assigning projects that require students to use the internet. Thus, one can only assume that as the amount of time we require students to use the internet increases, the amount of times the student loses focus or is distracted also increases. This is a problem on multiple levels.
Not only do internet-based assignments take longer for a student to accomplish, but students are also retaining less and less information. As Nicholas Carr notes, when it comes to the internet, “Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension.” He later calls the internet “an interruption system.” Due to the fact that we become distracted while online, we have grown more accustomed to skimming rather than actually reading, another problem we have yet solve.
Tony Schwartz admits in a New York Times article, “Addicted to Distraction,” that it was easier for him to cut out entire food groups from his diet than to limit himself from getting online only three times a day, where he explains checking his email was “impossible to resist.” Thus, humans have become hopelessly addicted to using the internet, craving to get that extra tidbit of information rather than participating in their own reality.
Jesse Stommel finds problems in the internet-based disciplines; specifically, the Digital Humanities. Instead of “distraction,” Stommel focuses on a different problem, where the writer admits “I have never found the Digital Humanities as a discipline particularly welcoming.” Stommel urges that the Digital Humanities put more of their efforts into collaboration and community rather than “bring[ing] out the daggers” and competing with one another. Stommel thus contends that “The public digital humanities must be rooted in a genuine desire to make the work legible to a broader audience inclusive of students, teaching-focused colleagues, community college colleagues, and the public.”
As it turns out, the Digital Humanities is still in the process of working out some of the kinks it holds as a discipline, as well as a method. Not only must they resolve their “competitiveness,” but the method of simply using the internet also comes with problems of its own such as distraction and loss of retention. After these findings, one must ask, is the internet as useful for students, teachers, and DHers as we previously thought? Are there even possible solutions to these problems posed? Carr tells us that “We are evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest. In the process, we seem fated to sacrifice much of what makes our minds so interesting.” It seems as if we are in a state of counterproductive-ness that we have yet to become aware of as a species.
Distraction is a hot-button topic in the digital age. The staggering amount of information that is constantly available through laptops and smartphones is both exciting and overwhelming, and it gives rise to questions of digital natives’ ability to focus. Admittedly, even while writing this I have been tempted to glance away to my phone or fuss with my music player, effectively limiting my concentration. The question I would like to pose with this post is this: how can we make the digital humanities less distracting for the people that view it?
Nicholas Carr makes a solid case for the effects of internet distraction in his article, “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains,” published on WIRED. He asserts that, “we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us in ever more varied ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive. We rarely stop to think that it might actually make more sense just to tune it all out.” However, there was a certain measure of irony in reading this article as I scrolled. Almost from the start I was already distracted by the website itself. A pop-up demanded that I either whitelist wired.com on my ad-blocker or pay a subscription fee. Once I had whitelisted the site I began the article again. However, the ads that my web blocker had held at bay now flooded the right side of my screen, beckoning me to scroll through shiny watches on amazon or watch the latest trailer for a popular TV series. I found it curious that I could not find a focused space even for an article on focus.
This experience brought several interesting questions to mind regarding the construction of digital humanities. Many of the DH projects I have seen during this semester have a wealth of information, and understandable fact since the often broad scope of DH projects lends itself to great deals of information. However, the way the information is organized can be problematic. The landing page for a DH project will be crowded with links, each of them interesting trails of the project that I could follow. Oftentimes the overwhelming amount of information can deter me from further discovery because I don’t know where to start and I don’t want to take the time to figure out. Once I do dive into a project, there are constantly new pathways to follow and hyperlinks with additional information, all of which Nicholas Carr would suggest are limiting what I can actually take away from the project.
With these things in mind, how can we make the digital humanities more focus-friendly? If a project is presented in more streamlined, less overwhelming contexts does it become less intellectually sound? Can we strike a balance between focus and project depth? All of these are questions that DH scholars would do well to keep in mind, lest they continue to present valuable projects in methods that reduce audience takeaway.
Carr, Nicholas. “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.” WIRED. 2010. Online.