News Column

Beware of 'interruption-rich environment'

August 22, 2014

By Hilary Matheson, Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont.

Aug. 22--Nicholas Carr -- a prolific technology writer -- is not on Facebook or Twitter and he doesn't own a smartphone.

The 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist in the general nonfiction category for his book, "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains," is not a technophobe.

He's just more thoughtful about the type of technology he uses and the time he invests in the Internet.

"In the history of thought, we're at a crucial moment," Carr said.

Carr was the keynote speaker at the Northwest Montana Reading Council's Back to School Literacy Conference last week at Flathead High School.

He delivered a message of caution for people to consider what cognitive tradeoffs they are making in exchange for a connection to new and immediate information through the Internet.

Carr began his research on the Internet's effect on the way people think after he found himself struggling to maintain concentration whether online or reading a book.

"There's a dark side to all of this. We've learned that an information-rich environment is also, and by necessity, an interruption-rich environment," Carr said.

With limitless information available at our fingertips at any time of day come distractions. There are alerts and notifications to attend to, new text messages, emails, Tweets and Facebook status updates to check, videos to watch, apps to use and links to click through.

"We like information," Carr said. "There seems to be a deep primitive instinct in us to want to know everything that's going on around us."

In the audience a cellphone beeped loudly, perhaps alerting its owner of a new text message and dividing their attention from the speaker.

All these distractions, Carr said, discourage attentive, concentrated and focused thinking.

"Distractions are cumulative," Carr said. "You have to appreciate all these things are happening all the time in our lives and in our kids' lives. As you ratchet up all these things, we're in a constant state of interruption, a constant state of distraction."

With attention divided, people begin to lose their ability to focus on a single task and think critically. Carr said the average adult spends about 10 seconds on a Web page. When people read online they tend to skim over information in a quick "F" pattern before moving on.

"It turns out this has a very big and very negative effect on our ability to tap into the richest, deepest forms of thinking that are available to us," Carr said.

Using an image to represent the shift to this superficial skimming of information, Carr pulled up a screen shot of a shooting action video game.

"A symbol of this new digital environment where we live more of our lives and do more of our thinking is the image of a video game," Carr said, noting that a successful "gamer" has to constantly scan the screen rather than maintain concentration in one area.

This provides gamers with greater visual acuity and spatial intelligence, but Carr wondered at what cost they achieved these.

Carr then turned to an image of Auguste Rodin's famous sculpture, "The Thinker."

"This is an image of a person obviously deep in thought -- very much in control of his thoughts," Carr said. "We have no idea what he's thinking about, but he's probably not composing a Tweet. He's probably not thinking about that last Facebook message and how irritating it was."

With many local schools adopting "bring your own device" policies in the classroom, Carr cited some studies relating to technology and comprehension.

One of the studies was done by Cornell College. A class was divided in two groups. Half of the students used their laptops during a lecture and half didn't. Comprehension tests followed the lecture. Carr said the students who didn't use their laptops fared better. The students who had their laptops open -- whether they were browsing sites related to the lecture or shopping for shoes -- scored poorly.

Carr said the takeaway from the study is that it's a matter of cognitive overload.

There is not enough "space" in working memory to contain all the activity before it's transferred to long-term memory.

"If you let kids look at their phones or look at their computers while you're trying to teach them something, they're not going to remember it as well. They're going to suffer from cognitive overload," Carr said. "There is a sacrifice in learning. There is a sacrifice in comprehension and retention if the student is distracted -- if the student is engaged in technology when they're trying to learn other things."

Carr questioned what is sacrificed as society adapts to an environment of distraction in order to be connected online. Carr doesn't disagree with the Internet's usefulness, yet he doesn't think society has challenged the rush to embrace it.

"We owe it to ourselves, to our students, and to our kids to think more rigorously, more critically in this rapid shift we're going through," Carr said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at


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Source: Daily Inter Lake, The (Kalispell, MT)

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