The Internet Makes Us Faster

There’s a lot of discussion at the moment as to whether the Internet makes us (more) stupid… or to be less sensationalist, whether our brains are adapting to fit new behaviours enabled by new technology, such as Google and Wikipedia.

I’ve certainly noticed my tolerance for reading long passages of text has decreased while I’ve been a regular internet user. I’ve also noticed that I can increase it again by changing my behaviour. If I spend less time online and more time reading books for example, the effect goes away.

I notice the inverse effect when observing people using websites. Obsessive web-heads skim read, only paying attention to functional elements and labels such as buttons, tabs, etc. When reading online, they tend to skip to bullet points, quotes, bold text, or specific words that they’re looking for. Less frequent web users can behave quite differently, reading the page from the start like a book.

This is all anecdotal so doesn’t prove anything, but it indicates to me that because we’re used to reading pages with plenty of irrelevent or redundant copy, we’ve taught our eyes to find what we need more quickly… just like we taught our eyes not to see banners adverts. When we go back to books, we just have to learn to relax that aggressive visual culling of copy and let the words flow more linearly.

It’ll be interesting to see whether other effects develop over the next few years due to the availability of new high-bandwidth content, social tools, and location-driven mobile services.


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