Summer 2010 | Online Exclusives

News in the Age of Now

‘On the Web, skimming is no longer a means to an end but an end in itself. That poses a huge problem for those who report and publish the news.’

By Nicholas Carr
“Thought will spread across the world with the rapidity of light, instantly conceived, instantly written, instantly understood. It will blanket the earth from one pole to the other—sudden, instantaneous, burning with the fervor of the soul from which it burst forth.”

Those opening words would seem to describe, with the zeal typical of the modern techno-utopian, the arrival of our new online media environment with its feeds, streams, texts and tweets. What is the Web if not sudden, instantaneous and burning with fervor? But French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine wrote these words in 1831 to describe the emergence of the daily newspaper. Journalism, he proclaimed, would soon become “the whole of human thought.” Books, incapable of competing with the immediacy of morning and evening papers, were doomed: “Thought will not have time to ripen, to accumulate into the form of a book—the book will arrive too late. The only book possible from today is a newspaper.”

Lamartine’s prediction of the imminent demise of books didn’t pan out. Newspapers did not take their place. But he was a prophet nonetheless. The story of media, particularly the news media, has for the last two centuries been a story of the pursuit of ever greater immediacy. From broadsheet to telegram, radio broadcast to TV bulletin, blog to Twitter, we’ve relentlessly ratcheted up the velocity of information flow.

To Shakespeare, ripeness was all. Today, ripeness doesn’t seem to count for much. Nowness is all.

The daily newspaper, the agent of immediacy in Lamartine’s day, is now immediacy’s latest victim. It’s the newspaper that arrives too late. An enormous amount of ink, both real and virtual, has gone into diagnosing the shift of news from page to screen and the travails the shift inflicts on publishers and journalists. Yet when we take a longer view, the greatest threat to serious journalism may not be the Web. Instead, it may be found in changes already under way in the ways people read and even think—changes spurred by the Web’s rapid-fire mode of distributing information.

It used to be thought that our brains didn’t change much once we reached adulthood. Our neural pathways established during childhood, common wisdom held, remained fixed throughout our mature years. We know now that’s not the case. In recent decades, neuroscientists such as Michael
Nicholas Carr’s cover story provoked extensive debate in 2008.
Merzenich and Eric Kandel have shown that the adult brain is, as Merzenich puts it, “massively plastic.” The synaptic connections between our neurons are constantly reweaving themselves in response to environmental and cultural shifts, including the adoption of new information technologies. When we come to rely on a new medium for finding, storing, and sharing information, Merzenich explains, we end up with “different brains.”

Reading: Print to Web

For 500 years the medium of print has been training us to pay attention. The genius of a page of printed text is that nothing else is going on. The page shields us from the distractions that bombard us and break our concentration. The printed word allows us to “lose ourselves,” as we’ve come to say, in a book, a magazine essay, or a long newspaper article. Print journalism, at least in its more serious forms, has shaped itself to the attentive reader. The layout of a paper makes it easy to skim headlines, but it also assumes that the skimming is a means to an end, a way to discover stories that merit deeper reading and study. A newspaper allows us to scan and browse; it also encourages us to slow down.

The Web promulgates a very different mode of reading and thinking. Far from shielding us from distractions, it inundates us with them. When we turn on our computers and log on to the Net, we are immediately flung into what the writer Cory Doctorow calls an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” The welter of online information, messages, and other stimuli plays, in particular, to our native bias to “vastly overvalue what happens to us right now,” as Christopher Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College, wrote in The Wall Street Journal. We rush toward the new even when we know that “the new is more often trivial than essential.”

Unlike the printed page, the Web never encourages us to slow down. And the more we practice this hurried, distracted mode of information gathering, the more deeply it becomes ingrained in our mental habits—in the very ways our neurons connect. At the same time, we begin to lose our ability to sustain our attention, to think or read about one thing for more than a few moments. A Stanford University study published last year showed that people who engage in a lot of media multitasking not only sacrifice their capacity for concentration but also become less able to distinguish important information from unimportant information. They become “suckers for irrelevancy,” as one of the researchers, Clifford Nass, put it. RELATED ARTICLE
“Thinking About Multitasking: It’s What Journalists Need to Do”
-Clifford Nass
Everything starts to blur together.

On the Web, skimming is no longer a means to an end but an end in itself. That poses a huge problem for those who report and publish the news. To appreciate variations in the quality of journalism, a person has to be attentive, to be able to read and think deeply. To the skimmer, all stories look the same and are worth the same. The news becomes a fungible commodity, and the lowest-cost provider wins the day. The news organization committed to quality becomes a niche player, fated to watch its niche continue to shrink.

The fervor of nowness displaces the thoughtfulness of ripeness.

There’s little chance that technology will reverse course. With the growing popularity of instant social media services like Facebook and Twitter, the Web is rapidly moving away from “the page” as the governing metaphor for the presentation of information. In its place we have “the stream,” a fast-moving, ever-shifting flow of bite-sized updates and messages. Everything we’ve seen in the development of the Net and, indeed, in the development of mass media indicates that the velocity of information will only increase in the future.
For further resources on this topic, see "The Brain" in our Digital Library.
If serious journalism is going to survive as something more than a product for a small and shrinking elite, news organizations will need to do more than simply adapt to the Net. They’re going to have to be a counterweight to the Net. They’re going to have to find creative ways to encourage and reward readers for slowing down and engaging in deep, undistracted modes of reading and thinking. They’re going to have to teach people to pay attention again. That’s easier said than done, of course—and I confess that I have no silver bullet—but the alternative is continued decline, both economic and intellectual.

Nicholas Carr writes extensively about the social, cultural and economic implications of technology. His latest book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” was published in June by W.W. Norton. He is also the author of “Does IT Matter?” and “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google.”

6 Comments on News in the Age of Now
Junior Pinyan says:
December 22, 2011 at 12:24pm
I think its really cool to see how far the media has come along. I also can relate with what Alphonse de Lamartine had speculated. I too believe media will be forever changing and it's very possible that older sources of media will become outdated.

I also found it very interesting that our brain really never stops developing, as its constantly being bent and molded as we age. Kinda weird to think about
Lisa says:
October 3, 2011 at 6:01pm
I would be great -- I think -- to provide some Pavlovian pleasure principle for the skimmers who pride themselves on dredging up meaning and context from reading 140-words-or-less with automatic pop quizzes from articles they read (or skim) to test if they actually got any meaning, details, names, places, or overall gestalt from any source.
Gene Cassidy says:
July 10, 2010 at 5:35pm
Is there another way as simple and efficient as words to communicate? The success of speaking and writing seems to me to rely largely on their simplicity. In speaking and writing as in other human endeavor, there is distance bound by similarity. There is Facebook and Clive James. There is the child playing kickball and Pele. Neither the way we use words nor our technological advancements are static. In the early internet age, we are all closer to the playground than Pele's pitch, even as the playgrounds and pitches are built and re-built in attempts to optimize the human experience of kicking a ball. And we ask ourselves each time, is it even possible to improve that experience? What does maximization entail? Are we losing something? Is there an accurate way for us to judge whether things are better or worse? They are great questions but answering them is like picking the game's winner at halftime. There is no inexorability in human behavior or technology, but there are successes, failures, repercussions, mistakes, genius, evil, good and any number of other things. A mis-estimation of science has led us to believe that we can understand things that happen to us now if we have enough facts. But we'll never have enough facts until tomorrow, when I also hear there will be free beer.
Rudy says:
June 16, 2010 at 10:25pm

Continue to prophesy to this generation celebrating its own corruption. Your basic point is enormously important.

Toward solutions, I think there is hope emerging in the e-reader market. The Kindle was designed to duplicate the experience of being absorbed in a book. It facilitates sustained attention, while also offering the advantages of digital distribution of content.

The Kindle is not back lit, and because it uses e-ink technology, it reads like ink on paper. It is a digital device suited to the "print brain."

This is not true of other e-reading devices, including the ballyhooed iPad.

I am not in any way invested in Kindle. I don't even own one. I point out its distinctions because I believe we must find a way to sustain the "print brain" in a digital world.

martin king says:
June 16, 2010 at 12:34pm

I can't help reading you as quack pseudo-science.

Our brains are designed to be "re-programmable" that's how we learn.

Have you considered a "Big Switch" in thinking - while we still need depth we also very much need breadth.

Larry Chandler says:
June 16, 2010 at 9:25am
If you have something to say, people will find a way to read it. Newspapers didn't kill books, radio didn't kill newspapers, TV didn't kill radio.

Each new device changes those that came before, but ideas will still be thought, communicated and argued. And perhaps the stewards of the old media will give way to the new, but people will still communicate.

The internet has brought a lot of new information to people who had no access to the wide variety of thoughts and ideas before. Not all newspapers were the NY Times. Not all cities and towns had great libraries but now they all do.

With new technology people will think differently, but they will still think. If you speak of ideas, people will listen. Perhaps not all people, but they never listened before anyway.
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