Hypertext and the web alters our brains

There is a fascinating article in this month’s Wired titled “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains“. According to the article and the studies it quotes, our brains don’t work the same way that they used to, because we are exposed to media and perform functions that didn’t exist 20 years ago, and the article explores the downsides to the functionality.

Reading that article made me reconsider how I write my blog entries. Typically, I write a blob of text, and interspersed throughout that text are hyperlinks to further information that readers can click for more information. I find that using hyperlinks in this manner is akin to footnotes in a paper publication. When I read a book, or paper, or anything that includes footnotes, I find myself mentally parsing them identically to hypertext. I’ll briefly pause in my reading and glance down to see if the footnote is at the bottom of the page, or if it’ll be in a reference at the end of the paper/chapter (and if it isn’t at the bottom of the page, I typically forget about it, unless the reference is highly interesting). I hadn’t stopped to consider what half a dozen footnotes per paragraph would do to my reading style if I saw them show up in paper, though. I’m certain that the footnotes would be distracting, if the text was even readable. Hypertext at least removes the superscript numbers, so the text looks better, but what does it do to our concentration?

I’d be lying if I said that I have seen no decrease in the amount of patience that I have when reading large blobs of text. If you’re involved with pretty much any forum on the internet, you may have run into the “tl;dr” phenomenon (tl;dr meaning “too long; didn’t read”), where someone will post their intended (long) content, then under a ‘tl;dr” header, they write a shorter version, presumably so that people with short attention spans can still catch the highlights. There is a lot of pushback against this practice by people who think that catering to short attention spans perpetuates the issue. Personally, I’m not too fond of it, but it is useful, and I still haven’t come to terms with its more-than-slight resemblance to the “executive summary” that’s been in practices for decades.

I’m sure this is a cognitive bias, but I don’t think I’ve been as affected by this trend as some people, and it’s probably because of the way that I surf. For instance, I would estimate that I use my middle mouse button more often than my left mouse button, at least when dealing with websites. The middle mouse button, of course, opens a link in a new tab, and I have it set to open in the background. This means that something of interest to me is opened, but my reading isn’t interrupted by any more than is necessary to make the decision to open a link. I would like to think that this may actually improve my brain function, just because when I’m finished with a page, I close it and am immediately presented with further relevant information pertaining to a subject from the article, and I’ve got to recall how it was related to what I was just reading. Usually.

I say usually because, as I’m certain everyone here has experienced, it’s possible to end up with dozens of tabs opened on an array of subjects. As XKCD noted, wikipedia causes this frequently.

You may be wondering what this has to do with system administration.

If our brains change, then our tools must change, too. There was a time when the giant tome of documentation was standard. Look at the O’Reilly Sendmail book, for instance. One book, 1300+ pages. That kind of gigantic book just doesn’t get published much anymore.

Instead, we have things like PHP.net, which is (in my opinion) one of the greatest programming language resources in existence. Say what you will about the language of PHP, if there were a resource that in-depth, complete, and had the same kind of user-submitted features for C, we’d all be kernel developers. Maybe not good kernel developers, but the point is that all of the information you could want to know about programming PHP is there. And it’s not one big tome. It’s spread over thousands of pages, because that’s what we expect now.

Our tools and resources are changing. It’s really a form of evolution. In order to exist and function normally in the world we currently live in, our brains adapt and change to the stimuli they’re presented with. Because the brains of the toolmakers have changed as well, the tools reflect their state. Many of us notice this whenever we read documentation pertaining to a shockingly different piece of software. We even make reference to our minds changing to fit the new conditions. How many times have you said, “I need to wrap my mind around this”? Have you ever thought about how literal that phrase was?

Because the mind changes in response to what we’re currently doing, it follows that we should pay extra attention to the people who are on the “bleeding edge”, because if what we are doing will be influenced by what they’re doing, then they themselves might be able to serve as a sort of indicator of what’s to come.

I mentioned that the article made me reconsider how I write blog entries, and that’s something I’m going to have to think about. Have you noticed any change in yourself as you’ve gotten progressively deeper into any one subject? What are you working on now that has changed the way you look at the world?

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  • tl;dr

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist :) )

  • First: I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with the tl;dr phenomenon, at least as long as the information is still there to people who are interested in reading the entire thing (and I suppose the real danger is that exhaustive information sources may be deposed eventually by Twitter-style microblog formats). I don’t view it as being any different from the abstracts that for centuries have been at the beginning of academic papers/articles, patent applications and numerous other types of publications.

    Second: Reading is just a way of obtaining information, and the way that people obtain information is strongly related to the way that people use information. I find that when I require an exhaustive source of information, where I’m working on a super-critical piece of infrastructure and need full understanding of everything surrounding it, like a SAN or an ERP system, I typically grab a few hundred pages of vendor documentation and read it cover to cover. When I’m trying to finish a specific task or solve a specific problem, or piece together a lot of different disciplines to accomplish something, I tend to seek out more specific information, which makes shorter formats more immediately useful. I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that choosing a format for your information is not an all-or-nothing proposition: you need to understand your audience and you need to figure out what you’re trying to actually do with your content before you can make an educated decision about the best format in which to present it. You don’t want to make a PowerPoint presentation written like a John Galt monologue, and you don’t want to publish a book that reads like a bullet list either.

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