Monday, February 29, 2016

The Wonders of Wiki Walking, Hypertext, and the Internet: A Treatise on Thesis #7

By: Geoffrey Ledbetter
        Since its creation, the internet has facilitated social networking, aided in the collection of human knowledge, and acted as a platform for democratic revolutions.  However, if prominent cultural critics are to be believed, these benefits come with several rather alarming disadvantages. In particular, as Nicholas Carr argues in "The Juggler's Brain," the internet and the hypertext it uses have the capacity to alter the human brain and are starting to have a lasting impact on human concentration.  According to Carr, the internet "seizes our attention, only to scatter it," (p. 118) and anyone who has spent a Sunday afternoon wiki walking from the rise of the Habsburg empire to the cultural impacts of Darth Vader while procrastinating a communication studies assignment might concur.  However, in contrast with Carr, I would suggest that the responsible use of hyperlinks can cause synaptic connections to be made and strengthened in a process I personally like to call "learning." Take this xkcd comic of my favorite little webcomic character browsing one of my all-time favorite websites:
        In this instance, Carr might argue that stickman's use of the internet as a medium for learning causes him to be less likely to understand what he is reading. However, I would posit that stickman has in fact made a significant number of connections between various concepts and has become actively engaged in the learning process. In this matter, Carr employs a significant amount of research to suggest that a problem exists with hypertext and its tendency to promote non-linear reading strategies. Yet again, I would break from Carr and assert that the real fault lies with the fact that individuals are never truly taught how to properly negotiate hyperlinks in such a way as to improve coherence of the text and promote comprehension. As Salmerón, Kintsch, and Cañas (2005) found in their research, those with prior contextual knowledge of an internet article's content are able to "learn equally from hypertext and linear text if they process the text in an active manner" (p. 30), while those with low knowledge can strategically navigate the hypertext in such a way that promotes coherence and comprehension. As such, students should be taught strategies to successfully work through articles with hypertext.  Unfortunately, though, educators and researchers have instead become overly concerned with pointing out the faults of the internet rather than accepting that the it has become a part of everyday life and developing strategies to successfully navigate the hypertext-laden articles. 
        The implication that the internet is unique in its ability to scatter human attention also ignores one very important fact: the tendency to get sidetracked and begin exploring subjects only tangentially related to the original topic of interest existed long before the internet. According to an old proverb, "a dullard is someone who can open a dictionary or encyclopedia and read only what they'd planned to." People could become just as sidetracked perusing old mediums; hypertexts just happen to have made the process somewhat faster. In essence, the internet is not fully responsible for people's tendency to get sidetracked. Rather, humans are naturally quite prone to distraction. Effort and discipline are required to comprehend any text, regardless of medium.
        In his writing, Carr further asserts that the internet "[prevents] our minds from thinking deeply or creatively," (p. 119). However, anyone who has spent enough time browsing the front page of Imgur or the fantastically snarky life commentary on tumblr may have noticed that the internet serves as an instrument for creative expression for a vast swath of humanity. On this wonderful platform, memes are introduced, original content is posted, and artifacts of popular culture are mocked and remixed.   The internet essentially allows individuals to create, collaborate, and converse. Ultimately, while Carr does have some valid concerns about the effects on the internet on the human brain, his assertions fail to capture the full potential of this new medium and represent an overly pessimistic attitude toward technology that was likely around during the introduction of the printed word.

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