From typewriter to word processor Tuesday, Aug 26 2008 

A recent edition of Science featured a worrying paper by University of Chicago sociologist James A. Evans titled Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship. Seeking to learn more about how research is conducted online, Evans scoured a database of 34 million articles from science journals. He discovered a paradox: as journals begin publishing online, making it easier for researchers to find and search their contents, research tends to become more superficial.

“Online journals promise to serve more information to more dispersed audiences and are more efficiently searched and recalled. But because they are used differently than print—scientists and scholars tend to search electronically and follow hyperlinks rather than browse or peruse—electronically available journals may portend an ironic change for science. Using a database of 34 million articles, their citations (1945 to 2005), and online availability (1998 to 2005), I show that as more journal issues came online, the articles referenced tended to be more recent, fewer journals and articles were cited, and more of those citations were to fewer journals and articles. The forced browsing of print archives may have stretched scientists and scholars to anchor findings deeply into past and present scholarship. Searching online is more efficient and following hyperlinks quickly puts researchers in touch with prevailing opinion, but this may accelerate consensus and narrow the range of findings and ideas built upon.” (Department of Sociology, University of Chicago, 1126 East 59th Street, Chicago, IL60615, USA (Home > Science Magazine > 18 July 2008 > Evans , pp. 395 – 399)

This could be liked to Nietzsche’s typewriter story Nick Carr mentions in  “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” .

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler , Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

J. C. Nyíri in his work “Thinking with a Word Processor”  asserts:

In a well-known passage of the Blue Book Wittgenstein remarks: “We may say that thinking is essentially the activity of operating with signs. This activity is performed by the hand, when we think by writing; by the mouth and the larynx, when we think by speaking.” We may, he continues, legitimately employ the expressions “‘we think with our mouths’, or ‘we think with a pencil on a piece of paper'”

The question Nyíri asks is:

“In what ways, if any, are our thoughts affected by the shift from the pen or the typewriter to a word processor? My question is not whether thinking about computers changes the image we have of ourselves; nor indeed whether computers do or do not think. What I do ask is: With the word processor becoming our writing instrument, what changes do there occur, if any, in the ways and content of our thinking?In particular, what changes can there be discerned, or expected, in terms of the organization of our ideas; in terms of the organization of our memory – our access to, and summary view of, the ideas available to us; in terms of our concept of time; and in terms of the perception we have of the place and role of our thoughts in relation to the thoughts of others. The notion that thinking – both how we think and what we think – is not independent of the concrete linguistic medium in which it unfolds is of course very much in accordance with Wittgenstein’s position. Not only does Wittgenstein say: “When I think in language, there aren’t ‘meanings’ going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought”, and not only does he point out that what we are concerned with is “the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language”(7), but he also repeatedly stresses, and indeed this is one of his central insights, that the meaning of a linguistic sign depends on the circumstances, the spatial and temporal surroundings(8) in which it occurs; that intention depends on context. However, Wittgenstein does not seem to have been alert to the fact that contexts change with the medium; that “thinking by writing” creates linguistic surroundings radically different from those created by “thinking by speaking”. Let me come to my main topic by touching on these differences first.


Rewiring the mind Sunday, Aug 24 2008 

“The medium is the mind,” I write toward the end of The Big Switch, arguing, as others have before, that the tools we use to gather, store, and analyze information inevitably exert a strong influence over the way we think. As the internet becomes our universal medium – what the director of the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future terms “a comprehensive tool that Americans are using to touch the world” – its technical characteristics also begin to shape, slowly but inexorably, the workings of our memory and our other cognitive processes.

Because the Net is relatively new, we don’t yet have solid research, in the form of long-term “longitudinal” studies of web users, on its effects on cognition. But the British Library, working with researchers at University College London, this week published the results of what it calls a “virtual longitudinal study” that combines a review of “published literature on the information behaviour and preferences of young people over the past thirty years” and an extensive analysis, conducted over five years, of the logs of a British Library website, as well as a second popular research site, that serves to document people’s behavior in finding and reading information online. According to the researchers, “This is the first time that anyone has actually profiled on any real scale the information seeking behaviour of the virtual scholar by age.” (The full study, in pdf format, is available here.)

The study’s findings will not be surprising to anyone who’s been watching how people use the web. The research documents a “new form of information seeking behaviour” that “can be characterised as being horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature. Users are promiscuous, diverse and volatile.” The researchers summarize the new style of human information-processing by listing its salient qualities:

Horizontal information seeking. A form of skimming activity, where people view just one or two pages from an academic site and then `bounce’ out, perhaps never to return. The figures are instructive: around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65 per cent) never return.

Navigation. People in virtual libraries spend a lot of time simply finding their way around: in fact they spend as much time finding their bearings as actually viewing what they find.

Viewers. The average times that users spend on e-book and e-journal sites are very short: typically four and eight minutes respectively. It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense, indeed there are signs that new forms of `reading’ are emerging as users `power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Squirreling behaviour. Academic users have strong consumer instincts and research shows that they will squirrel away content in the form of downloads, especially when there are free offers. In spite of this behaviour and the very short session times that we witness, there is no evidence as to the extent to which these downloads are actually read.

Checking information seekers. Users assess authority and trust for themselves in a matter of seconds by dipping and cross-checking across different sites and by relying on favoured brands (e.g. Google).

By breaking the linear print model that has dominated the transmission of information for the past five centuries, the hyperlinked web seems to be instilling a hyperactive approach to gathering and digesting information, an approach that emphasizes speed, scanning, and skimming. In one sense, the process of information retrieval seems to have become more important than the information retrieved. We store lots of information, but like distracted squirrels we rarely go back to examine it in depth. We want more acorns.

The authors note that this kind of behavior is not restricted to the young. It characterizes web users of all ages. It does not, therefore, appear to be a pattern that people will outgrow as they get older. Rather, it seems to represent the new way of of processing information that our new universal medium has imposed upon us – and not against our will. The researchers write that the log studies reveal “that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, `flicking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down.”

You may take issue with the “dumbing down” characterization, though it does seem warranted when you view the trend from a historical perspective. But even if you argue that this is just the next stage in the ongoing shaping and reshaping of human consciousness and cognition, it’s hard to argue that the Net isn’t messing with our brains

Influentials On The Web Are People With The Power To Link Sunday, Aug 24 2008 

January 28th, 2008 by Scott Karp

In the networked web era, influentials may not be people with a particularly connected temperament or Rolodex, or people who control and influence monopoly distribution channels (e.g. newspapers), but rather people who influence the network by leveraging the most powerful force on the web — the link. People like bloggers, top Diggers, power users, Facebook users who share lots of links, MySpace users who embed videos, Twitter users who post lots of URLs, or any social network user with links to lots of friends.

This idea jives with a provocative article in Fast Company about a new disruptive Duncan Watts theory. After last year debunking the “wisdom of the crowds” using the theory of cumulative advantage, Watts is back, this time debunking the idea that there is a class of “influentials” who is more likely than others to spread ideas, trends, product endorsements, or anything else that can be spread virally. The existence of unique classes of influencers was the premise behind Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. But Watts, a Columbia professor doing work for Yahoo Research, says it’s all bunk.

The more Watts examined the theory of Influentials, the less sense it made to him. The problem, he explains over lunch in a Midtown restaurant, is that it’s incredibly vague. None of its proponents ever clearly explain how an Influential actually influences.

“It sort of sounds cool,” Watts says, tucking into his salad. “But it’s wonderfully persuasive only for as long as you don’t think about it.” For example, in The Influentials, Keller and Berry argue that trendsetters draw their social power from being active in their communities. Their peers naturally turn to them for advice. Need to buy a new car or navigate city hall? Everyone knows whom to trust. Gladwell, for his part, argues that trends spread like diseases; Influentials are the vectors who amplify and propagate the infection.

Fair enough, as a top-down view. But it’s murky, and for Watts, this is a critical flaw, because precision matters when you’re trying to explain highly social epidemics. Merely arguing that influence spreads like a disease isn’t enough, because, he says, diseases spread in very different ways. Some require multiple exposures; some don’t. Some reward “superspreaders,” and some don’t. (SARS broke out in Hong Kong not because the first victim was a superspreader but because a doctor mistakenly hooked him up to an aspirator–ventilating SARS-infected breath into the hospital air.)

This got me thinking about the dynamics of influence on the web, where in the age of Google PageRank, inline linking, and social applications, the link is the principal driver of “network efforts” and influence.

The reason Google’s search results often contain more blogs than traditional media content is that blogs were the first to harness the power of the link. Blogs linked to other blogs, while traditional media brands remained disconnected silos. Savvy web users — many college age or early 20s — pooled their links on Digg and developed the power to drive server-crashing volumes of traffic, forcing traditional media sites, who still lack such influence, to plaster themselves with Digg This buttons.

Embedding YouTube videos is a form of linking that allowed MySpace users and bloggers to drive the online video revolution. users leverage the power of links in emailed articles to create a list of most emailed articles whose influence arguably rivals the homepage.

One reason the emergent Twitter network is becoming so powerful is the widespread sharing of links. Twitter users are not influential because they have influential personalities, but because they are early tech adopters who are excel at figuring out how to use new web technologies to influence and create link-driven networks.

You can explain the power of social networks and the “social graphs” in terms of links — every Facebook profile has links to other Facebook profiles. Same with MySpace. And LINKEDin — get it?

Journalists and PR professionals, the influence brokers of traditional media, have lost a huge degree of influence on the web in large part because they don’t link to anything. While traditional media brands are still powerful channels on the web, they are losing influence everyday to the link-driven web network — journalists and PR professionals can no longer depend on controlling these former monopoly channels to exert influence online.

Whenever I give talks to traditional publishers who have been afraid to link to other sites because it will “send people away” instead of keeping them trapped in the publisher’s own content, my now standard response is to say that there’s a site that does nothing but link to other sites — all it does is send people away. And yet remarkably, people keep coming back. So much so, that this strategy has translated into $10 billion+ in advertising revenue. (Yes, Google of course.)

Anyone can become influential on the web simply by setting up a blog or an account on a social network or social bookmarking site and linking to people and content that interests them. Anyone who is influential offline and wants to retain that influence online needs to start linking — and to leverage those links in a large network.

Influence on the web is all about connectivity — the larger the network, the more powerful the links.


Digital vs. physical books Sunday, Aug 24 2008 

Scott Karp wonders if the ability to read online and follow topics via hyperlink instead of focusing on one document at a time is actually changing the way we think.

Matthew Ingram opines that the links within on-line writing provide a dynamic and customizable knowledge acquisition process, where you can examine multiple pieces of information from different sources, that can only be matched by a group conversation (although I suspect he’s emphasizing the social interaction here… 🙂  )

Evan Schnittman enjoys the convenience of the Ebook when he can’t get access to books or when it’s inconvenient to travel with them, but interestingly, he also mentions that he won’t own both digital and physical copies of the same book if he has to pay for both.



Does is really matter how many books we’re reading?

According to statistics on only 38% of adults in 2006 said they had spent time reading a book for pleasure the previous day. 65% of college freshmen in 2005 said they read little or nothing for pleasure, 30% of 13 year olds in 2004 said they read for fun “almost every day,” down from 35% in 1984.

So what is this really saying about our society? Are people reading less because they are simply too busy to read? Or is there another reason?

I found an interesting article on Publishing 2.0 on the change to Networked Thoughts. Like the writer, do people not read because of lack of time, or because they are moving into a different type of reading habit? Is the online world changing the way we absorb our information?

In his article, Scott mentions what the future beholds for readers. It’s interesting to note that all of today’s top players (Google, Facebook, etc) were started by obsessive computer programmers. They may not read the typical novel, but you can better believe they are getting tremendous information from the online world. Through forums, blogs, news sites, and many other formats, they are getting an education every day in an easy way. When you find great sources, you don’t have to hunt for the information – you simply subscribe to the newsfeed and read what pertains to you.

So is “not reading books” a bad thing? Not when you look at reading in a whole new way. With today’s technology, staying on top can be gained in many ways.

via, February 12th, 2008 at 10:07 pm

Will evolution kill the magazine? Sunday, Aug 24 2008 

Bo Sacks is a guy I have tremendous respect for and I hope his vision of the magazine industry of the future does come to pass, but I’m just not as confident as he is that publishing models won’t need to change. His assumption is that the substrate will change but our interaction with it will remain the same.

This is not and should not be a fearful transition. Everything stays the same except the actual reading platform. The paginated (metered), well designed, and edited magazine experience is the same. The same writers, editors, artists, and mostly the same publishing staff will be required to “manufacture” magazines of the future.

Those are some comforting words for magazine publishers to hear, but I fear they fundamentally underestimate the scope of the change we are going through. This is more than just a change in technology, this is quite possibly a change in human cognition.

Like Scott Karp, I see something more profound happening here… something that changes how we think and interact with information. If that is so, then Mr. Sacks’ metered information model (though it may survive as a media format) will certainly be challenged as a business model.

As more people start manifesting networked thought patterns the linear magazine model will seem more and more restrictive. Readers won’t want to be bound into “issues” or “volumes” but will prefer to be out in the wilds of hyperspace, free to bounce from source to source.

Without a doubt this transition will take a while… perhaps decades. In the short term replicating technologies such as e-paper will most certainly fill the gap in much the same way that Mr. Sacks describes.

The question for publishers is really about transition and timing. To stick your head in the sand and insist that the change isn’t coming won’t help… it is coming and you need to have a plan. You need to visualize what your titles, your events, your products will look like in a world where information flows from node to node without respect for the boundaries of the page.

via 3.11.08 / 8pm

On information-seeking behavior Sunday, Aug 24 2008 

In found these interesting articles:

1)How Google is Changing Our Information-Seeking Behavior

Nicholas Carr at RoughType cites some new research about how Google and other search engines are changing the way we search for and process information. We are leaving the linear print model far behind and moving to an approach on the web that emphasizes speed, scanning, and skimming (see: Rewiring the mind). Below is an excerpt from his blog note:

The research documents a “new form of information seeking behaviour” that “can be characterised as being horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature. Users are promiscuous, diverse and volatile.”…By breaking the linear print model that has dominated the transmission of information for the past five centuries, the hyperlinked web seems to be instilling a hyperactive approach to gathering and digesting information, an approach that emphasizes speed, scanning, and skimming. In one sense, the process of information retrieval seems to have become more important than the information retrieved. We store lots of information, but like distracted squirrels we rarely go back to examine it in depth. We want more acorns.

As both a blogger and a web browser, I have absorbed this lesson all too well. Perhaps this style reflects my natural proclivities for processing information, but I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print. To create my blog notes, I browse various web resources and write relatively short notes such as this one. I also restrict my blog notes to about 200-300 words, assuming that my readers have a short attention span similar to mine. Distracted squirrels of the world unit. I think that the future looks bright for us.


2) The Evolution From Linear Thought To Networked Thought

by Scott Karp February 9th, 2008

I was thinking last night about books and why I don’t read them anyone — I was a lit major in college, and used to be voracious book reader. What happened?

So do I do all my reading online because it’s more convenient?

But the convenience argument seems to float on the surface of a deeper issue — there’s something about the print vs. online dialectic that always seemed superficial to me. Books, newspapers, and other print media are carefully laid out. Online content like blogs are shoot from the hip. Books are linear and foster concentration and focus, while the web, with all its hyperlinks, is kinetic, scattered, all over the place.

I’ve heard many times online reading cast in the pejorative. Does my preference for online reading mean I’ve become more scattered and disorganized in my reading?

I’ve also spend a lot of time thinking and talking recently about how understanding the future media on the web is so counterintuitive from the perspective of traditional media — about the challenge of making the leap from thinking about linear distribution to network effects.

What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?

What if the networked nature of content on the web has changed not just how I consume information but how I process it?

What if I no longer have the patience to read a book because it’s too…. linear.

We still retain an 18th Century bias towards linear thought. Non-linear thought — like online media consumption — is still typically characterized in the pejorative: scattered, unfocused, undisciplined.

But just look at Google, which arguably kept our engagement with the sea of content on the web from descending into chaos. Google’s PageRank algorithm is the antithesis of linearity thinking — it’s pured networked thought.

Google can find relevant content on the web because it doesn’t “think” in a linear fashion — it takes all of our thoughts, as expressed in links, and looks at them as a network. If you could follow Google’s algorithm in real time, it would seem utterly chaotic, but the result is extremely coherent.

When I read online, I constantly follow links from one item to the next, often forgetting where I started. Sometimes I backtrack to one content “node” and jump off in different directions. There are nodes that I come back to repeatedly, like TechMeme and Google, only to start down new branches of the network.

So doesn’t this make for an incoherent reading experience? Yes, if you’re thinking in a linear fashion. But I find reading on the web is most rewarding when I’m not following a set path but rather trying to “connect the dots,” thinking about ideas and trends and what it all might mean.

Then I remembered — or rather arrived at in nonlinear fashion — a contrarian piece in the Guardian about an NEA study that bemoaned declines in reading and reading skills. The piece points out the study’s fatal flaw — that it completely neglected to study online reading.

All Giola has to say about the dark matter of electronic reading is this: “Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”

Technological literacy

The only reason the intellectual benefits are not measurable is that they haven’t been measured yet. There have been almost no studies that have looked at the potential positive impact of electronic media. Certainly there is every reason to believe that technological literacy correlates strongly with professional success in the information age.

I challenge the NEA to track the economic status of obsessive novel readers and obsessive computer programmers over the next 10 years. Which group will have more professional success in this climate? Which group is more likely to found the next Google or Facebook? Which group is more likely to go from college into a job paying $80,000 (£40,600)?

But the unmeasured skills of the “digital natives” are not just about technological proficiency. One of the few groups that has looked at these issues is the Pew Research Centre, which found in a 2004 study of politics and media use: “Relying on the internet as a source of campaign information is strongly correlated with knowledge about the candidates and the campaign. This is more the case than for other types of media, even accounting for the fact that internet users generally are better educated and more interested politically. And among young people under 30, use of the internet to learn about the campaign has a greater impact on knowledge than does level of education.”

What I’d be most curious to know is whether online reading actually has a positive impact on cognition — through ways that we perhaps cannot measure or even understand yet, particularly if we look at it with a bias towards linear thought.

Is there such a thing as networked human thought? Certain there is among a group of people enabled by a network — but what about for an individual, processing information via the web’s network?

Perhaps this post hasn’t been an entirely linear thought process — is that necessarily a bad thing?

On comments:

-online reading negative results: lack of concentration; The ability to click a link and go to another text (and probably not return to the original) does not allow us to concentrate on a single text. That’s why there are so many usability issues on writing online copy. To keep the reader concentrated on one text. Hypertextuality has evolved reading in an attraction issue. The same applies with e-books, even when they are linear. But this time the lack of concentration does not derive from the text itself, but from the combination of several media. You read a book (one medium) from your computer (another medium). The computer has the tendency to distract the reader from the reading experience, because it gives you the option to take notes, copy/paste text, etc. I believe there is networked human thought. It is our ability to combine a variety of different information and create a completely new cognition. But networked human thought while reading is called attention deficiency. (I know attention deficiency sounds like an illness, but it isn’t. It is supported that attention is a constitutive part of modern societies, but that’s another subject)

-The real question is how we manage the change from linear cognition to non-linear cognition. Are we going to recognize that this is an evolution in human consciousness and start valuing the types of effects that non-linear thought processes elicit? OR will we treat this as a plague to be eradicated and spend untold sums of money and energy trying to kill off the next great leap in human development?

– One place I’ve noticed this is in how I consume video, whether it’s TV, movies or online. I have a very hard time sitting down for a two hour DVD without my laptop anymore. I find myself surfing YouTube to follow up on a CNN story I saw rather than waiting for them to tell me what the next thing to see is.

Laurie Webster If I’m reading something where I need to do some thinking and mulling about the subject, I like translating the blog (for example) to audio. I’ll listen to it a few times. Then I’ll go back to the blog and follow the links that interest me. So for me I need to get the overview (from a linear, audio perspective), and then do the network approach.

– Ognjen I’ve just realized that Scott Karp sounds a bit like Socrates. You know, the guy who questioned communicative usefulness of books about two thousand years ago…

– Mike Schinkel I think robojiannis is spot-on. I far prefer to read from the printed page than from the web because when I’m reading on the web I constantly feel like I need to follow links to get the “complete” story, and following links never ends. With a book or a magazine I can actually “finish” it; not so with the web. I dislike reading on the web so much that I usually print the web posts that I really want to contemplate (I print 8 pages to a sheet using Fineprint so I’m not so so bad ecologically.) But even though I consider myself very web saavy maybe it’s just my age (44) showing.

– Kent Anderson  – This may be a bit of a false premise (linear thought is 18th century and so on). I’m not sure if the computer network has changed thinking or just made a natural type of information acquisition and processing more useful and prominent. Information acquisition has always been a process, I think, of browsing and when finding something worth more concentration, burrowing in. Walking a bookstore, leafing through a newspaper, flipping channels on the TV, scanning emails, trolling blogs, ordering from a menu, choosing a toll booth — there is assessment, sorting, and engagement. In the processed information sphere, there are just many more things to encounter at a superficial level, which makes the experience more about surfing but still the satisfaction and enrichment come from extended engagement, whether in a multi-season TV show or a full game broadcast, a novel, a long and engaging blog entry, or a great email from a friend. We have lived in a processed-information world for centuries now, and the tactics for navigating it are the same, but the balance may swing to either side over time. Being able to participate like this is to me a very real change.

Phil Wainewright – Interesting piece, Scott. But I don’t think this is an either/or thing. Linear reading is about retaining links in your head and then matching them all up at the end — that’s a skill you also need after following a link trail on the Web. I think both skills complement each other, and hopefully my kids will be better at retaining linked information and knitting it all together than I am – after all, when I was a kid, the only networked reading available was following (qv) links in an encyclopedia or thesaurus.

Julie Starr – I too have worried about the way I skip around online, following threads here and there and sometimes forgetting what I started doing two hours earlier. But I certainly don’t feel dumber. If anything I feel smarter. For sure I feel more interested, inspired and my brain feels more fully engaged than it has done in years. So if that’s the result of skippity online reading then bring it on. Funnily enough, like Rafi, I read books much the same way – multiple books at once, generally something requiring full attention first thing in the morning and lighter stuff later on. Almost exclusively read non-fiction. Been doing that for years – long before I became a fully fledged digital citizen.

– A change in discipline, yes- a change in exercise, yes- a change in perspective, yes- a change in ability and use because of tech, yes.- Has the ‘natural’ thought process evolved? No.