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.

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