“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