Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Learn later

There's been a fair amount of talk recently about how the internet is affecting our intelligence and cognitive ability. It's been a while since Nick Carr wrote his seminal piece "Is Google Making us Stupid?", and the recent flurry of interest arises because he's since followed up with a book called The Shallows. The general premise is that the way we use information on the web is less immersive than traditional long form writing, and this is affecting our ability to learn and use information in general. Meantime, JP has weighed in with a three part blog post exploring whether the web makes experts dumb. All good reading.

It's a fascinating subject, because while most of us can agree the impact will be profound, it's still very much early days, and fun to predict how we'll evolve. Our brains are getting used to processing information in different ways, scanning text of different length, following or ignoring hyperlinks, learning where things can be found rather than actually finding them and learning them by rote. It could very well have an impact on us at a species level, at a physiological level, over a period of generations, even if we ignore the societal and technological leaps that will also take place in the meantime.

This blog post is about my own personal, recent experience of how the web is helping me to learn. There's a terrific iPhone application called Instapaper, which allows you to save web pages from your computer for reading offline later on your phone, simply by clicking a link marked "read later". It's much the same as opening new tabs in a browser, except saving it for a time and a place when you're not distracted by work. This improves the chances of actually reading it (or sometimes not).

But here's the interesting thing. If you're reading an article in Instapaper on your iPhone, and you click on a link, you can 'read later' there too. There's no cognitive dissonance as you follow link after link, a'la the web. I'm getting to finish the article safe in the knowledge that the distraction is saved for me to look at when I'm ready. All in the context of having no distractions - the time when I'm commuting, mostly. It's the ultimate way to read Wikipedia - for me, anyway.

And in this fashion I've filled gaps in my knowledge, as well as learning about loads of cool stuff too. The Lewis and Clark Expedition. The Mason-Dixon Line. The Louisiana Purchase. The Manhatten Project. Space Fountains. The Interplanetary Transport Network. Dyson Spheres. Human experimentation in the United States (macabre but fascinating). Unit 731. Boltzmann brains. The life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. And so on. Wonderful stuff.

Personally, I think that the internet can only improve our ability to learn from each other. Sure, we'll need to adapt to process information (and maybe information overload) in increasingly sophisticated ways, but we're an adaptable species. Furthermore, maybe one way of looking at things is that the internet has reduced the real barriers to learning, whereas tools such as Instapaper reduce the perceived barriers? The Wikipedia / Instapaper combination has been potent for me, I wonder what works well for others?