In my mind, he’s held the title in a very informal, just-as-far-as-I’m-concerned way, but today the prize is his. Nick Carr is officially the Biggest Curmudgeon in the Intertubes. You might already know that he thinks Google is making us stupid (I had some things to say about that), and that the Internet is making us scatterbrained. While his Cassandra act may be a necessary one, in that he is someone fully enmeshed in the online world who warns us against its excesses, it can get a bit, well, excessive. Carr’s latest adversary? The hyperlink itself.
Links are great conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the higher the hit on comprehension.The link is, in a way, a technologically advanced form of a footnote. It’s also, distraction-wise, a more violent form of a footnote. Where a footnote gives your brain a gentle nudge, the link gives it a yank. What’s good about a link – its propulsive force – is also what’s bad about it.
Nick, you know, you don’t have to click every link you come across. And while the visual appearance of a link might take a little more brain power to process, it’s no more than to say “Hey, there’s more information about this if you want to delve deeper.” Indeed, to me a link also implies, “And I’ll still be here when you finish reading the whole piece.” It certainly doesn’t prevent one from reading and digesting something in its entirety. Is it more distracting than a footnote? Possibly, but I don’t think so. But is it in any sense “violent”? Oh, come now.
I am glad that Carr is out there fighting for a saner Internet that is more amenable to focus. But even today that focus can be found by those who seek it, those who care enough to attain it. Carr assumes, I think, too much passivity on the part of the user, too much powerlessness to tailor their own Web experience. I want folks like Carr making sure we know what physiological changes occur due to Internet use. But there comes a point when we have to assume that users can take care of themselves and their own brains.
There is, of course, an art to hyperlinking. I have no patience for sites that hyperlink every other noun to related content within that site–and its even worse when accidentally passing one’s cursor over the link yields a pop-up “preview.” Even the New York Times overdoes it–a thoughtful Frank Rich piece, for example, gets polluted with blue underlines as every proper noun for some reason must be cross-referenced within the Times‘ universe.
But let’s be reasonable. On the whole, the links are fine, and will not overload anyone’s brain nor do violence to anyone’s consciousness. To complain otherwise I fear moves Carr from the Cyber-Cassandra (who really had important information to convey) to something far worse: The E-Andy Rooney. Don’t go there, Nick. Don’t be that guy.
P.S. The Carr/Rooney comparison led Andrew Abruzzese to remind me of this gem. Enjoy.