February 9th, 2008

The Evolution From Linear Thought To Networked Thought


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?

I was also thinking about the panel I organized for the O’Reilly TOC conference on Blogs as Books, Books as Blogs — do I do all my reading online because I like blogs better than books now? That doesn’t seem meaningful on the face of it.

Then I read this really interesting post by Evan Schnittman at the OUP Blog about why he uses ebooks only for convenience but actually prefers to read in print.

So do I do all my reading online because it’s more convenient? Well, it is, but it’s not as if I don’t have opportunities to read books. (And I do read a lot of Disney Princess books to my daughter.)

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.

After reading Evan’s post and struggling with the convenience argument, I read this Silicon Alley post speculating on a possible lack of demand for ebooks, despite the Kindle reportedly selling well. If I’m such a digital guy, then why do I have no interest in ebooks?

I was eating some peanut butter last night… and then suddenly something clicked. (Don’t know if the peanut butter caused it.)

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.

But am I just an outlier, or just imagining with too much peanut butter on the brain some new networked thinking macro trend?

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?

  • Pat

    Has anyone ever thought about the possibility that changes in our reading-behaviour may be due to hardware effects, i.e. what influence do screens and the intensity of their light have on our mind? If we look continually in a source of light it may have an arousal effect. When we read from screens, we always look directly at sources of light, quite opposite to when we read a text from paper.

  • tammy

    Scott wrote:

    "Perhaps this post hasn’t been an entirely linear thought process — is that necessarily a bad thing?"
    Yes it was, you were exercising linear thought. The question is is it faulty , correct, or left in question. The critical thinking of the receiver can not be controlled.

    As to networking information, well, that then increases the choices of the path choice of a certain line.

    The networker himself starts with a linear thinking process. What am I netting as related? Now gather it into the line. Then the line veins out, related.

    The reader is also the determiner of how much time and effort they want to put into a (linear) line and its related veins. They decide which, how many and how far they want to follow.

    I think the questions the writer here really brings to challenge go deeper,things like " What are you reading for, knowledge or fun or both? When or why is it preferable to read a book, instead of a computer gathered info line. Are you really receiving enough context of info and if you aren't is it related to the discipline of reading or just not knowing whether you do or don't have the info( knowledge) you really need or were looking for?

    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.

    I wonder if Scott comes back to read this stuff we write, especially month later?

    love tammy

  • Great post, thanks for articulating a couple of ideas that've been dancing around in my brain for a while.

    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.

  • 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.

  • Sorry, last sentence in previous comment should have read:

    "For what it’s worth, this makes it a lot easier to retain focus on the current Web page, without mechanical page load distractions."

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