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?

Comments (47 Responses so far)

  1. Interesting article. I believe online reading has a very important negative result:
    lack of concentration.
    The ability to click a link and go to another text (and probably not return to the original) does not allow us to concentrate on a single text.
    That’s why there are so many usability issues on writing online copy. To keep the reader concentrated on one text.
    Hypertextuality has evolved reading in an attraction issue.

    The same applies with e-books, even when they are linear. But this time the lack of concentration does not derive from the text itself, but from the combination of several media. You read a book (one medium) from your computer (another medium). The computer has the tendency to distract the reader from the reading experience, because it gives you the option to take notes, copy/paste text, etc.

    I believe there is networked human thought. It is our ability to combine a variety of different information and create a completely new cognition.
    But networked human thought while reading is called attention deficiency.
    (I know attention deficiency sounds like an illness, but it isn’t. It is supported that attention is a constitutive part of modern societies, but that’s another subject)

  2. My solution to this has been reading multiple non-fiction books at once. I may read a few pages of one topic in the morning. Then I’ll pick up another in the afternoon. Maybe a third the next day.. then go back, etc.

    Also skipping/skimming books when they’re not delivering the goods.

    By using this methodology you can totally scatter the linear content known as books. Makes it much more similar to my google reader experience.

  3. I think you’re on to something there, Scott — but I’m not sure what, because I never made it to the end of your post :-)

    Sorry about that — I couldn’t help myself.

  4. [...] The Evolution From Linear Thought To Networked Thought. Scott Karp starts with this… “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….” and goes from there. Interesting thoughts on how we inform ourselves, fueled by his own preferences and peanut butter. [...]

  5. Look into cultures of orality. Before reading, people networked to obtain and validate information. The “new” networks look a lot like the oldest ones whan you portray them graphically.

    This is something I am just now looking into myself to understand the non-linear thinking and problem-solving behaviors of people who are not readers, or never learned to read.

  6. [...] 2.0 has a thoughtful post up about how he hardly reads books any more, and mostly does his reading on the Web, through blogs and other online media. In the post, he wonders whether this is just for convenience [...]

  7. Excellent post Scott. The effect of technology and media on human cognition is an extremely important subject and getting more so every day. It’s been a large part of my worldview ever since I tripped across McLuhan in grad school. There is a lot to dig into here and it’s great to see some smart thinking and probing questioning being done.

    “What I’d be most curious to know is whether online reading actually has a positive impact on cognition”

    Whether the impact is positive or negative isn’t the question here. I don’t think it’s inherently either. The real question is how we manage the change from linear cognition to non-linear cognition.

    Are we going to recognize that this is an evolution in human consciousness and start valuing the types of effects that non-linear thought processes elicit? OR will we treat this as a plague to be eradicated and spend untold sums of money and energy trying to kill off the next great leap in human development?

  8. Scott, et al..

    Request your feedback on:

    thank you.

  9. Scott, I think you’re spot on here. In fact, I got really pissed at Steve Jobs’ comment about how nobody reads anymore until I looked at my bookshelf and saw all the uncracked books I’d received for Xmas. Something has changed in me that’s for sure.

    However, I disagree with @robojiannis in that I don’t feel a lack of concentration while reading/absorbing info in this way – if anything I feel it’s easier to concentrate for me. Isn’t that weird? Maybe it’s because I’m following my own train of thought (in the sense that I’m determining the narrative by deciding where to go next) rather than someone else’s?

    One place I’ve noticed this is in how I consume video, whether it’s TV, movies or online. I have a very hard time sitting down for a two hour DVD without my laptop anymore. I find myself surfing YouTube to follow up on a CNN story I saw rather than waiting for them to tell me what the next thing to see is.

    I’m a TV producer and produce a show for M18-34 about the internet and interactive entertainment, so I guess part of it is exposure to this stuff for me but I’d venture to guess that my viewing habits are just the beginning.

    Something else significant I notice

  10. Whoops, lose the last line on that!

  11. This post certainly gave me a lot to think about. I hardly read books anymore and when I do it’s mostly non-fiction ( anyone up for a book on computer security metrics? ). When I do read fiction I find that I can’t put it down until I have read the whole story. Perhaps that is why I no longer read books ( except for princess stories etc. ). I haven’t the time to dedicate to completing the book the way I want to.

  12. [...]I wasn’t able to articulate this very well at the time, and now I don’t have to because Scott Karp has clarified it admirably.[...]

  13. [...] today we have Scott Karp and Mathew Ingram proposing that actually rather than losing out on anything by reading less books; [...]

  14. It all depends on the mind of the person reading.

    Print books can be read in a non-linear fashion if the reader chooses to stop, look things up, go back to reading, notice something interesting and pause to write it down, skip around in the book, stop reading it and start reading something new, etc, etc. It’s okay to be in the middle of 5 books at once.

    It’s the mind that dictates how info is absorbed, not the matter–if you choose to use your mind thusly. Retain dominion over your placement of attention! This is really the question in play, not the question of off- vs on-line reading.

    In my mind.

  15. If I’m reading something where I need to do some thinking and mulling about the subject, I like translating the blog (for example) to audio. I’ll listen to it a few times. Then I’ll go back to the blog and follow the links that interest me. So for me I need to get the overview (from a linear, audio perspective), and then do the network approach.

  16. [...] Scott Karp wonders if the ability to read online and follow topics via hyperlink instead of focusing on one document at a time is actually changing the way we think. [...]

  17. I’ve just realized that Scott Karp sounds a bit like Socrates. You know, the guy who questioned communicative usefulness of books about two thousand years ago…

  18. Linear reading in the traditional book format has benefits that cannot be matched by scattered reading, and vise versa. The first favors information density, the second information diversity.

  19. [...] sent me a post by Scott Karp entitled The Evolution From Linear Thought to Networked Thought. Scott, a former Lit major, reflects on how he was formally a voracious book reader and nowadays [...]

  20. [...] The Evolution From Linear Thought To Networked Thought (tags: socialmedia theory networkedthought psychology reading culture) [...]

  21. [...] Karp of Publishing 2.0 put forth an intriguing response to these criticisms in a post entitled The Evolution From Linear Thought To Networked Thought. In it, he argues that such criticism unfairly and inappropriately prioritises the linear, vertical [...]

  22. Not enough time for books? Join a book club. I guarantee you’ll be reading at least one book a month.

    sk: “If I’m such a digital guy, then why do I have no interest in ebooks?

    It’s precisely because you’re such a “digital guy” that you have no interest in “ebooks”. The popularity of so-called ‘ebooks’ depends entirely on people either not knowing or at least ignoring the alternatives.

    I look forward to the secondary market in Amazon Kindles as the “early adopters” find they don’t really use the thing — their reading habits tending to drift back to laptops, smartphones, umpcs, etc.

  23. I think robojiannis is spot-on. I far prefer to read from the printed page than from the web because when I’m reading on the web I constantly feel like I need to follow links to get the “complete” story, and following links never ends. With a book or a magazine I can actually “finish” it; not so with the web. I dislike reading on the web so much that I usually print the web posts that I really want to contemplate (I print 8 pages to a sheet using Fineprint so I’m not so so bad ecologically.) But even though I consider myself very web saavy maybe it’s just my age (44) showing.

  24. This may be a bit of a false premise (linear thought is 18th century and so on). I’m not sure if the computer network has changed thinking or just made a natural type of information acquisition and processing more useful and prominent. Information acquisition has always been a process, I think, of browsing and when finding something worth more concentration, burrowing in. Walking a bookstore, leafing through a newspaper, flipping channels on the TV, scanning emails, trolling blogs, ordering from a menu, choosing a toll booth — there is assessment, sorting, and engagement. In the processed information sphere, there are just many more things to encounter at a superficial level, which makes the experience more about surfing but still the satisfaction and enrichment come from extended engagement, whether in a multi-season TV show or a full game broadcast, a novel, a long and engaging blog entry, or a great email from a friend. We have lived in a processed-information world for centuries now, and the tactics for navigating it are the same, but the balance may swing to either side over time. Being able to participate like this is to me a very real change.

  25. Yeah, to my shame I too have completely read only a few books recently. No fiction at all. A couple of Bill Bryson’s in full, but only sections of others.

    It’s far easier to stumble upon enticing stuff as you traverse the Web without leaving home or office than it is to stumble upon printed books in the outside world! I’ve gorged myself upon tons and tons of online material, mostly technical but not entirely so.

    I reckon that one of the main causes of jumping from site to site is a purely mechanical one: when you click a hyperlink on a Web page you usually get taken directly to a new page in the same window, which forces a shift in your attention whether you want this or not. (Depending on how the link is coded, perhaps you’ll be taken to a new browser window, but one that appears in front of the original window, which is equally disruptive.)

    These days, tabbed browsers can help you to control things better, but not necessarily if you stay with the default browser option settings which tend to retain the behavior of the earlier browser versions (es[ecially the case with Internet Explorer).

    I now always set up my preferred browsers — Avant Browser (a very nice front end for IE) and Firefox — so that clicking on a link causes the underlying Web page to load (a) in a new tab, and (b) as a background rather than foreground process, so that the page that I’m reading is not locked and I can keep scrolling through it without any distraction at all. For what it’s worth, this makes it a lot easier to retain focus on the current Web page, with mechanical page load distractions.

  26. 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.”

  27. 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.

  28. [...] found an interesting article on Publishing 2.0 on the change to Networked Thoughts. Like the writer, do people not read because of lack of time, or because they are moving into a [...]

  29. [...] was reading Scott Karp’s reflections on his preference for reading online, and the idea came to me. Maybe after teaching a bit online, teaching face-to-face has become too [...]

  30. [...] a book vs. Reading the Web Over at Publishing2.0, Scott Karp wrote an interesting post exploring why he now prefers reading online to reading books. He has discovered [...]

  31. [...] Like Scott Karp, I see something more profound happening here… something that changes how we think and interact with information. If that is so, then Mr. Sacks’ metered information model (though it may survive as a media format) will certainly be challenged as a business model. [...]

  32. [...] Karp macht sich auf Publishing 2.0 Gedanken dazu, ob das Internet die “Evolution des linearen Denkens hin zum vernetztwerkten [...]

  33. 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.

  34. [...] Like Scott Karp, I see something more profound happening here… something that changes how we think and interact with information. If that is so, then Mr. Sacks’ metered information model (though it may survive as a media format) will certainly be challenged as a business model. [...]

  35. [...] Netzwerkmetapher erlebt gerade Hochkonjunktur. Scott Karp hat darüber nachgedacht, warum er, der ehemalige Bücherwurm, heute kaum mehr Bücher liest und sich auch für [...]

  36. [...] The Evolution From Linear Thought To Networked Thought [...]

  37. [...] But there’s no links to those posts. So readers have no opportunity to see my quote in context, which was a post called The Evolution From Linear Thought To Networked Thought. [...]

  38. 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

  39. [...] plot thickens when Karp’s actual words are put into context: instead of lamenting his loss of voracity in reading (as Carr infers), he asks if instead, this [...]

  40. 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.

  41. [...] ngedukung idenya, pak Nicholas Carr inih ngasih contoh pak Blogger yang laen, Scott Karp di postingan yang ini dan juga Bruce Friedman di postingan yang inih. Nggak ketinggalan juga bukunya Maryanne Wolf yang [...]

  42. [...] his article “The Evolution from Linear Thought to Networked Thought”, Scott Karp doesn’t see anything wrong with consuming information online in a fluid way. He [...]

  43. [...] will more readily accomplish the goal of sources: acting as a filter of wider information sets. Scott Karp writes of the reading experience online: When I read online, I constantly follow links from one item to the next, often forgetting where I [...]

  44. [...] will more readily accomplish the goal of sources: acting as a filter of wider information sets. Scott Karp writes of the reading experience online: When I read online, I constantly follow links from one item to the next, often forgetting where I [...]

  45. [...] Scott Karp talks about reading traditional and reading online in his blog. He mentions that sometimes he reads online because it is convenient. But is it really more convenient then being able to go buy a book and read it without distractions. Yes there will be distractions but if I had the chance to read a book online or read a physical book, I would choose a physical book. Online I would get distracted by Facebook and YouTube and other media outlets. Reading books needs to be separate from the online world so you can appreciate reading for what it is. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← What is real? What is fake? [...]

  46. [...] more readily accomplish the goal of sources: acting as a filter of wider information sets. Scott Karp writes of the reading experience online: When I read online, I constantly follow links from one item to the next, often forgetting where I [...]

  47. [...] not even sure if this is my soapbox for today. That soapbox, of course, would be the argument that we are simply moving from linear to networked thought, as Scott Karp [...]

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